Cofield figured NFL nose tackles were supposed to look like 365-pound Ted Washington, 350-pound Sam Adams or 340-pound Tony Siragusa. Then they had the rookie watch some game film on Kendrick Clancy, the 305-pound player who performed so well in his one season as a starter with the Giants in 2005 that the Arizona Cardinals signed him to a four-year, $8.1 million deal in the offseason.
"He's not too big of a guy," Cofield said. "And seeing the way they wanted me to play (nose tackle), and really looking at what the nose tackle is asked to do, it alleviated my concerns. Because when you think of nose tackles, you just think of a guy who can't move, who grabs the center and falls to try and make a pile. But that's not the case and I've embraced the role."
Cofield has proven to be plenty big, literally and figuratively, in the first seven games of his NFL career.
The former Northwestern University standout has been every bit the rugged run-stuffer Giants coaches expected, an athletic, smart, versatile player who has filled what was considered the biggest hole in the Giants' defense entering training camp. But he has also made the most of his opportunities on passing downs, applying pressure pretty consistently up the middle. Cofield recorded the first 1.5 sacks of his career during the Giants' 27-14 victory over Atlanta on Oct. 15, rewards for defensive coordinator Tim Lewis affording him the schematic freedom most nose tackles don't get.
"He's doing a helluva job for a rookie," said defensive tackle Fred Robbins, who has played pretty well alongside Cofield. "He's got all the tools. You can't question his heart, his intensity and his physical play. But once we got the chemistry down, understanding the little blocking schemes here and there, getting a feel for each other, that's when I knew that this guy was going to be pretty good.
"He's not just (a run-stuffer). He can do it all. He can play nose and three-technique (Robbins' position), so we can slide back and forth. He can rush the passer, as well as play the run. He's just putting it together."
Cofield's immediate success hasn't surprised Robbins, but Cofield admits he didn't even expect to start after the Giants drafted him in the fourth round six months ago. He hoped he could simply become a member of the Giants' interior rotation, spelling veterans from whom he would learn behind. Cofield instead out-performed Jonas Seawright and former first-round pick William Joseph in camp and became the first Giants' rookie defensive lineman since Bill Neill in 1981 to start a season opener on Sept. 10 against Indianapolis.
"I just wanted to be a guy that could help," Cofield said. "I didn't think I would be out front with the first team. … And not in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be starting opening night."
Though he is obviously learning on the job, Cofield's improvement in the seven games since has pleased head coach Tom Coughlin.
"He has made constant and steady progress," Coughlin said. "He's still a rookie and he's still learning. I think you learn always, I don't care how long you're in the league. He's still learning as he goes along and seeing new things, but playing hard. … He certainly is playing the nose tackle position for us to the point where we're happy with his progress, and that's where he'll be for now."
Cofield has already learned that professional football is a business in which you're only as good as your previous performance, especially when a team hasn't made an enormous monetary commitment to you. So despite his instantaneous success, the Cleveland Heights, Ohio, native intends to continue preparing, practicing and playing as if he has yet to earn any playing time.
"It's a revolving door, so I'm not going to say I feel comfortable at all," Cofield said. "I feel comfortable playing the position, but any day it could change. I'm just going to go out there every week and approach it like it's a tryout in practice that week, and if I don't play well that week my job is going to be in jeopardy. I'm just going to keep focusing, and if a couple years down the road they give me a new contract, then I'll be the Giants' nose tackle. But as long as I'm a fourth-round pick, with a minimal contract, I know I can be out of here at any time."
Randy Walker, the Northwestern coach who died of a heart attack in July, prepared Cofield to compete that way for a starting spot throughout his career at the Big Ten school. Playing for Walker, a demanding disciplinarian, also braced Cofield for Coughlin. Others informed Cofield that his rookie year would be a "terrible grind," but he hasn't found himself feeling physically spent, waiting impatiently for the season to end.
"I'm enjoying it more than I thought I would," Cofield said. "I'm excited every Sunday, and playing on a team that is in good position to compete for a playoff spot. And beyond that, it's a dream come true."
As he approaches the midway mark of his rookie season, Cofield feels fresh, too. He doesn't sense that he is about to hit that infamous rookie wall, probably because he participates in about 30 plays less per game for the Giants (40-50) than he did during his senior season at Northwestern (80). He also attributes his physical well being to the fact that Lewis hasn't aligned him like a typical nose tackle.
"It's a grind, of course," Cofield said, "but there's a lot of scheming (Lewis) has done to keep me out of getting constantly double-teamed, getting constantly pounded like you may want a big, old-school nose tackle to do. They've allowed me to have some freedom, allowed me to run sideline-to-sideline to try and make plays, rather than just banging and banging and banging. So I'm doing OK."
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