Cody Core can't wait to play some defense.
The Bengals come out of the first two weeks of the preseason quietly encouraged for a variety of reasons. You can start with the flash and dash of rookies Joe Mixon at running back and Carl Lawson at pass rusher, trace the comeback of one-time Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and the steady symbiosis of franchise staples A.J. Green at wide receiver and Andy Dalton at quarterback.
And as they prepare for Friday night's pre-season opener at Paul Brown Stadium (7:30-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against Tampa Bay, there is the sense that several of their first- and second-year players have taken steps from where they were and made their team as fast as it's ever been.
Guys like cornerbacks William Jackson, Darqueze Dennard and KeiVarae Russell, wide receivers Tyler Boyd, Cody Core, and Alex Erickson, linebacker Nick Vigil, safety Clayton Fejedelem, and running back Tra Carson have caught the eye at one time or another at training camp. It's tougher to tell in the trenches, but young tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher look more equipped mentally and physically.
One place you'll be able to see if they do indeed have that speed and depth is when special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons strips the field clean in the kicking game and everyone is exposed on the perimeter. The 6-3, 215-pound Core radiates what Simmons is seeking Friday in the kicking game from his young breed.
"I like it. Just being aggressive and physical and running down field showing my speed on film. Scaring opponents," Core says. "And we get to show everybody how sound we are on special teams."
Teams are always where the final five to seven spots of a roster are decided, anyway. Just ask Erickson, who went from an undrafted free agent to the AFC kick return champion only because he was virtually untackable last preseason returning punts.
Erickson has some advice for this year's rookies trying to get a roster foothold or practice squad offer. (Read guys like linebackers Hardy Nickerson and Brandon Bell, safety Demetrious Cox, wide receiver Josh Malone):
"Don't be surprised by the speed of the game," Erickson says. "You're going to be surprised by something out there, but how do you come back from it? How do you respond? Just relax and go play your game. You never know when you're going to get that first rep. It might be the fourth quarter."
But Friday is not only a first look, it is also the unveiling of the emerging next generation core of special teamers led by Erickson and Fejedelem in the wake of the departures of leading tacklers Rex Burkhead and James Wright. This camp has also displayed the versatile importance of third-year defensive back Josh Shaw. Not only does he play cornerback, slot corner, and safety, he starts on all four phases in the kicking game, including the vital role of gunner with Dennard as the first guys down covering punts.
Josh Shaw: emerging as a special teams leader.
Shaw, a 2015 fourth-rounder out of USC, has told Simmons and mates such as Core that his goal is to be the AFC's Pro Bowl special teamer. He also knows a certain kind of torch has been passed.
"If that's my role. Depending which special teams. If it's gunner, I want to be one of the best gunners in the league. We'll see what happens. I embrace my role," Shaw says. "I want to be accountable to these guys … I want to show the young guys in our gunner room. It's pretty young. Be a good example for all of them because I know the first thing they see is me out there. I try to set a high standard for how I practice.
"When I was a rookie I thought I could just go out there and do a little something and get down the field," Shaw says. "It's not that easy. You'll get hemmed up at the line, so I'm just trying to tell these guys it's not a game. Practice at it now."
Shaw has seen leadership from guys like the long-time special teams co-captains; running back Cedric Peerman and linebacker Vincent Rey, players still very much entrenched, although Peerman (hamstring) has yet to play this camp. Shaw is also is lift for Simmons because of the uniqueness of a corner playing on all four teams.
And uniqueness is why Simmons is eying Core. He has a knack for finding another rare bird, a wide receiver that can cover kicks. Here's another teams torch passing that began a decade ago in the days of Kevin Walter and Tab Perry and has continued with Wright and Andrew Hawkins.
You don't think you can play both gunner and receiver?
"Kevin Walter and Hawk got big deals to play receiver," Simmons remembers of those free-agent deals with Houston and Cleveland respectively.
Core, looking for scrimmage time as a fleet outside receiver to complement starters A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell, came into training camp as OTAs most improved player and wearing shoulder pads hasn't decreased his GPS speed in practices. He and Green continue to be at the top as August grinds on. He certainly has the mentality of a gunner, which he played in one regular-season game last year.
"I love it. I love to show my defensive skills" says Core, the former Ole Miss safety. "You know how football players act like they can play basketball? It's kind of like that. Offensive players like to show they can play defense."
Simmons, who walked out of the draft room a few months ago, smiling with the addition of all this speed, is waiting. There's fast and there's playing fast.
"We've got numbers," Simmons says. "Let's see how they play."
Cincinnati Bengals host Training Camp at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields 8/9/2017