Among those getting consistently high grades from training camp onlookers like Cecil Lammey and Andrew Mason has been second-year safety Duke Ihenacho. An undrafted rookie in 2012, the San Jose State alum had been described as one of the best free agents in the country last year by Pat Kirwan.
Duke spent the year on the practice squad, developing the NFL body that John Fox always refers to, and spent considerable time in the film room learning the intricacies of his craft. He drew attention immediately during this year’s OTAs and seems to have something new being written on him almost daily. On July 29, Mason wrote,
3. Duke Ihenacho 's repetitions continue to increase, and Monday saw his most extensive work yet with the No. 1 defense as Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio continues to mix and match his safeties in various sub packages. Ihenacho has good instincts, is physical and versatile, and could also see his role expand on special teams. With his two interceptions in previous days, Ihenacho is doing too much to be ignored.
"He is a guy that we have kept around for a while that is getting more opportunities and so far he has taken advantage of those opportunities," Fox said.”
At 6-1 and 207 lb, Duke is a very aggressive player who was a First-Team All-WAC linebacker back in 2008. He ran a 4.51-second 40 at his Pro Day - coming out of college, his biggest strength was playing in the middle and in zone. He showed there and in the 2012 preseason that he had potential as a matchup safety who can cover tight ends, and is more than willing to go slamming through the A gap on blitzes, which not all safeties have the body or temperament to do.
It’s still very early in training camp, but Duke has been noticed for the two interceptions he’s come down with and the passes he’s broken up. In college, he also showed an affinity for attacking fullbacks, pulling tackles, and wing-blocking tight ends. On Day 4 of last year's training camp, his interception of a Peyton Manning throw was Lammey’s Runner-up Play of the Day.
Denver is hoping that Duke has matured enough since then to become a regular part of their defense.
If Ihenacho is able to win some playing time in games, it will go to show once again how important in-house player development is to the modern Broncos franchise. John Elway likes to say that the Broncos don’t plan to draft All-Pros, but to train them. What’s happening with Ihenacho is just one example of that.
The level of competition in camp is, once again, even stronger than last year’s. Duke’s performance is another noticeable part of that trend.