CLEVELAND — When he was told the news by defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson, Matt Cole had an immediate reaction.
“I was like ‘It’s too early to be playing games, man,’ ’’ Cole recalled Sunday.
Cole also said this to Henderson: “You can’t be for real.’’
The response from Henderson?
This was Saturday morning and the news was this: Cole, a first-year wide receiver facing long odds to make the Giants roster, was going to be used on defense. As a cornerback. In a real, live preseason game. And that is what happened as the Giants lost to the Browns 17-13 at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday.
“We looked at the amount of guys that we were going to play, we knew depth at some point was going to be an issue, we knew it was going to be hot,’’ head coach Joe Judge said. “We turned around and said ‘Let’s let Matt go out there. Let’s see what he’s got.’ ’’
As it turned out, Cole gained the admiration of his teammates, as well as of Judge, for what he was able to handle in an admittedly foreign situation.
“I’m proud of the way Matt competed,’’ Judge said.
Cole did not catch a pass on offense and got roughed up a bit on a 15-yard kickoff return. The plan was to use him on defense, although he had not played cornerback since his high school days in Chicago. When defensive backs Madre Harper and Quincy Wilson both left the field with injuries, the Giants had no choice but to stick Wilson — wearing No. 83 — in at corner.
The Browns and quarterback Kyle Lauletta — a former Giants draft pick — did not target Cole right away. He seemed to get beat deep by receiver Davion Davis but the pass was overthrown. Most impressively, on a third down, Connor Davis caught a pass for a 6-yard gain and Cole — all 5-foot-10 and 197 pounds — stuck his shoulder down and tackled the 6-foot-8, 271-pound tight end short of a first down.
“That was really amazing,’’ safety Julian Love said. “He was really aggressive, he was putting his hat on the ball. All the respect for what he did for us. We were fired up, he wasn’t playing passive and in a situation like that it’s easy to fall back. But he went at it.’’
Cole, 24, went undrafted out of Division II McKendree University and kicked around with the Dolphins, 49ers and Jets before the Giants claimed him off waivers this month. When he went in on defense, the Giants basically had a 10-man huddle, while Cole received special instructions from the sideline, as far as coverage and alignment assignments.
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I don’t think a receiver caught a ball on my side,’’ Cole said.
When someone joked to him “Cole Island’’ he had a quick correction.
“Cole World,’’ he said. “I think I did pretty good.’’