One week into training camp, and no clear favorite has emerged to win the starting safety spot opposite Reggie Nelson.
Four-year veteran Taylor Mays, sophomore George Iloka and rookie Shawn Williams all are seeing equal time running with the first unit as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer tries to assess more than just their physical skills.
“What I’m trying to do is interact the safeties with Reggie,” said Zimmer, who added that one of the reasons the secondary improved so much last when Chris Crocker was signed off the street after Week 3 was the way Nelson and Crocker communicated.
“I want Reggie to feel comfortable with whoever he’s playing with,” Zimmer continued. “One of the things with Chris (Crocker), they had a really good relationship when Crocker was here. I think that helped Reggie play well, and I want to make sure that Reggie continues to play at the level he’s been playing. So it may be the guy who’s the best communicator at the end of the day. I don’t know. But that’s an important part of it to me.”
Mays has the most experience of the trio, having played 42 games in his career with nine starts. Three of those starts came last year, but repeated personal foul penalties and other struggles prevented Mays from holding on to the job, which is why he finds himself in a competition this summer.
“I don’t really think of it as a competition,” Mays said. “I think of it more as just doing what I do. I know that my play is going to take care of itself and I’ll be content with myself at the end of the day. I know I can play better in certain coverage situations, so I know that’s something Zim told me at the end of the season that I need to emphasize and something I’ve been conscious of and working on.”
Iloka played solely on special teams and was inactive for the final six games of 2012, but he had a strong spring that caught the coaches’ eyes and resulted in increased reps.
“I’m moved up the depth chart a little bit, but really the depth chart means nothing,” Iloka said. “It’s the reps you get and what you do with it. Like they say, the tape don’t lie. Every day my mentality is to just get better from the day before and be consistent and gain their trust.”
Williams, who is another product of the University of Georgia pipeline to Cincinnati, has shown some flashes in camp, but he’s also looked like a rookie at times.
“I’m happy with the reps, whatever reps they are,” Williams said. “If it’s with the first team to the third team, you’re getting reps and trying to get better. I feel comfortable. Coach Zimmerman does a good job of installing and making sure we’re walking through and doing everything that it takes to know the plays.”
The best indication of which way the coaches are leaning likely will come a week from tonight in the preseason opener at Atlanta.
“They’ve done a good job. They really have,” head coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’ve just got to keep working and keep going. We’ll see what happens when we get to go play live football.”