With Strahan Absent, Justin Tuck in the Fold

ALBANY - Out of the muck, mire and silliness of the Michael Strahan holdout we bring you Justin Tuck, who as a contrast is delighted to be here and, he says, ready to become a starting defensive end once his surgically-repaired left foot fully heals.

The Giants are taking small steps toward carrying on without the missing-in-action Strahan and Tuck is firmly in the plans.

"When Stray comes back he's definitely our No. 1 end, for good reason,'' Tuck said yesterday between practice sessions. "Luckily I've had three years under him to really watch him and how he prepared for games. Osi [Umenyiora] the same thing. You can really learn from guys like that.''

Hopefully, Tuck's education did not include any phone etiquette lessons from Strahan, who continues to play telephone-tag with the Giants as his teammates work in the hot sun. If Strahan is indeed headed toward retirement (scoff if you must), Tuck stands to benefit with either a gift-wrapped spot with the first-team defense or, at the very least, an active role in a rotation with an import such as veteran Simeon Rice.

The plans are for Rice to arrive in New York on Tuesday night and the next day will meet with Giants medical personnel for a physical. Later on Wednesday, he will be driven to training camp to meet with general manager Jerry Reese and other Giants officials. This is genuine interest, not a ploy to induce Strahan to return.

Rice has a shoulder injury and did not pass a physical administered by the Buccaneers. Of course, the fact that Rice, 33, was scheduled to make $7.2 million likely played a larger role in his release last week by the Bucs. Either way, there is no doubt this investigation of Rice - whose 121 career sacks is second among active players to Strahan - will reverberate with Strahan in New Jersey or Los Angeles or wherever he is staging his mid-30's career crisis.

Rice might not be able to put on the pads and hit for a few more weeks, but it will be interesting to see how the Giants handle this situation. Can they be so bold as to offer Rice a contract before they get the Strahan matter resolved?

If Strahan reports, is the Rice visit cancelled? "Not necessarily,'' Reese said.

At this time a year ago the Giants believed they possessed a plethora of pass-rushing riches at defensive end. But Strahan missed eight games with a Lisfranc foot sprain. Umenyiora missed six games with a hip flexor. Tuck was out 11 games with an even more damaging Lisfranc sprain that required surgery in November and included the insertions of screws to stabilize his left foot.

Tuck, a mature 24-year old entering his third season out of Notre Dame, was cleared to run with no limitations only three weeks prior to the start of camp. He was admittedly nervous about his performance in a reporting-day conditioning test that contains 10 sprints across the width of the field. Tuck passed. The next day he practiced, which for now will be a once-a-day occurrence.

"When I walked on the field, had my cleats on, everybody was like 'Tuck is back,' '' Tuck said. "It's a good feeling. I know a lot guys say training camp is hell. For me right now it's a joyous feeling to be here.''

There is rust on Tuck's game, to be sure, but not as much as anticipated. "I saw some things I did not expect,'' Tom Coughlin said. "Positive things. I saw some power, I saw some speed and I saw bursts. He is not playing without having some discomfort now, but he is coming.''

Tuck is coming. Rice is coming. Strahan for now is staying put far from the practice field. The Giants are slowly moving on.

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