“I got hurt at a time last year where it kind of puts me closer to beginning of the season to be ready, according to past people’s ACLs and stuff, so hopefully, you know, I’m off firing on all cylinders at some point during the summer,” Awuzie said. “I don’t want to put a timeline on it, mainly you know, getting my body to where it needs to be but then after by body gets where it needs to be, it’s also regaining the skill ... to make sure I’m prepared for the riggers of the season so once the season gets going, then you’re not really stopping so anytime I can get before the season to get ready, I’ll definitely take that.”
The Bengals have been closely monitoring the progress of injured players like Awuzie as they build up their roster this offseason and try to prepare for next week’s draft, where they could add depth in spots like cornerback.
Awuzie isn’t just coming back from a major knee surgery but also is entering the final year of his contract. The injury gives him some added motivation to come back even stronger.
“(I want) to be a better player than I was last year,” Awuzie said. “Obviously to be 100% and to get my body to where I’m able to improve on like my skills as a DB and as a football player. You know, obviously I’m kind of training just like an athlete right now, just getting my leg stronger, doing certain movements, so the ultimate goals are to be a better player than last year. I feel like the past few years I’ve gotten better each year, and I don’t want my ACL or the injury I had to hinder that. I want to keep growing as a player so next year I plan to get better than I was last year.”
Awuzie has been able to run and jump and do a lot of movement, but the focus has been lifting and building strength in his legs, especially the muscles around his surgically-repaired right knee.
The 27-year-old California native said his right leg is now bigger than his left leg because of all the extra attention on that knee, so “hopefully that’s a sign” he will be able to come back even stronger than he was before the injury. He joked that he needs to thank his parents for the good genes they passed along to him or the food they fed him growing up because the recovery process has gone smoothly to this point.
Monday marked a new chapter in his rehab just getting back to football preparations with the team.
“I think this is like a challenge in my life that has garnered some anxiety like in terms of getting ready to come back,” Awuzie said. “You know, it’s like it makes you excited to see like how far you’ve come from last month, last week, the day before, the next day, next week, next month. It’s like I’m making progress, and it’s just a good feeling to have that weight on my shoulders.”
Awuzie was away from the team for a while during and after the surgery, which took place in California, but once he was up and moving around OK, he returned to Cincinnati to at least feel he was still apart of what the Bengals were doing.
A lot of players rehabbing injuries do so from their offseason homes. Attending meetings and being in the locker room with his teammates gave Awuzie a sense of normalcy he craved, though -- “that fuel,” “that fire.”
Now his presence is an important one for the Bengals, who lost both their starting safeties in free agency and appear to be moving on from cornerback Eli Apple. Cam Taylor-Britt stepped up in Awuzie’s absence but it seemed he was on the verge of replacing Apple anyway, and the Bengals signed Sidney Jones IV in free agency to add depth.
The Bengals could add to the group through the draft, but regardless, with so much change in the back end of the defense, Awuzie’s leadership takes on a new level of importance.
“The guys we brought in so far, you know, they’re veterans, they’ve been in the league and have experience,” Awuzie said. “Obviously, you know, losing Jessie (Bates) and Vonn (Bell) in free agency, it’s a blow. It’s a blow and it hurts emotionally and personally, too, because those are my friends. But at the end of the day this team is, we’re primed still. We have a lot of things that are ahead of us. So we’re going to pick up the chips where they left them, you know, and you have players that were younger, and now they have to step up. You have to rely on one another more than ever so it’s really expected for everybody that’s here to be present, to take coaching and learn from each other and to get better.”