The Denver Broncos are widely considered a favorite to represent the AFC in the 2014 Super Bowl, mainly because of players like Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Champ Bailey and Von Miller. These players are the face of the Broncos for the 2013 season. Although their spring camp and preseason has been marred by several big story lines – Miller’s potential four game suspension (being appealed), several DUI arrests, and the untimely injuries to the offensive line – the real story of the 2013 camp is the rise of a previously overlooked strong safety (SS), Duke Ihenacho.
Duke Ihenacho played as a Spartan at San Jose State and led the FBS in interceptions by mid October, 2008. He even showed the versatility to play LB in several games. He ended the season with first-team All-WAC honors. The exclamation point of Duke’s collegiate career came in the 2011 Homecoming game where Ihenacho blocked a PAT and returned it for a 2-pt conversion. ESPN featured it on College Football Prime Time and Geico nominated the play as the ‘play of the year’.
Despite his collegiate success, Duke slid from a 5th round projection to an undrafted free agent who eventually signed with the Broncos. The 6′ 213lb safety played all four games of the 2012 preseason and recorded seven total tackles. Shortly after the preseason, Duke played in the Cincinnati game (Week 2) but faded onto the practice squad and was relegated to the pine as the Broncos climbed to a 13-3 record. The season culminated in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champions, the Baltimore Ravens. After analysis, one of the Broncos weaknesses in the 2013 season, or at least the postseason, was their secondary.
The Broncos brass made several moves in the offseason to address the issues in the back-end of the defense. They added veterans like Dominique Rodgers-Cromarite and Quentin Jammer, as well as the 3rd round draft pick of Kayvon Webster. These players were brought in to make an immediate impact.
Despite these additions, one name that keeps surfacing with big plays is Duke Ihenacho. His play has sidelined Jammer, who has not made much of an impact this offseason, and given incumbent starter Mike Adams a reason to worry about his job.
All camp, Broncos fans have seen Duke in the mix with the “ones” and heard of his impressive play. He continued to impress and solidify his roll as a starting SS in the first preseason game against the 49ers last Thursday. Not only did Duke play with the starting 11, he recorded a team high 7 tackles, one for a loss, and a forced fumble. This single game stat sheet exceeded his entire 2012 preseason in one game. Duke not only showed up with big stats, but was constantly seen around the ball and causing problems for the opposing offense on film. For example, with 9 minutes left in the first quarter, Duke plows through a pulling SF lineman (6’5 323lb Anthony Davis) and along with teammate Wesley Woodyard stops SF RB LeMichael James in the backfield for a loss. 33 has been playing with his hair on fire this offseason. If his performance stays at this level, consider your 2013 starting SS Duke Ihenacho. Outside of the Peyton, Wes, Demaryius, Von spectrum- expect the likes of Duke Ihenacho not only to start, but to have a major role as the Broncos roll towards their third Lombardi.
Zach Strohm is an NFL writer for TPF and can be contacted at ZStrohm@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com