Remember Class of '12?

Posted Jul 22, 2013

If you're looking for a depth-chart-diamond-in-the-rough-upstart-underdog, check out George Iloka's bid for not only the 53-man roster but the starting job opposite Reggie Nelson.

George Iloka

When it comes to draft classes, the one to naturally watch when the Bengals open training camp Thursday is the current one with two projected offensive regulars right at the top in tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard.

But the class before it is also one to eye for the impact it can have in the secondary, led by the comeback bid of 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick at cornerback.

Yet if you're looking for a depth-chart-diamond-in-the-rough-upstart-underdog, check out George Iloka's bid for not only the 53-man roster but the starting job opposite Reggie Nelson.

The 6-4, 225-pound Iloka, another one of Cincinnati's giant safeties, had an eye-opening spring following last season's seven-game apprenticeship on special teams. After taking notes from veterans Chris Crocker and Nate Clements, Iloka committed to committing to the playbook to memory this offseason with tutors Mark Carrier, the Bengals secondary coach, and Adam Zimmer, Carrier's new assistant.

"If he couldn't find me, then he'd find Adam and he did a great job transferring the board to the field," Carrier says. "You can see that he was really learning the ins and outs of the defense. We gave him extra reps and he put in a lot of extra time and had a productive spring."

Iloka, one of the three Bengals fifth-round picks in 2012, had the healthiest year of the trio. Iowa cornerback Shaun Prater, the first one to go in the fifth, ended up on injured reserve with a bad knee early in training camp. Wide receiver Marvin Jones and Iloka came in the last two picks of the fifth, gifts from the Super Bowl contestants Patriots (for Chad Johnson) and Giants (for Keith Rivers), respectively, and Jones missed most of four games with a knee injury before catching 18 passes.

Now Jones is in the mix to start and Prater, whose heady, aggressive play in the slot has impressed the club, has a shot at sticking on the 53.

And there is Iloka, who played in the Wild Card playoff after logging two special teams tackles during the regular season. Part of 50 wins in his 45 starts at Boise State, Iloka says they came while he played both free and strong safety, a safety prerequisite for head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

"Everything has slowed down," Iloka says. "Everything last year was so fast. I didn't pick it up as quickly as I needed to, but everything has slowed down now and that's what you want. Once you get in the league, it's how fast you can play; if you can process things mentally. You can be a 4.3 guy, but if you're moving at 5 flat, you're going to be slow."

Iloka paid particular attention to Crocker's return last year. With DBs dropping like flies and none of the safety prospects panning out, the Bengals got Crocker off the street the week before the fourth game of the year. Iloka didn’t miss the fact that despite not being on a field in eight months Crocker came up with the secondary's first interception of the season.

"This is crazy," Iloka recalls thinking. "He was in the right spot. His technique and his reads were right. You make plays by doing what you're supposed to do.

"This is a very complex defense. You have to be technically sound and know the playbook inside and out. To have a year in the system, it gives me the ability to be more confident in making checks and then just relying on my athletic ability to go out there and make plays."

Carrier says the most revealing part of Iloka's progress in the playbook has come in recognizing pass routes.

"When we're in our coverages," Carrier says, "he's able to pick the route and understand where he needs to be when the route is run. That takes time."

But now the pads come on and everyone has to answer questions in pads. Iloka is going to have to show the physicality he had at Boise, where he was among the club's top five tacklers in each of his four seasons.

"One thing we talked about with him is for him to be more of a physical presence, starting with special teams," Carrier says. "Our safeties are a big part of special teams. If he's going to be a part of this team, it starts there, and he understands what he has to do."

Iloka also understands the big chance looming in front of him. The spot opposite Nelson is vacant.

"It could be anyone," Iloka agrees. "I have do whatever I have to do to make that me."

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