Wall ball

Taylor Mays

When you play at USC, you walk past The Wall every day before practice.

A framed parade of every All-American. And since Taylor Mays plays safety, he made sure he touched the trinity of Ronnie Lott, Troy Polamalu and, with all its hidden irony of a Trojan Horse that would one day be unveiled, Mark Anthony Carrier III.

"M.C. won The Thorpe ... he's the only guy from 'SC to win it. I'm a little jealous," Mays jokes. "Those three. Everybody had a routine. That was my routine. I wanted to win The Thorpe like him. ... You want those guys to look at you and say, 'You kept it going on.' That's the bottom line.

"USC safeties rule."

They really did come out of Hollywood to write this one. Carrier, named the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the best defensive back in the nation the year before Mays was born, is the new Bengals secondary coach and his first and most important assignment is to get the 24-year-old Mays and his other promising safeties up and going in time to become an Opening Day starter.

Carrier smiles.

He's a keeper of the flame, a true believer, and a passionate spokesman for the 'SC Safety Nation. One of the guys on The Wall when he was there, Dennis Thurman, became one of his coaching mentors. Lott would emerge from his Pro Football Hall of Fame career to chat with Carrier occasionally when he was on campus. Carrier notes he expects the son of another defensive back Wall hanger, Tim McDonald, to be in next year's draft.

"They all understood someone came before them," Carrier says of his safety kin. "They weren't trying to be somebody else. They were trying to be themselves, but yet trying to play to the expectations at the level of the tradition that has been established. They want to keep it going and they wanted to make sure the younger players understood. It wasn't about individual stats. It was about your team."

That can mean only one thing for Mays, at 6-3, 231 pounds the prototypical 21st century safety with linebacker size and wide receiver speed.

Tough love. Carrier, 43, admits he almost sees Mays in the light of a big brother.

"It's not that I have lower expectations for anyone else because we are very talented," Carrier says. "So the expectation is if we want to take our team to the next level, everybody has to step up and perform. With him, it just goes without saying. You want to carry the legacy. You want to respect the colors."

So once the Bengals released the man that has started most of the games at one safety spot since Mike Zimmer became coordinator in 2008, Chris Crocker, both Mays and Carrier were used to the scrutiny. The Bengals are banking on replacing Crocker's experience and knowledge of the defense with the young, explosive legs of Mays, third-year special teams ace Jeromy Miles, and 2011 fifth-rounder Robert Sands to play opposite Reggie Nelson.

Carrier and Mays have spoken a few times since Carrier got the job, but they only needed to text after the Crocker move.

"He understands what needs to be done and he's excited at the opportunity to show what he can do. Especially with Chris not being around. Someone has to play that role. I don't like to emphasize the obvious," Carrier says. "If you don't understand, then you're in the wrong business. I've got children. I'm not going to treat grown men making a good living like children. They understand it."

What Mays also understands is that he is also on The Wall. Three times. Asked if anyone is acknowledging him these days, he's not sure.

"Hopefully," Mays says. "I have to play well or else they'll forget about me. College doesn't matter anymore. A lot of players are great in college, but they don't play well in the NFL."

Carrier is one of them that translated. The sixth pick in the 1990 draft, he racked up 10 interceptions as a Bears rookie and went on to three Pro Bowls as one of the most feared hitters of his generation during an 11-year career.

"A very aggressive policeman in the middle of the field; when it was football," says Bengals scout Bill Tobin, who drafted Carrier as Chicago's VP of player personnel and seems a bit unsure where the game is headed.

"He was a very aggressive player and productive. And smart. We had a lot of guys from those drafts that became coaches and Mark was one of those intelligent guys on the field. I'm sure he'll help a lot of our young players. He can relate to the modern player and they know how good he was."

Carrier had just turned 22 that rookie year. Now the playful Mays would like to ask one thing.

"You've got to stop calling me a young safety," he says. "There's so much stuff I still have to learn, but there's so much stuff I did learn and since I've been here a lot of that stuff comes from watching Chris. What he sees and the way he can line up the whole defense. I'm just trying to perfect my craft and that will be a big part of it. Especially at safety, where you see everything."

Mays's point is that he played 439 snaps and made six starts in San Francisco as a rookie in 2010, but he knows how it looks. Ballyhooed second-rounder one year to the next being traded for a future seventh-round pick three weeks before Opening Day.

Then a knee injury in his Bengals debut during last year's preseason finale on a play that showed why Cincinnati wanted him (a sideline-to-sideline tackle) limited him to 60 snaps from scrimmage. Plus, just when he seemed to be hitting stride, he pulled a hamstring and missed the last two games.

"It was hard last year," Mays admits. "Training camp in Frisco. The trade. Learning the playbook for Week 1. Then hurting my knee. The only people I'm listening to are the people I trust. Mark was a hell of an NFL player. Zim is a hell of an NFL defensive coordinator, and Marvin (Lewis) is a hell of an NFL head coach. If they think I can do it … ."

He knows the critics' mantra.

"Great athlete. Can hit. Misses tackles. Can't cover. Whatever," Mays says. "The way I look at it, the same people that pump you up are the same people that say whatever. I trust Zim and Marvin."

The biggest thing is Mays thinks he can do it. At 6-3, 231 pounds, he's an off-the-chart athlete. Carrier knew all about him even before he signed up for The Wall.

"I recruited him when I was coaching at Arizona State," Carrier says. "We didn't have a chance. He finished second, third, fourth in the 100 in the state. To do that with his size, it shows you what kind of tremendous athlete he was coming out of high school."

Actually, Mays reminds you, he won the Washington state 100 title as a Seattle high schooler in 10.5 seconds. Maybe the second biggest thing is Carrier thinks Mays can do it.

Can he cover?

"He can do it," Carrier says. "If you work at it, you can do it. He's got the athleticism. It looks like he has the range. There are ways you can cheat the system and still be effective if you know what you're doing and how to do it. The big thing for him to me is understanding who you are and what you can and can't do."

If there's anyone who now understands it takes more than athleticism, it is Mays. During last season's bye week he came into the Paul Brown Stadium gym, where then secondary coach Kevin Coyle had lined up chairs in different offensive formations so he could drill him on recognition skills. Mays says one of the big things he learned from Crocker is what plays to expect coming out of what formations.

"The big thing for me is to get myself lined up right and I have confidence I can do that," he says. "Then once I do that, whatever I can do to help the team, I'll do it. I'm excited about it because we've got a lot of potential (in the secondary) and we have awesome leaders."

Lewis teased Mays so much about his weight of 238 pounds last year that Mays decided to fight back before the offseason workouts begin a week from Monday on April 16. But not before telling Lewis he didn't know where he was going to put it. When you've got a body fat of 4 percent, those are the problems you have.

"I'm down to 231 pounds, but those last five pounds are tough," he says. "I've got to really watch the diet 24-7 to do it. It's like, 'Eat a french fry, miss a tackle.' "

Mays only has to look at Carrier. And he did. He watched tape of the 6-1, 192-pound Carrier while at USC and covets his versatility.

"He was kind of like the way Reggie plays," Mays says. "All-around. He tackled well. He got to the ball well. For some reason he was always around the ball. One of those guys that was just good at doing everything.

"The most important part is establishing a physical presence in the beginning and in the end and just playing smart. I have a lot of confidence in being able to work on my tools and I'm eager to work with Mark and Zim and get a lot better."

He knows there'll be more than a fly on The Wall listening and watching.

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