James Ihedigbo went from tryout to signed free agent after his showing at the Jets' rookie minicamp
The New York Jets invited a couple dozen tryout players to their rookie minicamp two weeks ago and most of them departed after a weekend of action. But the club signed five tryout players last Wednesday, including defensive back James Ihedigbo.
"It feels real good. Throughout my life, opportunities have presented themselves," Ihedigbo (pronounced ee-HEAD-ee-BO) said this week following an afternoon workout. "It is all about making the most out of them. Opportunities are the key to life. I just worked my butt off to try to impress the coaches, and I'm here and I'm happy about it."
A Walter Camp All-American, College Sporting News All-Star and All-Atlantic 10 first-teamer, the 6'1", 202-pound Massachusetts product joins a long list of Jets who were college captains.
"My mom always told me growing up that I had that natural leader in me," he said. "I was honored to be named a captain considering the many captains who came before me at UMass, guys like Jeremy Cain, who played with the Chicago Bears. Those guys exemplified what it was to be a leader. I was honored and tried to lead by example, always picking the guys up every day. I was never satisfied."
Over the past two seasons, he started 25 games for the Minutemen and racked up an impressive 12.5 sacks. His four-year career totals include 251 tackles, eight interceptions and nine pass breakups.
"In our scheme in college, we were a real pressure-oriented team," he said. "I was used on a lot of edge blitzing and up-the-middle blitzing. Our scheme presented me the opportunities to use my full athletic ability."
Those familiar with Atlantic 10 football know Massachusetts head coach Don Brown employs an adaptable defensive system. Ihedigbo, who played strong safety the past three seasons, displayed good football sense and grasped the week-to-week concepts. He was comfortable playing in the box and was even used as a fourth linebacker at times.
One member of the Jets scouting department actually lined up against Ihedigbo in high school. Jason Mandolesi, the club's scouting coordinator, was a member of a Minnechaug (Mass.) High team that fell toIhedigbo's Amherst Regional in 2000. Close to seven years later, Mandolesi tracked his former opponent down and informed him of the Green & White's interest.
""I was a sophomore when he was a senior at Minnechaug," said the rookie. "We definitely played against each other in our Thanksgiving Day game and we ended up winning. It's great that he's here and I have that connection with him."
The western Massachusetts links also extend to the locker room. Ihedigbo, who rushed for 1,012 yards and 18 touchdowns as an Amherst senior, played with fullback Jesse Allen on the same all-star team coming out of high school. Allen, one of the Jets' rookie free agents, is a 6'0", 247-pound load and the combination made for quite a backfield combo.
"It just so happened that he went to Virginia Tech and I went to UMass," he said. "We're now here again as teammates. It's funny how things work out."
Even after a prolific high school career, Ihedigbo didn't draw much interest from most colleges. Georgia Southern said he could attempt to walk on, but he decided to stay close to home.
"Coming out of Amherst, there weren't many opportunities for me to play football. UMass offered me an opportunity to walk on and try out for the team," he said. "I did that and succeeded and eventually earned a full scholarship in the spring. I was grateful to play for the school in my hometown. I watched UMass football games as a kid and had the opportunity to become part of that great tradition."
After leaving his stamp on Massachusetts, the sociology major watched the draft on television. He wasn't a priority free agent, either, but eventually got the call for a tryout.
"My mother told me that it was in God's hands. What is going to happen is going to be," he said of the extended wait. "I just trusted that and definitely went with it. He placed me here and I'm happy."
The professional practices will become even more competitive when the Jets' veterans return to the field next week. Ihedigbo, living at a local hotel along with many of his new teammates, said he studies the playbook from 1½ to two hours each night and makes good use of his note cards. There is always more to review.
"I was in the defensive room today watching tape of our defensive backs, seeing how they backpedal, how they read certain coverages, how they read releases and stuff," he said. "Anything I can pick up watching on film will help me become a better football player."
This is a kid full of resolve and purpose. Happy to be here, he said his mother is his "backbone" and the tone of her voice was almost better than actually signing with the Jets. He puts down the playbook almost every night to talk to her over the phone. Rose Ihedigbo's son, a former walk on at UMass, is now running at his NFL dream.
"You really have to be focused and determined to succeed," he said. "That's the kind of attitude I have. I feel like I am completely blessed to be in this situation."