George Iloka’s career started unceremoniously. In the 2012 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals had three fifth round picks, and used one of them on Iloka. The Bengals selected fellow defensive back Shaun Prater ahead of him, but Prater never played a single game with the Bengals and was released the following offseason. Meanwhile, Iloka has become one of the most reliable and important members of the Bengals’ defense.
“It’s the old cliché,” defensive backs coach Robert Livingston told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “The safeties are the quarterback back there, but it’s true. George is a tremendous calming influence who gets everybody lined up and makes sure everyone is on the same page.”
Since becoming a mainstay in the starting lineup, Iloka has not only performed well, but has helped bring his fellow teammates up to speed.
“He’s a general back there. He makes us all go,” free safety Shawn Williams said. “He’s a smart one who keeps us all on the same page. When it gets chaotic he’s the one that kind of calms us down and gets us back on page. Very smart. Very smart.”
It’s not an easy job. As simple as Iloka’s meteoric rise has made the process seem, there is always the chance for small mistakes to create huge problems.
“If you make a mistake playing that position, bombs go off,” Livingston says. “If the defensive tackle is out of his gap, the only people that know are him, the coordinator, his position coach, and maybe his mom. But it’s always (the safeties) they’re talking about in the stadium.”
Luckily, Iloka appears to be the right man for the job. He saw an opportunity to be great, grabbed the bull by the horns, and carved out his place in the NFL.
“Wrong or right, I’m in this defense. I’m starting. If I make a check, let’s roll with it,” Iloka said. “We can’t be back there having a full-on discussion and they’re about to snap the ball. There comes a point in every safety’s career, especially the way we run our defense, where you have to earn that trust. If you’re messing up consistently, no one is going to listen. That means the onus is on you to make sure you’re in the playbook. Make sure you’re on the Ps and Qs so guys trust you right or wrong … It’s a trust and credibility thing. They had to build their trust in me and I had to gain credibility.”
So far, trust and credibility are exactly what he has built with the team. When he was drafted, scouts had concerns about his ability to play man coverage, as well as his ability to defend shorter-range passes. Although you could argue he displays some of the same weaknesses in the NFL, you can look past those issues, considering how great he is in zone coverage and how much of a leader he has become.
“In terms of personality and knowing the defense, George is a Leon (Hall) type of player,” Livingston said. “‘Hey, George, how do we play this?’ And he can tell you. “When he’s the old guy in the room (at 27), it’s a fun group to be around. It’s a young energetic group.”
Even among the entire defensive back unit, the only player older than Iloka is Adam Jones (33). Starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is the same age as him, but the majority of the defensive players are very young—after some serious changes were made this offseason—and looking up to the veterans, hoping learn more about their own NFL journeys.
“There are things in there you don’t really talk about,” Iloka said. “It’s just from playing with a guy. There’s stuff that me and Dre know … ‘This is how we play it. I know that’s not what they’re saying, but this is how we play it.’ Dre and I have that kind of rapport now. That’s all that was last year.”
Iloka seems to be up to the task of mentoring and helping a young group of Bengals defenders grow in the league. Taking on extra responsibility has been a key element of Iloka’s career, and luckily, the Bengals can count on him to do his job well.
“We need to pick up where we left off,” Iloka said of transitioning from the end of 2016 to the start of 2017. “And I think we can do that. We should come out better this year than last year.”