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How Turner The Burner And Big Play Ray Teamed Up To Make A Budding Bengals Rookie Of The Year   

CB DJ Turner II holds the ball during the Steelers-Bengals game in Week 12 of the 2023 season at Paycor Stadium.
CB DJ Turner II holds the ball during the Steelers-Bengals game in Week 12 of the 2023 season at Paycor Stadium.

Ray Buchanan, who taught himself to play a dozen seasons on the NFL corner, has been schooling Bengals rookie cornerback DJ Turner II for a decade in the offseasons and thinks the next few years are going to be quite good for him.

"He's a ninja," Buchanan says. "This is just the beginning. There's no telling where he'll be his sixth or seventh year."

Turner The Burner is coming off his break-out game heading into the Jaguars' den of dash Monday night (8:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 9, ESPN) in Jacksonville. The veterans in his secondary are saying his brew of SEC speed and Michigan spit-and-polish has Pro Bowl potential written all over it. At the moment, he's the Bengals Rookie of the Year, right?

"That explains a lot," says a vet DB when told Turner has been working with a long-time NFL cornerback for so much of his career. As he does most weeks, Buchanan dropped a text of support and counsel. He can sense Turner is frustrated as he pursues that first NFL interception.

"You can't force it," Buchanan is saying this week. "Believe what you see."

Buchanan, who calls his coaching, "pouring it in,"  should know. He had 47 picks before he settled as a trainer in Atlanta, where he played for seven seasons. He retired 20 years ago and still has the 10th most interceptions since 1990, tied with last year's Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Ronde Barber and one fewer than his mentor Deion Sanders.

"I took swag from Prime," says Buchanan, who bonded with Sanders at his one Pro Bowl. "And film study can make you that much more confident. Whatever you  can see and mimic.

"I'm not being critical, but you see some of these guys and you think they should be watching more film than always out there training."

Buchanan has known Turner since the seventh grade and worked with him since eighth grade and still gets "Yes sirs," and "No sirs." It didn't take long for him to see that Drago had it. That stunning ability to mimic when he brought him in with his pro players.

"DJ catching on so freaking fast. That's what really blew my mind how fast he caught on. There were pros that didn't catch on that fast," Buchanan says.  "If you tell him something, he can mimic it. That quality is very key because coaches know you're coachable. They tell you to do things and you mimic it and after repetition it becomes habit."

And then there's the personality. Turner is a stoic.

"He has always had the utmost respect," Buchanan says. "He has great parents. The way they operate, how they communicate, how they are as people. He'd get frustrated at times. I'd tell him, 'Hey, you're not the only one. Trust in the process.' Never talks back. Doesn't say much. He's a ninja. Do what you have to do and leave. But don't let him get a pick. Then you might see a different side."

This is the same side Bengals cornerbacks coach Charles Burks has seen since Turner arrived in the spring's second round from Ann Arbor.  He cares and longs to be great, still attending Burks' early morning off-day rookie meetings. After Turner's warp speed prevented two Steelers' touchdowns last Sunday in a game he also plucked his first NFL turnover off the ground, Burks says his success has not surprised him.

"It's important to him and it's been important to him," Burks says. He's extremely intelligent. Everything we've thrown at him he's picked up fairly quickly and he's improving on his deficiencies."

Burks also showed him tape of the second pass defensed at the goal line, that third-down play in the red zone where Turner blurred into the frame at just the right instant on the goal line to knock away a pass.

"What we always say in our room," Burks says, "the PBU, the pass-break-up, is good. The interception is great. And we're looking for great."

Check in with Turner this week and he doesn't want to talk about his big game.

"I need a pick," says Turner, who has five passes defensed.

Slot cornerback Mike Hilton gets it. He's got 11 picks and still remembers that first one. Six years ago. Off Joe Flacco in Baltimore.

"Rookies want that first one," Hilton says. "I think he can be one of the top guys in the league. With his speed, it's hard to get past him. That separates him from a lot of guys."

Buchanan had no idea Turner was going to pop the best 40-yard dash time at this year's NFL Scouting Combine and he knew his game as well as anybody. But those 4.27 seconds proved what he knew.

"Running the perfect 40 at the perfect time. Going to the right nutrionist. Taking care of your body, not beating it up with combine drills," Buchanan says. "He did everything he was supposed to do leading up to that.

"DJ did everything. It goes to show you he's not arrogant. He's confident in himself. He has the will to compete. You have to have heart. You don't have to coach it."

Hilton, also a suburban Atlanta guy, has been working with Buchanan for the last four offseasons. When the Bengals drafted Turner, Buchanan knew he was in good hands simply because he knew Hilton, a perfectionist starting drills from scratch when he feels a mistake.

"Take him under your wing, Mike," Buchanan told him. "He's a great kid. It's different in the pros. Watch film with him."

Hilton, the oldest Bengals cornerback at 29, has come through with the youngest, Turner at 23. Buchanan has helped both of them.

"Big Play Ray," says Hilton of the man who had three pick-sixes in his first season playing cornerback, which was his second year in the NFL. "It's a big help working with a guy who played in the league so long at a high level. And he went from safety to cornerback, which shows you his athleticism and his ability to (learn)."

Instead of moaning about going to more Pro Bowls, Buchanan watched the guys who always went. He saw how Deion baited receivers into certain routes. He watched Aeneas Williams' balletic feet, looked at Rod Woodson's bruising play, and studied how Darrell Green lasted so long. He sees the same ability to grind in Turner.

"I just put my head down," Buchanan says. "DJ's quiet. He's a worker. But he's got a personality. We joke pretty hard and he gives it back. That's how I know he's got a good personality."

Burks knows his guys have to give as good as they get Monday against the speedy Jags. But they like what they've got. If they can get cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (quad/ankle) from limited to the gate, they've got three secondary starters breaking 4.4 seconds in the 40.

"We can't wait," Burks says.

Turner isn't waiting. He's making his move.

"He caught on fast," says Buchanan, making another big play. "Now he's reaping the benefits."