The Giants youth movement in the secondary has been entrusted to their new DBs coach
The new assistant clasped his hands behind his back and addressed them in measured tones.
Everett Withers was patient. He took each question in for a moment before giving a response.
And he stood like a professor in mid-lecture — just one who wears blue warmups instead of a sport coat — when he spoke to reporters last week at the Giants indoor practice facility.
Withers will have to teach as much as coach in his first season as their defensive backs coach.
He simply has no other choice.
He inherits a secondary as young as any in the NFL. There’s rookie cornerbacks DeAndre Baker (a first-round selection), Julian Love (fourth) and Corey Ballentine (sixth). Second-year corners Grant Haley and Sam Beal, who might as well be a rookie, after missing all of last season with a right shoulder injury.
And there’s second-year safety Sean Chandler, who played in 16 games in 2018 but did not start any. In all, there are 12 defensive backs on the current roster with less than two seasons of NFL experience.
Baker expects to start opposite 2016 Pro Bowler Janoris Jenkins, while Beal, Love, Chandler and Haley all could log significant playing time.
So class is in session.
“It is exciting when you bring in all these young men. That’s the biggest thing,” Withers said. “Talented guys that can play.”
Talented guys who need reps. Talented guys who will need to learn on the job.
But Withers and assistant defensive backs coach Henry Baker might be the right men for such a job.
Withers has NFL coaching experience, but perhaps more importantly, he and Baker know how to mold and develop young players.
Baker has been an assistant at North Carolina, Maryland, Rutgers, Delaware and East Stroudsburg.
Withers has coached in 10 different college programs, from Ohio State and Texas to James Madison and Austin Peay, over 24 seasons. At most of them, he served as a defensive backs coach or a defensive coordinator.
The Charlotte native was a head coach at North Carolina, James Madison and Texas State.
In fact, Withers’ relationship with defensive coordinator James Bettcher began in Chapel Hill, where they both were on Butch Davis’ staff in 2008 and 2009.
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” said Withers, who was a defensive back and team captain at Appalachian State and has also coached with the Saints and Titans.
As head coach at Texas State, a Sun Belt Conference program, he went 7-28 the past three seasons. He coached FCS program James Madison in 2014 and 2015, compiling an 18-7 record. He set the stage for its national championship run in 2016.
And he took over for Davis at North Carolina as interim head coach in 2011, leading the Tar Heels to an 8-7 season.
“I always thought I would end up back at the NFL level,” Withers said. “It is good to get back and around some elite players and athletes.”
Talent to work with
Elite, but young athletes.
DeAndre Baker won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back last season at Georgia.
He and Love were first-team All-American corners.
But there are challenges.
Love is young, having left Notre Dame with a season of eligibility remaining. And some questioned his athleticism before the draft.
Beal hasn’t played since 2017 after hurting his shoulder last season in his first professional practice. As a rookie, Chandler produced only 18 tackles, five of which came in the season finale.
And Ballentine played at Division II Washburn. He is still recovering from a gunshot wound to his backside that he suffered the night the Giants drafted him. His friend and former teammate, Dwane Simmons, died in the shooting.
“When you watch him on tape, you don’t see a Division II player,” Withers said. “You see a talented football player that can run, jump, cover, do a lot of different things.”
There are many questions in the young secondary beyond Jenkins and former first-round pick Jabrill Peppers at safety.
The Giants plan to prepare Love for the nickel in a competition with Haley, while Beal figures to play outside behind starters Jenkins and Baker.
So far, Withers has had help from the veteran Jenkins.
“You take a guy like Janoris Jenkins, a guy that has been in the league for [eight] years and look at him more as an assistant coach,” he said. “He has taken that role so far this off-season and has done a really good job. …
“He has such a vast amount of experience in this league that he can help guys not only schematically but understanding the game, splits of receivers and those things. He has done a really good job in the meeting rooms and on the field so far.”
Withers and Co. will have to continue to school up those young players.
The Giants season just might depend on them.