It took a couple of days in December to remember why the Bengals took Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams with the 11th pick in April.
First, there was the HBO special earlier in the week documenting the relationship between his college coach, Nick Saban, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. In one snippet from the Alabama pro day before the draft, Belichick could be heard asking Saban who is his best player and Saban told him, "Jonah Williams."
Then came word Thursday that Williams would be back at practice for the first time since tearing up his shoulder in a June practice. He won't be able to play against Belichick Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium or against anybody else this season, but he's preparing like he is. Not only can he tell you about Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy, he can tell his teammates about him.
"Their whole defense has really talented guys," Williams said before that return practice. "They run their scheme really well. They run a lot of twists and things with their defense upfront and I think they are really good at executing."
Williams developed a reputation at Alabama for his NFL-like habits that included meticulous preparation for his opponents. That certainly has translated. Before the Bengals played San Francisco in Week Two, Williams was talking to Bengals assistant offensive line coach Ben Martin about how 49ers terror Nick Bosa uses a certain move with his feet. Martin told him to put his observations in a report and that's continued each week with Williams checking out the opponents' defensive ends and submitting it to Martin.
"He's as advertised," said Martin, impressed by the pie charts that have accompanied some of Williams' weekly observations. "He's obviously very detailed. For him to take that much energy, effort and time into the Bengals is fantastic. Yeah, it's his job, but he hasn't taken the traditional injured reserve path. He's here every day. He's in the meetings. He's inquisitive. He's found a role in what has to have been a tough year for him. I can't wait to see him on the field."
Although he'll miss his rookie year, you can't miss how important he is in the Bengals' plans. Offensive line coach Jim Turner has a nice big, soft chair in his meeting room and Williams ended up in it when he arrived after the draft. He's still in it as the Bengals transition into next season.
It doesn't look like he's going to do much else this season. He's only been cleared to do individual drills and he won't reach the six-month mark for his surgery until the last week of the year. But he had a Game Day smile on his face after Thursday's walk through.
"Yeah they were joking, 'Who's this new guy,' that type of thing," Williams said. "It's been cool. I want to be part of the O-line with my team and it's hard to feel like that when you are on the sideline watching. I'm in every meeting and watching every practice, but it's different than being out there and going through the drills and all of that stuff with your teammates, so I'm excited personally to be one of them again."
If you think it's been a tough year for everyone involved, just imagine how tough it's been for Williams.
"It's a mental battle for sure. I'd never missed a start in college, never really missed any starts in high school," he said. "I was just not used to not having that light at the end of the tunnel. It kind of gets down to not being immediate gratification, kind of saying, 'OK, well, I'm going to be here every single day. I have the same opportunity as everyone else when I go home,' so whether that applies to this year or next year, I'm going to make the most out of that and not waste a year."
Martin is a little bit uncomfortable calling him a "G.A.," short for the graduate assistant in college who does it all. Martin has been there plenty of times, from Division III to Division I and says, "We don't treat him like that." But Williams loves it because he'd be doing it anyway and he needs to do it.
"I'm here for everything. I'm here for everything the team does," Williams said. "Then I do other stuff on my own with the strength coaches and the training staff and things like that. I put as much time in as anyone else and then some, because I'm trying, but it's what I can do right now.
"Providing that to the coaches is kind of like me being a G.A. of sorts. I do try to prepare for everything, because I'm in every meeting, I'm at every practice. I have the same I-pad with the same film as everyone else on the team, so I just take it as an opportunity to take mental reps as if I were playing."
Some of his observations in what is not a lost year:
On the best defensive ends he's seen this year: "There are a lot of good ones as far as talent goes. Between Bosa and Chandler Jones, those two are pretty talented guys. That whole Niners D-line is really talented. (T.J.) Watt and (Bud) Dupree are really solid players from Pittsburgh."
On Myles Garrett, even though he didn't play last week for Cleveland and won't in two weeks: "I didn't (scout him) because he was suspended the week we were playing them. But I've watched him a lot. We played him my freshman year when we played Texas A&M, so he's been a stud since then."
On the best defensive ends he faced at Bama: "There were a lot. I played a lot of good defensive ends in the SEC. Just my last year, I played (Montez) Sweat and (Clelin) Ferrell. They were both first-round guys and are really solid players. Those are probably the two (best) guys I faced last year."
On wide receiver A.J. Green, the one player who has been sidelined almost as long as he has: "He's an awesome dude and works really hard. Pretty much every time I come in on an off day or super early or super late, he's always here working. I think it's a good example of how to handle the treatment and all that stuff."