Corey Ballentine made history in his NFL debut.
The rookie cornerback became the first player ever flagged for defensive pass interference after a coach challenged a non-call. The league adjusted that rule during the offseason, and when the Giants played the Jets on Thursday night, Adam Gase of the Jets employed the tactic successfully. Ballentine, who made what at first was called a clean pass swat as he covered Tim White downfield, wound up costing the Giants 33 yards.
“I think it’s a whole different ballgame,” Ballentine said of the rule change.
It was one he adjusted to quickly.
Two series later, the Jets again tested Ballentine down the field on a deep pass for White. This time he picked it off.
“I tried to catch the ball the second time instead of batting it away,” he said. “Then I won’t have that issue.”
It’s been that way for Ballentine ever since the Giants drafted him in April. He’ll suffer what looks like a setback, then suddenly learn from it and improve. Twice that happened in the preseason opener. There was the lesson learned in the pass interference, and then there was the muffed catch on the first kickoff to the Giants that he recovered in the end zone for a touchback. Later in the game, he caught another kickoff cleanly and returned it 40 yards.
Of course, the greatest overcome obstacle in Ballentine’s short career has been his apparent rebound from a shooting on the night he was drafted that left close friend and college teammate Duane Simmons dead and himself with a bullet wound in his backside. It cost him some early time with the Giants in spring workouts, but he has rebounded both physically and emotionally to become an up-and-coming cog for the team’s plans this season.
“I’m a big fan of his,” Pat Shurmur said. “If you’re going to play in this game and have success, you have to be tough and competitive. He is both. He’s had to go through some adversity here, but we’ve seen him compete and make plays in practice.”
On Thursday, we saw him do it in a game situation.
“There are some guys who can take it to the practice field, then when they get out here, it just goes away on them,” Shurmur said. “It was obvious that he competed out there just like he did on the practice field, and that’s a good thing.”
Ballentine said he wasn’t surprised that he found some success on Thursday night. Even though he played Division II college football at Washburn University, he said he has always known he belongs in the NFL. Even when he was being recruited out of high school by college programs that had never produced pro prospects, he believed in himself.
“I’ve always felt like I could compete at this level and with these types of athletes, so the speed of the game wasn’t too different for me,” he said after the game. “I think I handled it well, and I think I’m fast enough to keep up with them and physical enough to keep up with them as well.”
And, now we know, smart enough and willing enough to adjust and beat them.
“I’m just continuing to improve,” he said. “That’s really what I want to do. Go out here, put my hand in the pile and help this team win a championship is my real goal. Yeah, this was a game that I think I did some things well, but I think I have some things to improve on, too. So I’m going to go back to practice, go back to the drawing board and clean some things up and hopefully I can go from here.”
The Giants have a young but crowded secondary — including two defensive backs the team drafted ahead of him this past April — so Ballentine will have to continue to make plays to make the team at the end of the month. Flashing the ability to return kicks could be a strong separator for him. Having a knack for interceptions — he had two against Daniel Jones during practice plus the one on Thursday — also will help.
Mostly, though, his attitude and willingness to improve have started to shine through the clouds that once hovered over his storyline in the hours and days after he was drafted. That’s what was on display the most on Thursday when he turned a historic penalty into a learning experience.
“I had forgot that they made that rule that they could look at the defensive pass interference,” he said of the red flag that turned into a yellow one. “Once they had it up on the big screen, I kind of figured they might call that. I didn’t really see what I did wrong, but I was just ready to go out there the next play and keep going.”
Why stop now?
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was young, and now the time is here,” he said. “I’ve got to just do my thing and make sure that everybody knows that I belong here.”
GIANTS CAMP FACT
Got Daniel Jones Fever after his preseason debut? There are only two more chances to see him and the rest of the Giants in action for free after today (((Sunday))). The final workouts open to the public are Monday and Tuesday this week, with practices scheduled to begin at 10:15 a.m. While the passes to those days are already sold out, there are typically walk-up tickets available on a first-come, first-serve basis. It’s a gamble, but it could provide you with an up-close glimpse of the Giants’ future.