GEORGETOWN, Ky. — Rey Maualuga showed up for training camp here at the Georgetown College campus Friday looking a lot like his team.
The once and future Bengals middle linebacker has looked around and suddenly realized how things have been torn up in the wake of last season's 4-12 disappointment. His move to the middle exemplifies a club in transition from seasoned and battle-tested to young and hopeful.
"We can't be scared," Maualuga challenged. "We've lost some great players … we have to come in with a different mindset. We can't say, 'We don't have this guy, we don't have that guy.' That's going to kick us back one step further from where we're trying to get to."
The offense is not only revamped with a new coordinator in Jay Gruden and without its two most senior men in quarterback Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, but the defense is adjusting to the loss of left cornerback Johnathan Joseph's 58 starts and a linebacker group looking to replace the 33 starts of injured WILL linebacker Keith Rivers, the 48 starts of free agent Dhani Jones, and the 49 versatile games of nickel backer Brandon Johnson.
"Never. Never seen anything like this in my time in the NFL," said right guard Bobbie Williams, now the offense's most senior as a 2004 member, as he noticed the missing. "Familiar faces that have been here since I've been here. Guys that were staples and cornerstones and personalities. Those were changes they made and they feel like they needed to make them. I'm proud to be on this team. I like what I see."
The players know that's not an outside view. They feel the heat of the criticism that has ripped through this team during the offseason from all corners. In the slow football news cycle of the past four and a half months, the Bengals were the easy story. A messy 4-12 season, Palmer's trade demand, The Ocho's tweets, and three arrests made the 2009 division sweep seem prehistoric.
"To the guys and fans that bagged us, hopefully we can get them back," said cornerback Adam Jones. "This thing is going to be very interesting. We've got a lot of young guys that can really play football … I can't wait. I can't wait to get out there."
Jones is another emblematic of the violent sea change shaking the roster. With offseason moves and rehab slowed by the lockout, it is the most fluid Bengals training camp in recent memory. A few weeks ago it was thought that Jones' second neck surgery for a herniated disc had finished him. Now he says while he won't be ready for two to three weeks, he can do everything but contact and is going to be ready for the Sept. 11 opener in Cleveland.
"Me," said Jones with a big smile when asked how the club can replace Joseph. "Just (kidding). We've got a lot of guys that can play football. J-Joe was a great athlete. He was a great part of our defense. It's going to be hard to replace J-Joe. We've got a lot of young guys that can play football. If we work hard and do what we've got to do, we'll be OK."
The Bengals are working on signing a veteran cornerback as well as seeing what they can get from Jones, third-year player Morgan Trent, and second-year player Brandon Ghee, as well as seventh-rounder Korey Lindsey and journeyman Jonathan Wade. Certainly with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer vowing to look everywhere including Canada for a corner, one must be expected.
It has already happened at backer and on the offensive line. On Friday night the Bengals agreed in principle on a two-year deal with Cardinals right guard Deuce Lutui. On Thursday night the Bengals agreed with Raiders outside linebacker Thomas Howard on a two-year deal to seemingly replace Rivers while he deals with a surgically-repaired wrist that may keep him shelved until October. Both are in-the-prime guys at 28 expected to start after doing it for nearly all of their careers.
With the first practice set for 3 p.m. Saturday, don't move from that roster watch.
Maualuga got a taste of what was in store during the one day the lockout was lifted back in April. Zimmer summoned him to the stadium and told him after two years as the SAM backer he was going back to his natural spot in the middle.
"We don't have the veteran guys we've had at the linebacker spot the last couple of years," Maualuga said. "Somebody has to step up. I'm (ready) to voice what I think is going to happen during camp and what I want to see out of this linebacking group and this defense."
Maualuga says he's ready to return to the spot where he was named a defensive player of the year at USC three years ago. He thinks he'll be able to play faster because he knows so well what the SAM is doing. Even though he was robbed of easing into the middle during spring practices, linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald made sure it wouldn't be a sudden move.
"Last year Coach Fitz put me in with the third stringers (at middle backer) and I was able to get my feet wet, run around and get a feel what Dhani saw for the past three years," Maualuga said. "I just hope I can pick up where he left off. Become that leader. To stand in front of that huddle will be something big. Ten guys looking at me to be a force. To call the play and call it with some urgency and some confidence. I think I'm ready."
Maualuga took notes from his good friend Domata Peko, the guy he helped organize the defense during two weeks of voluntary offseason workouts last month.
"I was just supporting him as his right-hand man," Maualuga said. "Captain two years in a row and probably this third year. I was just trying to learn from him as a leader voicing his opinion and getting the group to where it was two years ago, if not better. … With the leadership that's coming back I think we can bounce back."
Williams went easy on the subject of The Ocho. All he knows is youth has been served and that Gruden has him excited about the offense.
"Whatever you want to call it," said Williams of The Ocho's distractions. "It's a younger locker room. That makes me feel young … we have a lot of talent on this team. I can't wait to see it come together. I'm anxious about that."
Maualuga is too as he looks at himself needing to grow up quickly in the middle of a youth movement.
"All that child's play, put that aside," he said. "And be ready to play some football."