ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –Last* *year when the Broncos had to cut their roster down to 53 players for Week 1, Duke Ihenacho got a phone call telling him that he didn't make the list.
This year there was no phone call, and that was a good thing for the second-year safety.
"I slept better at night," Ihenacho said reflecting on the difference between this year and last. "Last year, I was confident but I was nervous at the same time because I didn't understand how the business worked. This year I was a little more confident and a little bit more at ease. So when I came into it was kind of like hard work paid off. I'm not done yet though."
After spending a good portion of training camp getting first-team reps, Ihenacho started the first three preseason games this year and ranked second among defensive backs with 10 tackles, adding a pass breakup and a forced fumble.
He didn't play in the fourth preseason game, a stark contrast from the year before when he played 32 percent of the defensive snaps in the preseason finale. This year, he spent the last preseason game watching from the sideline with the rest of the Broncos' starters.
Because that's what he is now -- a Broncos starter.
The team released its initial depth chart of the season and Ihenacho's name was listed as the first-team strong safety.
"That's a blessing," Ihenacho said with a smile. "I just thank God and keep working. It's been a long road and I just have to keep working. I'm blessed right now and I'm grateful. It's just kind of a testament to hard work."
It marks quite the ascent from 2012, when Ihenacho's name wasn't even on the depth chart as he opened the year as a member of the club's practice squad.
A college free agent out of San Jose State, Ihenacho spent the majority of the 2012 season working on the scout team as a practice squad member. He was signed to the active roster for four games, of which he played special teams in two and was a gameday inactive for the other two.
"When you go undrafted, you never lose (the chip on your shoulder) because you always remember that you went undrafted and you always remember where you came from," Ihenacho said. "I don't think I'll ever forget that."
Ihenacho made the most of the offseason and is on the cusp of not only playing his first defensive snaps in the NFL, but doing so as a starter.
In just one year, Ihenacho has put in the work to elevate role from a practice squad player that all 32 NFL teams passed on during the 2012 draft to a starter on a defense that allowed the second-fewest yards in the league last year.
"It definitely lights a fire under me," Ihenacho said of going undrafted. "Every day I go out to practice I have to prove myself because everybody knows that undrafted players have to fight an uphill battle compared to other players. That's not an excuse or anything – I just take it as a challenge and I'll keep rocking."