Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer are not making it easy to guess who the Bengals “other” starting safety is going to be.
Through the first week of training camp, Taylor Mays, George Iloka, and rookie Shawn Williams have spent roughly the same amount of time practicing opposite of Reggie Nelson with the first-team defense.
“It’s wide open,” Zimmer told me. “I don’t know how it’s going to end up but I do think that we have some guys to pick from.”
Iloka says the way to win the job is obvious.
“By going out there every day and consistently making plays, being in the right spot, and having no mental errors,” George told me. “The first way to get off the field is making mental errors. If a guy runs by you, you really can’t do much about that besides fixing your technique – but you can’t make mental errors.”
Iloka didn’t fully appreciate the mental side of his position until the Bengals signed veteran Chris Crocker off the street in week four last season to stabilize their secondary.
“I’ll be the first to admit that last year I didn’t grasp this defense as well as I needed to in order to contribute,” said Iloka. “I didn’t realize that until I saw Crocker. You can’t just rely purely on your athletic ability as this level – especially at the safety position in this defense. You have to know the checks, and you have to be consistent because you’re not just playing for yourself out there.
“What really made me gravitate towards him was the fact that he got an interception in his first game back. He was basically on the couch and didn’t go to training camp or anything. It’s not like he did anything spectacular – he just did his job. He made the right reads and did the things that Coach Zimmer taught him and the pick came right to him. I said, ‘I’d better start watching this dude and picking his brain in order to learn as much as I can.’”
The 23-year-old out of Boise State did yoga, Pilates, and worked out with a personal trainer in order to drop about five pounds in the off-season, but more importantly, George says he devoted considerable time toward studying film and the Bengals defensive schemes.
“I really wanted to focus on the play book,” said Iloka. “It helped me out a lot because in the spring when we were in OTAs and minicamp, I was able to go out there and react instead of thinking.
“Last year I was waiting for somebody to make the calls because I wasn’t confident. You’re not going to yell something out if you’re not sure – even if you’re possibly right. Now I know the calls and am 100% sure, so I can make the checks and get guys lined up.”
His teammates and coaches have noticed the difference.
“He’s taken huge steps,” said Terence Newman. “His confidence right now is off the charts. It should be because he’s had a hell of a camp. I’m very proud of him because everybody has critics and he’s quieting his.”
“I definitely see more confidence in him,” said assistant defensive backs coach Adam Zimmer. “He’s comfortable with what he’s doing and that’s the most important thing. Last year I think he was probably feeling his way around. Now he’s in a position where he can react to what he sees instead of thinking about it all of the time.”
Taylor Mays earned three starts at safety last season and the Bengals thought highly enough of Shawn Williams to select him in the third round of this year’s draft. As a result, Iloka says he has to excel in training camp to win the starting job.
“If I want to beat out Taylor and Shawn, I have to make it obvious,” George told me. “That’s the mindset that I have and that’s what I plan on doing.”
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