EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — Less than two weeks ago, Uani Unga was worried about completing his longshot journey to the NFL and making the New York Giants' final roster.
Not only did Unga get a spot in the final 53, it looks like he will be the Giants' starting middle linebacker in the season opener against the Cowboys in Dallas on Sunday night.
Not bad for a guy who has been relying on some support from his family and in-laws to keep his dream of playing in the NFL alive.
Unga got his biggest break Friday when the Giants announced that veteran Jon Beason wouldn't be able to play on Sunday. Receiver Victor Cruz also will miss the game. Beason sprained a knee in a preseason game and is not ready to go despite having a full day of practice on Wednesday.
"I wasn't expecting it," Unga said Friday. "I was just trying to make sure I was ready if it had to come."
Unga missed all of last season recovering from a major knee injury in his final game at BYU in the 2013 season, a year he had 143 tackles. He was signed to the Giants practice squad last December and made the team after leading it in tackles with 24 in the preseason.
He played well enough to allow the Giants to release veteran Jameel McClain.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," Unga said. "This step is a lot bigger than I ever imagined. I'm just hoping I'm ready."
Coach Tom Coughlin said the Giants prepared for the possibility that Beason wouldn't be able to play, noting that Unga played the position in practice on Thursday.
"He's a young guy that obviously has not had that much experience in there, but he'll give great effort," Coughlin said.
Veterans Mark Herzlich and Jasper Brinkley also play middle linebacker. Herzlich started eight games last season, including three at middle linebacker. Brinkley started 11 games for Minnesota last season, but he just joined the Giants this week and is learning the defense.
New York can also use some packages that either employ extra defensive backs instead of a middle linebacker or schemes that use three linebackers, with one not being a typical middle linebacker.
Second-year linebacker Devon Kennard is confident that Unga will be able to do the job.
"He's great player and we'll go out there and make sure he is ready to go," Kennard said.
The Giants had felt Beason would be ready to go this week. He practiced on Wednesday, but sat out Thursday's workout because of soreness.
"It just didn't get to the point where he felt he could play and play the way he would like to play, and the medical people agreed," Coughlin said.
Cruz, who is coming off his second knee surgery in as many years, has not practiced since injuring a calf more than three weeks ago. Coughlin has not timetable for his return.