Ja'Marr Chase, who has ordered his own Jugs machine that is due at his house any day now, has no days off these days. Not now as his NFL debut looms Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) at Paul Brown Stadium against Mike Zimmer's Vikings and old LSU friend Justin Jefferson.
It's a mandated off day everywhere around the league if you're playing Sunday. But not if you volunteer and this summer Chase has volunteered to catch everything but COVID in the wake of a rash of drops.
So Sam Staley, the Bengals dogged assistant equipment manager, does what he always does when Chase shows up on off hours. He hauls out the Jugs machine that spits out footballs until the sweat is dripping and that's what was going on this past Tuesday.
The working number is 125 of them and Chase caught them five or six different ways as Staley set him up in the end zone nearest the Bengals locker room. To his left. To his right. Over his head. Lying on the ground.
Just another off day at the office.
All of which is no surprise to another old friend from LSU, Brad Kragthorpe. Kragthorpe, a former LSU backup quarterback and the Bengals assistant wide receivers coach, helped Chase break in as a freshman as a graduate assistant coach in Baton Rouge.
"Elite ball skills and those are skills he still possesses," Kragthorpe said after he had pumped another 100 balls at Chase one day this week. "Not playing for a year has an effect and he's still getting back in the groove and knocking some of the rust off. Just the more reps he gets, the more balls he catches, I don't think there's any doubt he's going to get back to his old self."
Chase figures on the days they do practice, between the Jugs, throws from Kragthorpe, the drills and the plays with quarterback Joe Burrow, the tennis balls against the weight room wall, that's a good 250 balls coming at him a day.
There's going to be a lot more than that once the Jugs machine arrives. He'll have plenty of volunteers to run it for him, starting with his father and brother. Most of his family joined him in Cincinnati last week to ride out Hurricane Ida. Some have gone back, but others are still here. From what he understands their home sustained some damage to the roof, but he has yet to see any of the pictures.
He's pretty much focused on one thing.
"What's stopping us?" Chase wondered to the media earlier this week. "Only thing stopping us is ourselves. It's just me being ahead of the veterans right now and Joe giving me the right read and me running the right route. It's just me and Joe being on the same page and making plays.
Between Burrow and Kragthorpe, Chase is getting plenty of Cajun cooking. On top of the Jugs and Burrow, Kragthorpe is throwing him 100 a day. He says when Chase talks about the NFL ball being bigger and harder to see without the white stripes, "That's real."
"I try to give him a live ball coming off the arm to make it a little more realistic," Kragthorpe said. "(The NFL ball) is a little bit different to track in the air. It's a little bit different when it comes in to hit your hands. I know he likes to use the tennis balls for focus and kind of an aim-small, miss-small mindset.
"It's focusing on the tip of the ball. The point of the ball. That is something that is not different from any football. Just having that laser focus on the point of the ball, the tip of the ball and keeping your eyes on it and not being quick to take your eyes off it and look to run after you catch. Making sure you're 100 percent focused on securing the catch before you make a move."
Even when Chase is not catching, he's catching. You can catch him after a workout talking to a guy as he idly bounces a tennis ball up and down off the floor, almost like a yo-yo. The one thing he has held on to is the playbook. The coaches give him high grades for learning head coach Zac Taylor's system in an offense he has embraced.
"I like the offense because all the receivers move around. We all can run, we all can legit to do anything the other person does," Chase told the press the other day. "In this offense, Zac made it very very detailed so that it should be ran a certain way and if it's ran a certain way it should be executed without a problem. While we are at practice sometimes that's how we know we run the offense, executed the right way we see it on point and make plays like that."
Not only does he have his weekly bet going with Jefferson, his national title tag-team partner, but he's prepping for an intriguing matchup with new Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson. This is the 10th anniversary of Peterson coming out of LSU as the fifth pick in the draft and he's facing this year's fifth pick in Chase.
"I've been watching him for a long time actually," Chase said. "To finally have a chance to go up against him, I would put Patrick Peterson on my highlight tape. I would love to make a play on him, pretty sure he wouldn't be too happy about it be learning some new things about Patrick Peterson and how he plays would probably just make me better so I can't wait to do it."
And the thing with Jefferson, well, the media seems to be obsessed with who is going to do "The Griddy," first and best after they score a touchdown on Sunday. That's the dance that originated in the Crescent City and both made famous in the end zone. But who did it first and best and how it came to be an LSU staple is almost as mysterious as the legend of New Orleans Voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau.
If he's not thinking about catching the ball, he's thinking about how he can celebrate with his new partner.
"Me and Tee Higgins are working on the dap right now so that's the only person I'm going to have a dap with so far," said Chase, determined to drop only names on Sunday.
LOGAN'S RUN: In his second season Logan Wilson becomes the Bengals' sixth middle linebacker in the past seven Opening Days. They believe they have their middle man for years to come.
More importantly, so does he.
"Probably that I can play at this level and play at a high level," Wilson told the media Wednesday about what he learned about himself from his rookie year. "I think I have grown in my confidence in that. Obviously, I've never necessarily lost confidence but it's just different.
"You're going from college, where everyone's the best of the best from their high schools and then you're here, where everyone's the best of the best from college. The number gets even smaller and smaller. So, you just never know how guys are going to pan out. I think I just figured out I can play at this level."
So he knows exactly what the Bengals have to do Sunday. They can't let Vikings 1,500-yard rusher Dalvin Cook go off.
"He's one of the best backs in this league. There's a reason he had like 1,500 yards rushing last year," Wilson said. "He doesn't usually take one guy to tackle him so we've got to be sure we're gang tackling to stop him. He's a problem, but we're looking forward to it."
The Bengals have committed hundreds of millions on fixing a defense that has allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL the past three seasons. Cook is going to give them some quick returns about their investment. Defensive end Sam Hubbard, who has been here for all three years, counts Wilson and his corps of linebackers as big reasons they're going to be better against the run.
"I think we've got a lot of guys on the inside. We added Larry (Ogunjobi). We've got Josh Tupou back," Hubbard said of two defensive tackles that weren't here last year. "We've got big guys up in the middle and some young linebackers that have really matured and who have a feel for the defense and the scheme.
"We're trying to just jell together and everyone knows where they're supposed to be. It really has just been a process to get where we are right now. It didn't happen overnight. You felt like it would with all that work we put in, but it was really a process to keep growing together as a unit and I feel like we're probably getting there."
The way Wilson sees it, it's been such a long haul because of last year's in-person restrictions.
"It's what comes when you have more experience and you can gain more confidence in what you're doing and the defensive coverage that we have," Wilson said. "That takes time, and last year was a weird year with COVID and not being able to do any of OTAs, everything on Zoom. I learn best by doing it. There are only so many Xs and Os you can do. What works best is to go out there and actually go through the process of it all, make a mistake, learn from that mistake and not really let that happen again. We didn't have that last year, and we did this year. That's why."
While Hubbard is looking at the backers, Wilson is looking at the line.
"We've got guys up front that can prevent the offensive line from getting as much push against us," Wilson said. "That definitely helps. As linebackers we've been in the system for ever how many years. We know now when to fit, how to fit vs. certain runs and I just think with experience you become more comfortable."