Ihedigbo & Jets Ready For Patriots - UMass Athletics

Ihedigbo & Jets Ready For Patriots

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There are several great stories on UMass alum James Ihedigbo, who is ready to take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, Sunday at 4:30 pm. Check out these features.

James Ihedigbo owns special place with Jets
By Dan Duggan  |   Sunday, January 16, 2011  |  http://www.bostonherald.com  |  N.E. Patriots
Photo by AP

James Ihedigbo pled the Fifth when asked if he was a Patriots [team stats] fan while growing up in Amherst.

While Ihedigbo may have rooted for the home team when he was younger, he doesn't have warm and fuzzy feelings for the Patriots anymore.

"Those days are long gone," said Ihedigbo, whose attitude changed when he signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2007.

The special teams stalwart and safety will face the Patriots this afternoon in the AFC divisional round. Ihedigbo is listed as questionable with ankle and knee injuries, but earlier in the week he was confident he would play.

Coming out of Amherst Regional High with a low profile, it seemed unlikely Ihedigbo would ever find himself in the NFL. But after steady improvement at UMass, the 6-foot-1, 214-pounder emerged as an All-American his senior year. As the Minutemen made a run to the national championship game, which they lost 28-17 to Appalachian State, Ihedigbo began to draw NFL interest.

"My senior year I was playing at such a high level that scouts were coming to see me play," Ihedigbo said. "I knew the opportunity was there, but I was more focused on winning than playing at the next level."

Ihedigbo was invited to the Jets rookie minicamp, where he impressed enough to stick around for training camp. But the odds were stacked against him making the team.

"You come in as a rookie and you're one of seven safeties, and a team naturally only keeps four," Ihedigbo said. "You can kind of be like, 'Gee, what day am I getting cut.' I didn't think like that. I was grinding. I was going to outwork everybody."

Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, a fellow UMass alum, told Ihedigbo his ticket to staying in the NFL was on special teams. Ihedigbo attached himself to longtime special teams coach Mike Westhoff and has thrived in the role.

"I was always meeting with him, always learning, always learning from the veterans," Ihedigbo said. "I knew my niche was to be on special teams, but I didn't just want to be on special teams -- I wanted to dominate and own that facet of the game, which I'm coming into my own of doing."

Now in his fourth season, Ihedigbo has seen more action at safety. He had 22 tackles and three sacks this season, and his hard-hitting style has endeared him to coach Rex Ryan.

"Tough as nails guy," Ryan said of Ihedigbo. "I know he's respected through the league with the kind of special teams performer he is for sure, and he's always a guy that's excited. He's a tough, physical-type player. He dishes out big hits almost every game, so we're proud that he's on our team."

Now that Ihedigbo has solidified his spot in the NFL, he has no intention of letting up.

"Every opportunity I had to work and prove myself, I was going to do that," Ihedigbo said. "Through perseverance and hard work I'm still here."

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