His intensity on the football field is unparalleled, and Jets head coach Rex Ryan mentioned him on the first day as the likely culprit in a training camp skirmish. Despite not getting involved in an altercation so far, Jets safety James Ihedigbo has certainly put his stamp on the practice field at SUNY Cortland. A self-starter, Ihedigbo was seen Wednesday after practice catching balls to improve his hands.
"I'm working hard and out here competing," Ihedigbo said. "We're getting each other better, just working hard towards this next preseason game and getting fired up for the season."
Vigor and passion are things Ihedigbo has been known for since his days at Massachusetts. In HBO's first episode of Hard Knocks, "Dig" was featured in an intense goal-line session during a torrential downpour in Cortland. After making a tackle, he was shown celebrating with raw emotion that he says personifies him as a human being.
"It kind of defines me as a player and what I bring to the team," he said. "For them to have that in one shot, I think that captures the kind of person I am when it comes to playing football and the kind of energy I bring to the game."
Since graduating from Amherst (Mass.) Regional High School, Ihedigbo has always had a burning desire to succeed. A college walk-on, he started his last three years at UMass, eventually becoming a team captain, a Walter Camp All-American and an All-Atlantic 10 first-teamer. From an early age, he has been fearless on the football field, as evidenced by his bone-crunching hits in practice.
"I learned how to play the game fast and physical," Ihedigbo said. "That's what it's about — always trying to impose your will on your opponent. That's something that we do on defense, that's something that we do as a team. I'm going to try to have that spark and that energy to play physically, have big hits, get to the quarterback and make plays on the ball."
Once he reached the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2007, however, it was an uphill battle. He broke his arm his rookie year and has gradually worked his way up the depth chart and has landed with fellow safety Eric Smith on special teams and in the secondary rotation.
"I feel like we have a pretty good pairing," Smith said. "We get along well, we communicate with each other well. We're a pretty good complement to each other. Either one of us can go down and play in the box and either one can go play in the middle of the field, so we have different looks."
Last season the 6'1", 214-pound Ihedigbo made the big leap into the secondary, recording 19 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble while also leading the Jets with 26 special-teams tackles. He's a strong blitzer and also has the ability to play in space.
"I look at it as kind of being a toolbox," he said. "Whatever tool that Coach needs me to play, I'll be able to do that. Versatility is an amazing thing in this game. The more things you can do, the longer you can play and the better you are at helping your team win."
The 26-year-old fourth-year man is well-spoken, mature and fully aware of the role he plays on and off the field. Before training camp, he and teammates Vernon Gholston and David Clowney went on a mission to Haiti to help out after the massive earthquake.
Dig is always trying to make an impact, whether it be in Haiti or on the first play of a game.
"Being out there on special teams, we try to set the tone of the game," he said. "We have the opportunity to draw first blood and be out there in the game before the offense or defense gets out there."
When running backs, quarterbacks and wide receivers face Ihedigbo, they know they're running into a ball of a ball of ferociousness that could be unleashed at a moment's notice. Until the time of that explosion, he knows he must harness his ability to play with a type of energy that is unmatched by most in this league.
"I'm just bringing the intensity and passion to the game," Ihedigbo said. "Trying to play with a sense of controlled violence but at the same time knowing your job and doing your responsibility. Then playing lights-out come gametime."