Don't worry, Jeremy Shockey told college football recruiters. "I'll get bigger," he assured them, in the way a teenager tells his mother he'll be careful driving the family car.
This is what they saw: an 18-year-old, less than 200 pounds, legs as skinny as goal posts. A project who wanted to play big-time college football. "I'll get bigger, I'll get stronger," Shockey said, in his Oklahoma lilt, and he bought pants three inches longer than his measured inseam, to account for the growth he anticipated.
He had a vision of what he would become and years would pass before the expectations others had for Shockey would approach his own. After his college of choice passed him over, after he used a year in junior college as a springboard to the University of Miami, after he scored a touchdown in the Rose Bowl and became a top prospect at tight end, the Giants seized him in the first round of the N.F.L. draft, expecting he could be an important part of their offense.
"I know in my first year I want to dominate, and I want to make a lot of plays," Shockey, 21, said on draft day three months ago. And he did not sound brash; he sounded a lot like the teenager who kept assuring college recruiters he was going to grow.
The Giants open training camp on Wednesday in Albany, coming off a frustrating 7-9 season and an off-season filled with salary-cap casualties, like linebacker Jessie Armstead. If they are to contend for a playoff spot, their youngest players must assume a heavy burden. Once Shockey is signed and in camp — and it appears there will be a contractual resolution in the next few days — the Giants need him to become an integral part of their offense.
He will get the chance. "We threw the ball more to the tight end in minicamp alone than we did in the other years I've been here," said linebacker Mike Barrow, often assigned to cover Shockey in practice. "I was shocked, because he was running deep routes, routes for wide receivers."
Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said: "I really didn't draft him because we needed a tight end. We drafted him because we needed a playmaker."
He has always made plays. Shockey fielded a punt during his senior year at Ada (Okla.) High, turned the corner and zipped past the defense — a return that convinced Dale Patterson, the head coach at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, to recruit him. "He was about 190 pounds, tall and lanky," Patterson said. "But he was pretty aggressive and I figured that if he didn't fill out enough to be a tight end, he could be a linebacker."
Shockey wanted to go to Oklahoma. He did not want to play at one of the less prominent Division I-A colleges interested in him, like Fresno State. He wanted to play for the Sooners, and he was sure he would grow and allay the doubts about his size. Shockey was growing so fast, he felt, that his knees hurt and his legs seemed to lengthen by the day.
But Oklahoma changed coaches and the Sooners' conditional interest in him faded. As he completed high school, Shockey was about 6 feet 2 inches, 200 pounds. When he arrived for practice at Northeastern Oklahoma late that summer in 1999, he was 6-4, 225 pounds, and Patterson installed him at tight end. After several workouts, Shockey was convinced he could do well.
He had the personality of a linebacker, Patterson thought, extremely competitive, thriving on physical challenges, never backing down. "But the thing that stood out in my mind is, he had that extra gear to get to the ball," Patterson said. "If the ball was thrown 5 yards in front of him, 10 yards in front of him, he'd go get the ball."
Patterson hoped Shockey would stay another year, but Shockey wanted to play at a major college program. Not at Oklahoma; the Sooners had missed their chance. He watched a Miami practice and was immediately attracted to the intensity, the competitiveness. This is what he wanted. "It was like the difference between crawdads and lobster," said Shockey, who went through two practices before deciding he could thrive at a I-A university as well.
By then he was 6-5, 235 pounds, and his explosiveness, his quickness, stunned Miami Coach Larry Coker, who was the offensive coordinator at the time. Shockey launched himself at a linebacker at the snap of the ball, and as quickly, he would break away, separating himself from the coverage. Sometimes Shockey was set on the outside and ran wide receiver routes, and sometimes he lined up in the backfield.
"He's such a tough kid, and he could catch the ball in a crowd," Coker said, recalling Shockey's game-winning catch against Florida State in 2000. "I don't think he cares about whether he's playing a high school team or the Bears in the Super Bowl, he's going to come ready to play."
Shockey became the favorite target of Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey, partly because of his ability to adapt. "You don't have to tell him something a million times," Dorsey said. "If you'd tell him to break off a post pattern a little earlier, he'd do it. He's got great hands; he's not afraid to jump for balls over the middle and take hits."
Dorsey aims his passes at the numbers or at the helmet of the receiver, but with Shockey, he said, it really did not matter. During the Rose Bowl against Nebraska, Shockey went into a huddle and assured Dorsey, "Just throw the ball up there and I'll go get it." Twenty-one yards, touchdown.
Nebraska linebacker Scott Shanle was assigned to cover Shockey on about 60 percent of the plays in that game, and Shanle found him to be quiet, intense. "But he was very energetic, bouncing around, very confident," Shanle said. "By far the best tight end I ever faced. The one thing I came away with was how precise his routes are, clean routes.
"A couple of times during that game, I thought I had a good coverage, and he'd bring the ball down. I'd try to rip the ball out, slap at it, as he was bringing it down, and he'd still catch it. As soon as he turned his head back to the quarterback and looked for the ball, there was nothing you could do about it."
After the Rose Bowl, Shockey told Coker he intended to forgo his senior season at Miami and enter the N.F.L. draft, and Coker told Shockey he thought it was a mistake. There were other excellent tight ends in the draft, Coker said; Shockey might not get drafted until the middle rounds. "Once they get to know me and I work out, they'll think I'm better than anybody," Shockey told Coker.
Coker remembered the conversation recently and chuckled. "He was right, and I was wrong," Coker said. "He did the right thing."
Accorsi and other Giants scouts and coaches — including the tight ends coach, Michael Pope — watched Shockey and other Hurricanes work out in Miami before the draft. Shockey had grown to 6-5, 255 pounds. The other Miami players treated Shockey with deep respect, Accorsi thought, as if they looked up to him. (Several months after the draft, Barrow, a Miami alumnus, lifted weights with a group of Hurricanes, who agreed unanimously that among the 11 Miami players drafted, Shockey would turn out to be the best.)
Accorsi saw how excited Pope was during the Miami workout and jokingly told him to leave the building, lest his enthusiasm be seen by scouts from other teams. Accorsi called Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, who endorsed Shockey fully. The Nittany Lions covered Shockey with two and sometimes three defenders and could not stop him.
Accorsi went to visit Shockey in Ada, where Shockey took him to lunch. "You'll never have barbecue like this," Shockey told him. The visit went so well that Accorsi became discouraged. No way we'll get this guy. Not a chance he'll fall to the middle of the first round.
But the draft dominoes fell and Accorsi sacrificed a fourth-round pick to move from 15th to 14th to pick Shockey, who awed veteran teammates in minicamps — in one practice, he leapt over safety Shaun Williams to pluck a pass. Opponents will not be able to cover Shockey with a linebacker, Barrow said, because he is too fast.
Shockey will have to be covered with defensive backs, Barrow says, but that will present another problem for the defense; he will be too strong for defensive backs. As he assured college recruiters, Jeremy Shockey got a lot bigger, a lot better.