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New day for Who Dey Rey

Rey Maualuga

The position belongs to the cerebral and relentless Dhani Jones at middle linebacker, but the quote belongs to another linebacker, Hall of Famer Junior Seau.

Rey Maualuga heard him say at a camp, "I cannot be great today. But I can always get better than I was."

"That's the quote to learn from," Maualuga said one day this week, finally back on the field full bore and gore.

And that's pretty much what the Bengals middle linebacker of the future has been doing ever since his promising rookie year was cut short two weeks before the playoffs when he snapped his fibula.


Class opens in Sunday's 7 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Broncos (11:30 p.m. on Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the offseason from hell and the scrum for redemption finally ends. Maualuga figures to start at SAM backer and he'll appear more in some packages as a middle backer than he did last season. He is, admittedly, a different player.

"Same person. Same guy. Different attitude. It's just my mind is a lot sharper," Maualuga said. "I'm a football player. It's a business. I don't want to make excuses. Last year, I went out all the time. It's just excuses. I'm just a lot more focused."

It's been one thing or another for one of the most popular Bengals despite a DUI shortly after the season. One of the reasons Maualuga is so popular (check the camp autograph throngs) is that he wears his heart on his tattoos and after he took full responsibility for the January incident, he made no bones about checking into a rehab center for monthlong treatment.

"No question," said linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerlad, "his heart is in the right place."

Then when the healing of the leg had a complication, Maualuga needed another procedure that wiped out the last month of spring workouts. Cleared for training camp, he pulled his hamstring in the first week of camp and missed last Sunday's preseason opener.

Finally, he gets to play in a game since getting hurt against the Chiefs in the next to last game of last season. And it was a solid season with 15 starts and 80 tackles even though he had never played SAM. Maualuga had two forced fumbles in one of the biggest wins of the Marvin Lewis era on the road in Green Bay in Week 2, but those were his only turnovers. He was very active sideline-to-sideline, but he knows he had no interceptions and no fumble recoveries.

"Turnovers are key. I didn't do anything last year," Maualuga said of explosive plays. "Study your opponent. Know the places where they like to run. Be at the spot before they get there.

"I studied somewhat (last season). But mostly it was, 'See the ball, get the ball.' I knew what I was doing out there. If I wasn't, then I wouldn't have been playing. But this year I'll be a lot more quicker to the ball. I'll be a lot more smarter. Not living the lifestyle I lived last year, I'll get more rest."

It's old news that Maualuga is sober. What is new is that sober regimen he's employed and plans to use this season.

"I don't go out as much. I hang out at my place with friends; just kick back," he said. "Watch TV. I have the rest of my life ahead of me to do what I want to do. Football, to give it all that you have for the next couple of years. That's how you have to play them."

No regrets still, Maualuga said. He made that clear the week after he got out of rehab and put a tattoo down the left side of his torso, "Never Regret anything Because at one point it was exactly what you wanted."

Now that he's home more, he's watching a lot of TV. Mostly truTV. "Police chases. Operation Repo," he said. That's about right. Maualuga is about as real as they come. He says the way he feels and tells kids not to do what he did. And the way the Bengals feel, they think he's going to be the real deal.

Eventually at middle linebacker. But not yet. At 33, Jones is still Mike Zimmer's eyes and ears and Maualuga just hasn't had the practice time this season. He knows. He's truTV.

"I'm not there yet. There's a lot I need to learn," he said. "There's a lot of things I need to talk to Dhani about. See what he can teach me. The crazy thing about it is he says he's been playing for 11 years and he's still learning. Things like that, it catches me like, 'Wow.' ''

But you'll see Maualuga at middle backer here and there against the Broncos and the rest of the preseason in certain packages, like on third down.

"I hope Coach puts me in there to see what I can do," he said and FitzGerald says don't worry.

"He's going to play a lot of football for us. Whereabouts he's going to play, he's working at a couple of different positions," FitzGerald said. "He'll play in the third-down package at mike. All the third-down stuff he can play. We worked him some last year, but he didn't play. We'll see how he develops. He's been out, he's been on, he's been off, and we don't have a whole lot of platform from last year. Some of this stuff he's coming back to and relearning it and reorienting himself."

FitzGerald loves what the guy has done to his body in the weight room over the offseason. Like most rookies, he noticed Maualuga didn't have a particularly good body coming in, but he has worked at it enough that to FitzGerald's eye it looks like he has started to physically mature and he's also noticed a newfound confidence to match.

"He wants inherently to be a leader, but you have to establish yourself before anybody is going to allow you to lead," FitzGerald said. "And he's in that process right now and he's doing it by doing the right thing, playing good ball, knowing his job, and doing the best he can to be a great teammate."

They always say position groups are "tight knit," but you have to believe it with these backers. One day at camp this week they were the last group to break for a meal and basically the only people in the cafeteria, but most of them were jammed around one table.

Maualuga is learning from Jones. On the field, the 6-7 Michael Johnson from Selma, Ala., mimics the moves of another tall linebacker from 'Bama, Birmingham's 6-5 Brandon Johnson. Off the field, they're, close, too. Everybody is back for another year intact. Just like the rest of a defense Maualuga says is in charge of its own destiny.

"Everyone has a year under their belts. Everyone has a year more experience than last year," Maualuga said. "We were good last year, but we can feed off that and find out what helped us from being great. Everyone just has to realize how good of a defense we can be. If we can all trigger that into perspective, the sky's the limit. But you can't sit around and talk about it if you don't do it."

It is almost like Maualuga is almost talking about himself. Like truTV, it doesn't matter if it is SAM or middle backer.

"Everybody has a different set of goals," he said. "(For me) as far making a certain number of tackles to lead the team in a certain category, or to make the Pro Bowl. My goal last year was just to start. But I wasn't satisfied at the end. This year, the only thing that can stop me from getting to where I want to be is me."

On Sunday, just getting back to the field is relief enough. For a start.

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