Preseason opener will be Kiwanuka's debut at linebacker

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Mathias Kiwanuka is enjoying football again. Even being called a linebacker doesn't sound so strange any more.

The transition from defensive end to linebacker has been completed in a little more than three months, with the debut scheduled for Saturday night when the New York Giants play host to the Carolina Panthers.

"The more comfortable I get, the more I like playing it," Kiwanuka said Wednesday between training camp practices at the University at Albany. "It's starting to be fun again. I'm not learning as much. I still have a long way to go, but I am out there having fun again."

The quick transition wasn't always fun.

After releasing veteran linebackers Carlos Emmons and LaVar Arrington and expecting seven-time Pro Bowler Michael Strahan back at defensive end instead of holding out, coach Tom Coughlin announced in April that Kiwanuka would make the move to linebacker for his second season.

It seemed logical. The Giants had a need and they wanted Kiwanuka on the field.

"I never thought it was something that I couldn't do," Kiwanuka said. "I knew it would be a long haul. I said from the beginning it was going to take time and I'll try not to be frustrated."

Everything didn't come easy.

When Kiwanuka first started looking at his new playbook, little made sense. The minicamps in June were even more frustrating. Plays would be run and Kiwanuka seemed to be a step or two behind.

It wasn't that he didn't know his assignments but that his brain had to process them for a few seconds before he reacted.

The problem was still evident when training camp opened in late July. Early in camp, Kiwanuka got beaten in pass coverage by lumbering guard Rich Seubert on a busted field goal play.

Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey left him in the dust the next day on a passing play. Shockey faked right and went left. Kiwanuka went right. Shockey caught the ball with loads of room to run.

In the past week, Kiwanuka has learned to play in space and he has not been left in the dust much by Shockey or any of the other tight ends.

"I am definitely excited about it, but a little anxious," Kiwanuka said of going live against the Panthers. "I think it will be good to have these preseason games and get them out of the way, making mistakes and getting them corrected in game situations."

Kiwanuka also is going to get a chance to use his pass rushing skills. On third down when the Giants are in their nickel defense, he will line up as a defensive end.

During his rookie season, Kiwanuka started nine games, had 55 total tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles. Everyone still remembers the play he didn't make, letting Tennessee quarterback Vince Young go on what would have been a game-clinching sack against the Titans because he was worried about getting a roughing penalty.

With Strahan's holdout now in its 13th day, there is the possibility that Kiwanuka might be moved back to defensive end if Strahan decides to retire after 14 seasons.

Kiwanuka isn't thinking that way. He sees himself as a linebacker now.

"That's the way I looked at it in my mind from the very beginning," he said. "I don't want to switch back and forth. If they do switch me back, I'll shift my focus then. But I'm not going to do it until someone tells me different."

For now, No. 97 is a linebacker.

"Everyone is excited about that," middle linebacker Antonio Pierce added. "Each day, he is getting better and better at one thing or another."

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