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Fresh start

Roy Williams

Posted: 6:30 a.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is taking the fifth these days when it comes to his five-time Pro Bowler.

"People are going to say I'm biased, that he's my guy," Zimmer said Tuesday of Roy Williams after practice. "I'm out of it. Don't ask me. Ask the secondary coaches. That's what I've asked them to do. Kevin (Coyle) and Louie (Cioffi). I want them to let me know how they think he's doing."

What we do know is this:

» Williams showed up here two weeks ago as the Bengals starting strong safety at 217 pounds, even lighter than when he was called "Superman" at Oklahoma and he was the NFL's eighth draft pick in 2002. After the scrimmage and Mock Game this past Monday, he was 218.

» Williams turns 29 Friday, the night he begins his Bengals career in the preseason opener at New Orleans and even though the Bengals haven't had many one-on-one drills yet, Coyle says Williams has been running well enough to stay stride-for-stride with wide receivers on the outside.

» When he had the chance to go home in July, Williams opted to listen to The Zimmer Telegram ("This is the most important five weeks of your career") and concentrate on staying in shape. Strength coach Chip Morton hooked up Williams with Clif Marshall's program at Ignition in Cincinnati's northern suburbs and he basically went through two-a-days.

"I talked to him the other day and asked him how he liked Cincinnati," said Alecia, Williams' sister. "He said he liked it. He said, 'My hangout is Wal-Mart.' I think he got too relaxed in Dallas. This is what he needed. It reminds me when he first got to Dallas. He's getting his swagger back."

This we also know: Williams is extremely close to his family.

It was watching his older sister try to raise son Jaylen alone that inspired Williams to start his Safety Net Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping single mothers. On the first day of training camp in what he hopes is a season that revives his career, the foundation launched the One Million Gives (OMG) campaign with the idea of convincing a million people to donate $1 or more.

"I wanted people to know that their donation does count," Williams said. "We'll take more, but we'll take four quarters, 10 dimes, even a dollar."

The drive, really, sums up Williams's bid to reclaim his presence as the most feared defender in the NFL. He's doing it from the ground up with a one-year deal and a commitment that has erased 18 pounds from the day he signed just before the start of on-field workouts back in May.

He'd probably say he's not done anything spectacular yet on the field. There were no Pro Bowl hits in Friday's scrimmage, yet he'd probably also say he's making steady progress after being out of the game for virtually a year with an arm injury that limited him to three games last season.

There have been some toasty moments in practices Williams has given up some pass plays, but even though Zimmer thinks he can cover, who's to say Williams will find himself in those situations during games?

But you have to get the non-Zimmer view.

"With him being down (in weight), he's running better," Coyle said. "But the thing that separates him is his anticipation. It's really good. He continues to get good breaks and he's able to close on the ball in the air. He reads the quarterback well, but he doesn't over-commit. He's a step or two ahead of other guys because of his ability to read the quarterback and move.

"He started out really well, but I think like a lot of guys he's trying to get his legs under him and he will when we get back to the single sessions."

Williams and Zimmer, the defensive coordinator that drafted him for the Cowboys and was his coach for four of his Pro Bowls, have both heard the screams of fan unhappiness in Dallas and Cincinnati. He can't cover. He gives up too many big passes. And how can the Bengals justify giving Williams the job ahead of an emerging young player in Chinedum Ndukwe?

Zimmer shakes his head. He used to offer up examples of big plays in coverage against quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb in must-win division games, but no more.

Zimmer is now waiting for the games and it's just as well. Williams has made it clear he wants the past behind him. When he reported to camp he said he had no more interest in the goings-on in Dallas, where teammate Greg Ellis once accused him of isolating himself from his teammates. 

And when he was told the NFL officials had arrived here last week making the "Horse Collar Rule" a point of emphasis, he didn't like being reminded there is a rule named after him. Williams became associated with the play when his tackling style resulted in four injuries during the 2004 season and the play was then banned. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined him three years later for using it again.

It is apparently not that nice to have a rule named after you.

"I don't care about it anymore. It's over and done with. It's a rule now, you have to abide by the rules. It is what it is," Williams said. "It's not fun because I got labeled a dirty player and all these other things that come with that. I'm so not that. It's not a cool thing because you get fined and labeled a dirty player, which I'm not. It's not cool. Just making a play. Point blank."

The Bengals, meanwhile, were and are still mystified about that vibe coming out of Dallas because Williams has done everything asked and more. He's mixed with the DBs and is always talking to teammates on Twitter.

Cornerback Leon Hall, whose mother died when he was 12, has wanted to start a foundation similar to Williams's that puts on seminars, focuses on health, and conducts a college tour, among other things, for single moms.

"I knew about that when he first got here and when I talked to Coach Coyle, the first thing he mentioned was the foundation," Hall said. "I've already talked to him for a little bit about it and I'm going to go to him again because he's got the experience."

Williams may have been nicknamed "Superman," but when he opens his mouth, he's more Clark Kent. He's soft spoken, ends his answers with "Sir," and reveals a faith-based philosophy.

Marshall, who would occasionally stop by Williams's condo to put him through a night workout, was shocked one day last month at his gym to see a five-time Pro Bowler picking up trash and collecting cones before leading a bunch of young athletes in prayer.

"Roy's a good guy; a positive guy on and off the field," Hall said. "I'm going to try and get on his coattails (for the foundation) and he's a big help on the field. He's a veteran. He knows the tendencies of offenses and he helps the younger guys like me and J-Joe (Johnathan Joseph) and the other safeties."

When her younger brother came to her about forming the foundation back in 2004, Alecia wasn't quite sure what to think. Now it's expanding to a Cincinnati chapter.

"Roy's a jokester, so I didn't think he was at all serious," Alecia said. "But he kept talking about it and he showed me what he wanted to do and it was 'Wow.' I try to stay involved by helping the interview process so I can get a bond with the mothers."

Alecia works in Chicago, where she is raising Jaylen and keeping track of her brother's fresh start. She says Williams has been pretty humble since the game in high school he showed up "acting cocky and wearing his socks high like Deion Sanders and he didn't have a very good game," she said. "His dad came out of the stands after the game and cussed him out and since then he says, 'If you ever see me get too big like that, just pull me over to the side.' "

She couldn't resist teasing him. It seems his mother, aunt and uncle are making the trip from California for his birthday and they'll be waiting for him when he gets back from New Orleans.

"They spoil him," she said.

For a fresh start, all's fair.

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