Ryan Connelly was looking at his teammates in the huddle and they were looking back at him and no one was saying anything and the whole thing was awkward. That’s when the rookie middle linebacker who was supposed to be communicating the play realized what was going on in the silence.
That voice of the defensive coordinator coming into his helmet from the sideline?
“I just assumed everyone else could hear him, too,” Connelly said.
They could not. Connelly had the only radio in his ear. His helmet had the green dot that shows it is linked to the sideline. It was his job to relay the call to everyone else.
“In college on defense, we were all hand signals and single-word calls,” he said of his time at Wisconsin, when all 11 received the information at the same time. “That was a little bit of an adjustment. I’m definitely used to it now. But at first, it was interesting.”
That was in the spring. These days, Connelly is much more comfortable in his role as the leader of the defense, barking out calls and checks. And on Friday night, with projected starter Alec Ogletree sidelined with a calf injury, Connelly found himself making those calls to the Giants’ starting defense.
“He actually played pretty well,” Pat Shurmur said on Saturday. “He’s got very good instincts and he played well within the scheme. He didn’t get the production, but we were pleased with what he did.”
Connelly did not have any tackles against the Bears. He nearly made an impressive play on the first drive, shooting through a gap in the offensive line and nearly upending Chicago running back Ryan Nall on third-and-1. Nall was able to elude him and run for 14 yards.
It was similar to the kind of plays Connelly made against the Jets in the preseason opener, when it looked as if he were hitting holes quicker and with more determination than the running backs on the other side.
“He’s in the right spot, he’s got very good instincts,” Shurmur said. “There’s not a lot of false movement to his game. You know, there’s some really fine, dynamic linebackers that’ll take two steps in the wrong direction and then still have the skill and ability to get to the play. The thing with Ryan, you don’t see a lot of false steps, so he maximizes his skill and ability.”
Those are the kinds of things a converted high school quarterback and walk-on at Wisconsin needs to master to get this far.
“You can be a great linebacker,” Connelly said, “but if you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re not in the right spot, then they’re not going to put you out there.”
Will it be enough to get him playing time in September? Right now the Giants have Ogletree and second-year linebacker Tae Davis penciled in as their starters. Shurmur said Connelly is better suited to Ogletree’s role as the traffic cop of the defense but that he will play the best players and figure out their positions later.
If Ogletree misses an extended period with his calf injury, that could mean Connelly starts the regular season at the all-important position. Even if Ogletree is healthy, Connelly still could be there alongside him. Maybe even in place of him.
The Giants players do not seem averse to those possibilities. Ogletree may be the returning captain of the defense, but Connelly also has earned the respect of his teammates.
“I like him, I like him, man,” veteran safety Antoine Bethea said of Connelly. “We noticed him on the field. He’s playing, he’s running . . . Always around the ball, very cerebral. I think he’s gonna be a great asset for us.”
Bethea said Connelly’s instincts are what set him apart from other rookies that have relied more on pure athleticism.
“You can take a false step and that one mistake can take you out of the play,” Bethea said. “A lot of times, veterans, when they slow down, they’re more precise in their steps and their eyes and things of that nature. If you can have that as a young player, man, that will get you there so much faster. It gives you the ability to make more plays.”
That’s something Connelly would like to do. But this summer, he’s more focused on his job of directing the defense as a whole, not his own play. That really is his primary job. That’s why he’s the one who hears those voices in his helmet.
“Just to be able to show that I have an understanding of the defense and I know what’s going on,” Connelly said of his goals in the preseason games. “That’s the biggest thing, showing the older guys, the veterans, that they can trust me.”
And the coaches, of course, who ultimately will decide if and when Connelly plays — although their minds already might be made up. Even before Friday night’s game, Shurmur seemed satisfied with the fifth-round pick’s performances in practices and the preseason opener.
“He’s shown us,” Shurmur said, “that he belongs on the field.”