July 25, 2013; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho (33) runs during training camp at the Broncos training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Former UDFA Duke Ihenacho Shines in Broncos Pre-Season Win

Peyton Manning and Colin Kaepernick took the field for the first time since disappointing losses in the playoffs (for Kaepernick, the Super Bowl) in what many think could be a preview of this year’s Super Bowl. They were on the field for about a combined six minutes, and neither threw a touchdown pass.

That’s the ugly in what was otherwise a pretty entertaining pre-season game, if you can handle a low score.

Offense was in short supply for both teams, who failed to put the ball in the end zone even one time. The lone score of the game came on a blown up running play in which Broncos linebacker Nate Irving caused a fumble that was recovered by Shaun Phillips and returned for a score.

That touchdown proved to be the go-ahead and eventual game-sealing score for the Broncos, who won the game 10-6. But as any true NFL fan knows, the pre-season is so much less about the score and so much more about individual plays.

Or individual players, for that matter.

One player that really stood out in this game was Denver Broncos safety and former undrafted free agent Duke Ihenacho, a star at San Jose State that looked like a pretty rock solid mid-round prospect coming out in 2012.

The Broncos snatched up Ihenacho after the 2012 NFL Draft, and he wound up splitting time between the team’s practice squad and active roster, before finally getting a shot this offseason to compete for a spot on the 53 man roster.

Ihenacho has outdone himself.

Instead of just competing for a roster spot, the 6’1″ 207 pound strong safety has actually been taking a majority of the first-team snaps for the Broncos at training camp, and he started alongside Rahim Moore for the Broncos’ pre-season opener. That’s a sight Broncos fans might want to start getting used to.

Ihenacho didn’t look rigid, uncomfortable, or like he hadn’t been there before at all. He led the team with seven total tackles, but also forced a fumble and knocked down a pass. He also made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Basically, where a big play was made, it wasn’t unlikely that #33 was behind it.

Of course, this is just the first game of the pre-season, but it’s compounded by the fact that Ihenacho has had an outstanding camp, and he could join Chris Harris in the Broncos’ secondary this season, both players who were picked up by the John Elway regime AFTER the draft concluded.

This development is a testament to the job done by the Broncos’ scouting department and the depth of their research, as well as the ability of Ihenacho to work against the odds even though he could have easily been a fourth or fifth round pick two years ago. He slipped through the crack, spent a year paying his dues, and now he’s ready for a bigger role. If Thursday night’s game is any indication, this guy really does look like the real deal.

Other Observations

1. The hype for Denver tight end Julius Thomas is real. There are rumblings that Thomas has already earned a new nickname–”Orange Julius”–but in order to get a nickname as great as that one, you truly do have to earn it.

The buzz around Thomas really began prior to even getting drafted in the NFL. He was a star at the East-West Shrine Game, where he impressed NFL scouts and enticed the Broncos enough to send their coaches to give him a private workout, and followed that up by trading up to draft him in the fourth round back in 2011.

After the offseason Thomas had, Broncos fans were really excited about what he might be able to do even as a rookie. As a former basketball player, Thomas has good athletic ability and from my eyes, he looked pretty good at training camp that year as well.

Battling various injuries, Thomas was unable to get on the field much in his first two NFL seasons, but he’s healthy in his third year, and is now building an incredible hype train. He backed it up on Thursday night with four catches, including one snag at the sideline that made him look like a nimble receiver.

This is an exciting development for Broncos fans, and if Thomas can prove to be an effective weapon, the Denver offense is going to be even scarier.

2. Nate Irving should be the starting middle linebacker. And he was at the start of training camp, but in the last week, the Broncos decided that free agent signee Stewart Bradley should be playing with the first unit. Bradley wasn’t great against the 49ers’ first-team offense, and Irving played pretty great against the backups.

The good thing about Irving is that he can play both inside and as a reserve SAM linebacker. Irving’s athletic ability and versatility were on display last night against the 49ers as he was able to explode across the line of scrimmage and make some plays for the Broncos.

3. There may be another undrafted gem in our midst. It’s just one pre-season game, but Broncos running back C.J. Anderson had a great game for the Broncos. There wasn’t always a ton of running room, but Anderson had 69 yards rushing, the most total yards from scrimmage of any player in the game.

The 5’8″ 224 pound undrafted rookie free agent out of California showed good balance, vision, power, and speed to the edge. The Broncos have their top three backs pretty well set, but they already know what they have in Jacob Hester and Lance Ball, so they decided to get Anderson next in line for carries.

Obviously, the rookie out of Cal has made an impression at training camp. It’s only one game, but it was encouraging to see Anderson almost literally scratching and clawing for yardage, fighting for his roster life.

Tags: Denver Broncos Duke Ihenacho NFL Offseason Pre-season

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