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Bills' Enemkpali prospers from misfortune of others

PITTSFORD -- A year ago, IK Enemkpali arrived at the Buffalo Bills' training camp to a greeting of scorn and skepticism.

How was this guy going to fit in on any team, let alone the Bills? He had just thrown one of the most talked-about punches in the country -- the one that broke the jaw of New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith. His quarterback.

No one was going to touch a player who had suddenly become the personification of a bad teammate.

No one, that is, except his former Jets coach, Rex Ryan, who was early in his first camp at the helm of the Bills.

Today, the narrative is far different. The punch is a distant memory. Enemkpali isn't just taking up a roster spot, as was seemingly the case last season with his minimal contributions on special teams and forgettable work as a defensive end after serving a four-game suspension. He has the inside track to become a starter.

"I was talking with my (Bills public relations) guys, and they were like, 'Wow! This time last year it was completely different for you,'" Enemkpali said. "Everything is different this year. It's more comfortable, you know?"

Regular visits with the Bills' sports psychologist helped him get to that place, as did the passage of time. Now, rather than being a focal point of controversy, he is savoring the likelihood of starting at outside linebacker opposite Jerry Hughes.

"It's a great opportunity for me, so I've just got to make the most of it," Enemkpali said. "I've just got to capitalize on my opportunity."

So much has changed for the better for the third-year pro, mostly because of the misfortune of others. First, Shaq Lawson, the Bills' first-round draft pick who was supposed to "start off the bus" at outside linebacker, injured his shoulder in rookie minicamp and underwent surgery that has him out indefinitely.

Then, shortly before camp opened Friday at St. John Fisher College, Manny Lawson, with whom Enemkpali was competing for a starting spot, suffered a pectoral injury while lifting weights and landed on the Active/Non-Football Injury list.

After a season of having become somewhat of an afterthought, Enemkpali "most definitely" believes he's ready to meet the challenge of being a starter. Why?

"Because I have confidence in myself," he said. "I have confidence my coaches will prepare me. And I feel like, once I understand what I'm doing and the coaches give me everything I need, all my tools, I feel like I can be a starter.

"I bring hard work every day. I bring it every day. I'm a hard-hat, lunch-pale kind of guy. And I bring commitment to my teammates."

Enemkpali calls those his "strengths." The Bills must agree, because so far, they've been willing to overlook his weaknesses, the biggest of which is being somewhat stiff in his movement -- especially in pass coverage.

Nevertheless, the coaches believe Enemkpali has improved dramatically over what he showed last season.

"Well I think, the number one thing is he’s probably playing the position we envisioned him as a true outside linebacker," Ryan said.

The biggest difference the coach sees for Enemkpali is getting hands-on tutoring from Ryan's twin brother, Rob, the Bills' assistant head coach/defense, in addition to instruction from linebackers coach Bobby April and assistant linebackers coach Jeff Weeks.

"We’ve really taken this kid, now it’s his third year, and transitioning from a guy that’s always played with his hand in the dirt to now standing up, and doing more multiple things," Rex said. "I think it’s going to help his game."

There's no denying, however, that the greatest help has so far come from attrition. It seems consistent with his very strange journey to Buffalo.

"I just take it a day at a time," Enemkpali said. "Don't know what tomorrow has in store, but I know I have to prepare for tomorrow."

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