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Fullback Nikita Whitlock takes advantage of his chance to play some 'D'

New York Giants fullback Nikita Whitlock #49 runs

New York Giants fullback Nikita Whitlock #49 runs drills during the second day of minicamp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Nikita Whitlock was excited two weeks ago when he made his NFL debut for the Giants. What could possibly top that?

On Thursday night, he found something.

The fullback got a chance to play the position he loves more than anything, defensive tackle, and even had two hits on quarterback Kirk Cousins. He admitted after the game to being more excited about those snaps than his offensive and special- teams chances earlier this month.

"It's a dream come true," he said. "That's the best way to describe it."

The 5-10 Whitlock was an All-ACC nose tackle at Wake Forest but was deemed too small to play that position in the NFL. So he shed some weight, learned to play fullback and -- after a year on practice squads with Dallas and the Giants -- made the team out of this summer's training camp.

But deep down he knew he could be a defensive lineman in the NFL. And on Thursday night he got the chance.

"It's something I've been going through my whole life from middle school to high school to college," he said. "Every step I take, they tell me I can't do it. Once I get the chance, I have to make it happen. They gave me the opportunity. I hope I did well enough to show them that I'm here, I can do it and I'm here to stay."

The Giants seem impressed. They had Whitlock play defensive tackle in the preseason finale against the Patriots, and that effort certainly helped him survive the final cut. That seemed more like a lark in a meaningless game, though. His snaps on defense Thursday night showed that the Giants are serious about having a two-way player.

"He's legitimate," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said on Friday. "He's a tremendous energy player who's very quick, very difficult for these offensive lineman to just be in position and stay with because he does have the spin moves and the acceleration and those types of things. In a limited capacity, he is an excellent change of pace, and you saw that he can generate some pressure."

Whitlock said there are some things he needs to work on if he is going to keep playing both sides of the ball. He said he needs to improve his conditioning, as going from offense to special teams to defense without a breather on the sideline was difficult. He played 14 offensive snaps, nine defensive snaps and 20 on special teams. Whitlock also needs to add some bulk for the rigors of playing tackle. He came into camp weighing 255 pounds, dropped down to the mid-230s at the end of training camp and has gotten back to 244.

"Eating a lot, eating a lot," he said of his strategy for that aspect.

He also said he felt rusty on defense and will start watching tape to prepare for the role.

"It's like riding a bike," he said. "I fell down a few times and got blocked up a few times, but I'm just gonna eat a little more and gain a little weight and knock that rust off in case they need me."

He's still not sure they will. The Giants were shorthanded on the defensive line with Robert Ayers Jr. out of the game and they were having trouble rushing the passer all night. Whitlock said he was told last week to be ready to play defensive tackle, but he never got in that game against Atlanta. After dressing for Thursday night's game, though, he received his first indication of the opportunity from defensive line coach Robert Nunn.

"He came up to me and said 'Be ready,' " Whitlock said. "I said, 'Yes, sir.' He said 'No, for real.' "

It got real in the fourth quarter when he ran out with the defense. Two snaps later, he was wrapping up Cousins.

He'd like to do it more, but he can't get a read on whether or not he will.

"I don't know what they think," he said of the coaching staff. "All I can do is play hard and hope it was enough. If they throw me in next week, I guess that's a yes. For now, I just have to keep grinding. When they put me on defense, I just have to ball and show them I can do it."

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