Giants wide receiver Rueben Randle catches a pass during team...

Giants wide receiver Rueben Randle catches a pass during team training camp at Quest Diagnostics Training Center. (Aug. 14, 2013) Credit: James Escher

It could have been Rueben Randle.

While most of the fuss coming out of the Giants' preseason debut last week was centered on the chemistry between Eli Manning and Victor Cruz and how they connected on a 57-yard touchdown pass on their first connection of the year, Randle was left to learn the lesson of lost opportunity.

Earlier in the drive that led to Cruz's touchdown, Randle had a chance to break a big one. On first down from the 20, he was lined up on the left side and ran a go route down the sideline. The pass from Manning was about a yard beyond his reach when it arrived at the 50-yard line, and it left Randle kicking himself. Had he come off the line of scrimmage just a little faster, he said, he would have made up that gap and hauled in the pass -- maybe even for a touchdown.

"I was a step away from making that play," Randle said.

With Randle heading into his second NFL season, most people who have seen him this summer believe he is closer than a step away from that catch. He is closing in on stardom.

General manager Jerry Reese thinks Randle has the skills to develop into a No. 1 receiver. Hakeem Nicks said Randle can provide the missing ingredient to the three-receiver combination that took the Giants to the Super Bowl two years ago. And offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said Randle is "light years" ahead of where he was as a rookie.

"Who knows what's going to happen," Gilbride said, "but I'll be very surprised if he doesn't continue to play at a high level."

Giants fans got their first glimpse of that high level in the 2012 regular-season finale when Randle caught two touchdown passes in his first NFL start while filling in for Nicks against the Eagles. On Sunday night, he'll return to MetLife Stadium for the first time since that breakout performance, hoping to springboard off it.

"I'm just excited to get back out there and make more plays," he said. "I feel like I bring a lot to the table and I'm just looking forward to a lot more opportunities so I can help the team win games."

Randle has always been a No. 1 receiver, even when he wasn't. At Bastrop High School in Louisiana, he was the top receiving prospect in the nation despite spending his senior season playing quarterback.

"It's all about timing," he said of the lessons he learned from the position on the opposite end of the passes. "As a receiver, I think that helped me out a lot to understand what quarterbacks actually think while we are running routes. I was trying to get on the same page with my receivers, so I understand what quarterbacks think now. I try to speed up my thought process so I can go out there a lot faster and make good decisions."

He threw 20 touchdown passes and ran for another 12 that year, but it was his ability to catch the football that intrigued colleges. He wound up playing in his home state at LSU, where he became one of the top prospects in last year's NFL draft as a junior. The Giants selected him in the second round.

After an inconsistent rookie season in which he faced public criticism of his work ethic, Randle went home and hit the playbook during the offseason.

"I continued to look over the offense so I didn't take any steps backward," he said. "I just wanted to come in and be a playmaker, just make all the plays that I could."

For most of the spring, he was the primary target for Manning. With Cruz absent because of contract negotiations and Nicks easing back from offseason surgery, Randle was back to being the No. 1 guy -- even if it was in April and May.

Randle has a simple definition of a No. 1 receiver: "Somebody to depend on no matter what the situation is, whether it's the deep ball, the short route, double-coverage, whatever it may be," he said. "They need that No. 1 guy to go out there and beat those coverages."

Can Randle be that guy?

"I feel that way," he said.

When the regular season starts, though, assuming Cruz and Nicks are healthy, Randle will be back to No. 3 on the depth chart. He already noted his place in the hierarchy last week when, on that 57-yard pass to Cruz, Randle noted that he was open as well.

"[Manning] decided to throw it to Cruz," he said with a laugh.

That's an adjustment for a receiver who is used to being the man.

"A little bit," he said. "But at the end of the day, as long as you're out there on the field making plays, where you're listed don't really matter."

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