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MAN ON A MISSION
RYAN DENNEY TO GET FIRST CHANCE AGAINST JETS TO SHOW HE'S NOT A WASTED PICK

He's a hulk of a man, 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds, impossible to ignore even when massive bodies surround him. He's worked harder than anybody this season, yet somehow with so much criticism directed toward the Buffalo Bills' defensive line, he's been standing right there, useless on the sidelines, hiding in plain sight.

Quick, what's Ryan Denney's number?

The Bills' rookie was issued No. 90, but chances are the Bills' most fervent fans, the tailgating, season-ticket-holding die-hards, haven't noticed someone has Phil Hansen's old jersey. Through 10 games this season, Denney has done little more than watch the games like everyone else. He's appeared in two games. You probably didn't notice.

Denney has been inactive for eight of the 10 games, played a handful of snaps in the other two. But it will change this week against the New York Jets. He's expected to play a significant amount today for the first time in his career. Fans should start seeing what appealed to the Bills when they drafted him in the second round in April.

"There's nobody here that's been down on him," Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe said. "Young guys develop at different speeds or different rates. You're never sure when it actually happens. . . . He hasn't done anything where we said, 'We're concerned about this guy.' We really need to see more of him before we make a full evaluation."

Denney played defensive end throughout high school and college, but the Bills have been working him at defensive tackle lately in practice. Denney has good feet, but he doesn't have the quickness to dominate on the outside. He's strong, but not enough to overpower interior offensive linemen. For now, it makes him either a tweener or versatile, the final verdict not expected any time soon.

Denney's burial on the roster is not a criticism of his natural ability. Surprisingly, amazingly, the Bills' starting defensive line and their backups have been healthy all season after they were riddled with injuries last year. Denney has been nailed to the bench. For all but two games, he hasn't even dressed.

"It really hasn't been easy," Denney said. "I'm just trying to keep things in perspective. Hopefully, this is a little bit of a slower start to a longer career. I'm trying to take it in stride. It looks like this week I'll be getting an opportunity."

What fans haven't witnessed is Denney's steady improvement behind closed doors of practice, where he's been learning how to play defensive tackle. He's now ready to play all four defensive line positions and ride the waves of Buffalo defensive linemen. The Bills see his long-term future leaning toward tackle, where his height advantage and long reach can disturb passing lanes and plug running lanes. He looked lost in training camp, but he's come a long way in the past four months.

"It's why you have to be patient," Donahoe said. "You have to give guys an opportunity, especially if you like the guy's size, his toughness, his smarts, his work ethic. It might just be we haven't found the way to use him, and he hasn't found his niche. We've got to find the best spot for him."

At this point, Denney doesn't care if he holds for place kicks. He's been itching for more playing time while others started their careers. First-rounder Mike Williams is a starting offensive tackle, fellow second-rounder Josh Reed a valuable receiver. Third-round pick Coy Wire has been an impressive NFL safety, fifth-round pick Justin Bannan a helpful addition at defensive tackle.

Denney? We'll see.

The Denver-area native played sparingly against the Broncos, but he hasn't been in there long enough to prove whether he belongs. The Bills won't know more about him until they see him play several consecutive series, perhaps a full game, possibly longer. They might not find out his true position until next year.

"It comes down to getting an opportunity," Denney said. "A lot of people are on the back burner for a while, and then they get a chance to play. Look at the quarterback (Marc Bulger) down in St. Louis. He's been there for quite a few years, and all of a sudden he comes out of nowhere and becomes a star player for the Rams. I'm not comparing myself to that, but I still feel I haven't gotten the opportunity yet."

"He deserves to play. He's improved every week," Bills coach Gregg Williams said. "We're in a situation where everybody up there is young. Coaches sometimes get comfortable with guys who have been in there, week in and week out. We've had no injuries. To his credit, he has a good attitude. I really want to see him improve."

Denney, 25, is still raw. He always had aspirations to follow his father's footsteps to Brigham Young University, but he didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school. Craig Denney feared his oldest son would suffer from burnout, so Ryan played basketball and soccer until he turned 15. He was first-team all-Colorado in football and honorable mention in basketball his senior year.

Size and strength run in his family. His father played offensive line at BYU. Craig Denney is 51, but he can still bench press 385 pounds. Denney's older brother, Jason, is a 6-6, 275-pounder playing defensive line for the Cougars. The youngest, Brett, is a 6-5, 240-pound high school senior who already has made a verbal commitment to BYU.

"I guess we have some big boys in our family," Denney said. "Family gatherings are fun. We eat a lot."

Denney was a redshirt freshman at BYU before going on his two-year mission as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He spread the Mormon word in Buenos Aires, Argentina, away from football and the weight room, before starting his college career at age 20. He recorded 17 sacks over his final three seasons, the last two as a starter at defensive end.

The Bills were impressed with his ability, but also because he was more mature off the field. He's married, and his wife is expecting their first child in April. On the field, he's had problems adjusting to the NFL, problems he believes will vanish with experience. He was overwhelmed his first few weeks in training camp. He's since been trying to make a name for himself.

Buffalo has six games remaining. You just might get to know him before long.

"He's high energy, intelligent, and he has a good work ethic," Williams said. "There's nothing not to like about him."
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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