The Duke of the defense: Broncos strong safety Ihenacho rapidly accelerating up depth chart

Around these parts, John Elway is affectionately known as the "Duke" for scrambling and slinging his way to a Hall of Fame career.

Now, there's another "Duke" on the Denver Broncos field and he's quickly creating a name for himself, even if no one can properly pronounce it.

Duke Ihenacho (EE-ah-NAHcho) is a strong safety frequently working with the first team at training camp. Although Mike Adams is still listed as the starter, Ihenacho has everyone raving about his play so far in practice.

This from a player who was cut by the Broncos last summer before being brought back and spending most of 2012 on the team's practice squad. This from a player who didn't even start playing football until his junior year of high school (on a dare, no less) and didn't exactly come from a BCS powerhouse (San Jose State).

He's steadily climbed his way up the depth chart by doing one simple thing — standing out in practice. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Ihenacho will be put to the test in San Francisco on Thursday night in the preseason opener.

"He's worked hard and made plays and earned time to continue, to see if he can continue," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "There is a lot left to do. There's a lot more install to do. We'll just see how it goes. But he's done well so far."

Quinton Carter is also competing with Adams and Ihenacho for the starting job.

"Right now I'm grateful, but I'm not satisfied. So, I'm just going to keep working," the 24-year-old Ihenacho said. "I'm just trying to be consistent, not making mistakes over and over. If you make plays, eventually, they're going to trust you enough to put you in and give you more opportunities to make more plays.

"It's definitely a progression thing. It never happens overnight."

Before each practice, Ihenacho puts on his headphones and listens to his brand of motivational music — slow R&B songs.

Yep, that's what pumps him up.

Then, he goes out and continues to impress. He's picked off quite a few passes in drills this summer. Constantly around the ball, he's consistently drawing praise from teammates:

— Pro Bowler Champ Bailey: "His play has been impressive. He is getting better every day."

— Nickel DB Chris Harris: "He's learning the defense and by him learning the defense, he can go out there and play his game."

— Fellow safety Rahim Moore: "It's like playing out there with a twin ... His talent is definitely showing every day."

All part of the benefit of playing with a giant chip on his shoulder pads.

Always has, really.

Growing up, Ihenacho figured his future was knocking down jumpers on the basketball court, not passes on the football field. It wasn't until gym class his sophomore year that he discovered football. A couple of classmates at his high school in San Mateo, Calif., were teasing him and said he wouldn't be able to handle the contact sport.

He took that as a challenge and went out for the football team the following season. By his senior year, Ihenacho was a dual threat, recording 73 tackles on defense and catching 17 passes for 335 yards on offense.

That was enough to attract the attention of San Jose State, where he became a three-time All-Western Athletic Conference selection.

"One thing about Duke is that he loves football," Moore said. "He loves making plays."

And yet no one picked him in the draft. To this day, that irks him.

"But I've always had to prove myself," he said with a casual shrug.

Brought in by the Broncos in May 2012, he was waived after camp but returned as a member of the practice squad. He was called up to the team and played in two games — even making a special teams tackle at Cincinnati on Nov. 4 — before finishing the season back on the practice squad.

"When things didn't go my way at first, it was kind of just like, 'Well, it's not the end of the world. Keep working, keep working,'" Ihenacho said. "Then, I had guys in my ear supporting me."

And it's all paying off with more playing time.

"Eventually if you make enough plays and you work hard enough, focus and know your plays, it's going to happen for you," Ihenacho said.

NOTES: The Broncos released their initial preseason depth chart Sunday and there were no real surprises. Manny Ramirez is listed as the starting center. The recently signed Ryan Lilja is fourth string for now. ... RB Ronnie Hillman is the No. 1 running back heading into the preseason opener, with rookie Montee Ball second string.