After spending virtually all of his rookie season injured and in exile, Shaun Prater calls himself "The Invisible Man." He's still more recognizable in his Iowa uniform than the stripes.
But his car, the one he drove while playing 48 games at the University of Iowa, is very much on display. It is an '05 Dodge Stratus with 80,000 on the odometer and a goal on the windshield.
"I want to play and start and start accomplishing my goals before I even think about buying anything serious like a car," Prater says. "I have to start establishing myself before I do anything that drastic."
Take a look at The Invisible Man.
First of all, Prater likes drastic.
He dabbles in UFC-type workouts and harbors thoughts of a post-career stint in the ring. If he doesn't become a secret agent first.
He beat his twin Shane into the world by 20 seconds and they came kicking into sports as little kids when they saw martial arts legend Bruce Lee take down the bad guys in the movie "Enter The Dragon." Their father, a 19th-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians back in Bruce Lee's '70s, would come downstairs and stop the twins from leaping on coaches and kicking over lamps.
"I'd love to go work for the FBI," Prater says. "Both of us want to do something dangerous, exciting. A secret agent. The Navy. Or SWAT. We're people that love to take risks. It makes us feel alive instead of working 9 to 5 at a desk."
Sounds like a Marvin Lewis/Mike Zimmer kind of corner that can dole out the punishment while also being smart enough to not get himself killed. He's got all the qualities of a nickel corner, but the coaches think he can play all over.
It also sounds like the Bengals aren't going to be quite as risky as the Prater twins. They like their crew of young and promising cornerbacks, such as Prater, a fifth-round pick, and his more celebrated draft mate, first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick, as well as 2010 third-rounder Brandon Ghee.
Yet all of them are unknowns and unproven and that's why one of Cincinnati's first courses of action when free agency starts next week is re-signing veteran cornerbacks Terence Newman and Adam Jones to line up with Leon Hall.
The 5-10, 190-pound Prater knows better than anyone how far he has to go.
"Last year was miserable," he says. "I'd be done with meetings by noon and I was home walking my dog and playing Call of Duty. I'd be in the meetings and guys would say to me, 'What are you doing here? We're sick of looking at you.' "
But now that his knee has been healthy since the 10th week of last season after a bout with patella tendinitis and this week he is beginning the daily workout grind at Ignition Athletics in Mason, Ohio, this is a guy that intrigues the Bengals. Even though they saw very little of Prater before he went on injured reserve during the second week of training camp, he impressed with his intelligence, strength to play press corner, and movement to cover.
Clif Marshall, Ignition's director, has already had to adjust to Prater's Type A approach. When they were doing ball skills, Prater asked that Marshall speed up the drill because "that's the way I play: up tempo. I play with energy."
Prater fits easily into the Lewis/Zimmer mold. A lot of production (seven picks, two for TDs in his career and four forced fumbles in his senior year) in a big conference during a lot of snaps (35 starts), and a willingness to hit (171 career tackles) for a defense that played a lot of different coverages.
"They play a lot of quarters coverage, which we like to play," Lewis said when the Bengals drafted Prater. "He has a couple of things that will be able to transfer well. We feel good about how well he played on special teams overall, and as an outside gunner in particular. He will be able to compete for all those spots here."
The Bengals also like the fact Prater takes it seriously. When Lewis recommended that the injured guys stick around for the meetings Prater says, "If he recommends it, you do it."
"We all take it seriously. That's how I grew up. Football family," he says. "Four boys and a girl. My dad was a pitcher for the Indians (in the minors) before he blew out his shoulder and my mom was a big-time track star in high school."
Shane, a wide receiver, went to Iowa with Shaun but transferred after his freshman year and is now at Texas-Kingsville. Nate was a tight end at Kansas State and another brother, Randy Hopkins, played in their hometown at Omaha-Nebraska.
One of the reasons Prater hung around for his senior season is that the Hawkeyes were scheduled to play Nebraska, a school that failed to recruit him from its own backyard. There were other reasons he stayed in Iowa City, liked mixed signals from NFL teams about where he'd be drafted. But it was quite satisfying that the new Nebraska staff, the one that didn't make the call on him, spent pregame telling Prater how much they wished they had him.
But when Iowa sent him to cornerback as a freshman, Prater was a bit taken aback after playing linebacker/safety at Omaha's Central High School. No problem. He started wearing out the biggest names on YouTube.
"I had no idea how to play corner," he says. "I'm a football junkie. I watched Deion Sanders for his man coverage, Darrelle Revis for his press coverage. Off technique from Champ Bailey."
Prater thought it was Christmas when his college coach handed out pro tape and he watched enough of the Bengals corners to give this pretty sharp breakdown of current Texans Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph:
"He had the system down. He felt comfortable making some gambles. Playing soft Cover 2, that was one of his favorites, where he'd bait the quarterback."
No surprise, then, that Prater watched tape of Hall at Michigan, as well as for the Bengals. And while his injury-bit rookie year gnaws at him, Prater admits watching Newman in his 10th NFL season and Hall and Jones in their sixth seasons filled a notebook.
Newman: "Especially Newman. Just for him to come in so quickly and pick up the system. Just being patient and having an open mind. It's kind of different going from college, where I was always coaching up people, to now I have to listen and you have to trust your teammates."
Hall: "Leon shows you always have to know exactly what you have to do before the ball is snapped. Having the quick mind, having the quick trigger. If you're playing the nickel and the guy goes in motion, you have to say, 'That is my motion' and be able to react fast."
Jones: "Feisty guy. Don't ever back down from anyone. Always be aggressive. Play with passion and play with energy."
Prater knows his scouting report is a blank piece of paper. But as sure as that Dodge rumbles into the night, he plans to write it.
"If I have a broken leg," he says, "I'm going to play this year."