Editor's note: The Cincinnati Bengals granted ESPN reporter Katherine Terrell special access to new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin for a day at last week's rookie camp. She shadowed him from the time he left his downtown Cincinnati apartment until on-field work ended.
CINCINNATI -- The sun has not yet risen when Teryl Austin starts his daily routine.
Austin emerges from his downtown apartment around 5:45 on a Saturday morning in May, donning workout clothes and a pair of headphones. It's a big weekend for him, with his first chance since January to actually coach players.
Austin was hired as the Bengals' defensive coordinator in January after Paul Guenther left to join the Raiders, but until this point his time on the field with his new players has been limited. He probably won't even get his entire defense on the field or in a meeting room until June. While most of the players have returned to Cincinnati by now for voluntary workouts, some still are scattered around the country. Some are finishing their degrees. Some, such as Dre Kirkpatrick, who lives in the area all year, have made regular visits to the facility throughout the spring. Others, such as Carlos Dunlap, are training elsewhere.
Austin, 53, has been looking forward to seeing the 2018 draft class on the field. On this morning, he starts his routine as he always does, walking down the street to grab a tea from Starbucks as soon as they unlock the doors. Austin has never been much of a coffee drinker and hasn't had coffee in more than 10 years. As a self-professed morning person, he clearly doesn't need it.
While some coaches prefer to come in later and stay in the building until 2 a.m., Austin has never been that way. He said he thinks he functions best when he starts earlier and gets things done in the mornings. He also enjoys the quiet walk to Paul Brown Stadium, where the practice facilities are housed. It gives him some time in a city he has embraced but admittedly has seen little of since he took the job.
Much of his time at the facility is spent in his windowless office with either Sirius XM's The Groove station playing or some golf on the TV in the background, a change from Guenther's days when horse racing was usually the background sport of choice.
There is a long list of things to get done these days, whether it's players to evaluate, tape to watch, or meetings to attend.
Lots of meetings.
The first meeting starts at 7:45 a.m. and the last one is after 6 p.m. It makes for a long day, even this early in the offseason.
Austin takes a seat at the conference table in his office while the coaches chatter idly as everyone files in, talking about everything from the recent Kentucky Derby to Mother's Day. Austin joked that one of his daughters had to remind him about it, and in the excitement of rookie camp, it's easy to see how things outside the facility can fall by the wayside.
Austin has five children and knows well the difficulties of jugging it all. A common saying among football coaches is that they leave on Monday and see their kids again on Friday. It was difficult when his children were younger, and even now it can lead to a lonely lifestyle. Austin's wife is in Arizona, and with a lack of direct flights from Cincinnati to Phoenix, it's not easy to make the time to see each other.
But the sacrifices hopefully will lead to something he has been working toward for most of his life: a head coaching position. Austin has interviewed several times. He has yet to receive an offer, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis thinks that will come one day.
"Obviously the big thing was his opportunity possibly to become a head coach in the NFL," Lewis said in January. "I was waiting for that to break, and I know that will occur in his future."
Austin laughs when he ponders how his life could've turned out differently. When he was in his 20s, he worked two jobs after a playing career failed to pan out. One was at a health club and another at a Coca-Cola plant. He was fired from the second job for reasons that elude him to this day, and he happened to run into the right person at the health club just as a graduate assistant job was opening up at Penn State in 1991. He took that job, and his career has ascended ever since.
As Austin moves the meeting ahead to that day's practice plan, Lewis enters briefly to ask that they give tryout player Chris Okoye more reps so they can get an extended look at him. Lewis likes the defensive tackle's size (6-foot-5, 325 pounds) and athleticism. Okoye will be signed to a contract two days later.
While it's clear Austin already feels comfortable in his new role, it also is clear the process of merging a new staff isn't a quick one. Every team runs the same basic concepts, but the language varies. With every move, a coach must unlearn the old terminology and quickly figure out the new one. What the Bengals call their "NASCAR" package (likely a combination of Geno Atkins, Dunlap, Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis), might have been called something else in Detroit.
Lawson and Willis, now second-year players, will factor heavily into the Bengals' plans this year.
Toward the end of the meeting, one coach comments that Willis should've gotten on the field more in 2017. Austin later notes he feels the same way about Lawson, who had 8.5 sacks despite taking less than half the defensive snaps.
As the meeting concludes, Austin already is preparing for another one. Less than 30 minutes later, he has moved into teaching mode. He stands at the front of one of the downstairs auditoriums, armed with a laser pointer, a slideshow on the wall behind him. The other assistants sit around the room next to the rookies so they can answer any questions.
Austin is explaining what they'll be installing in that day's practice, and he moves from slide to slide quickly, discussing what the concept is before playing a clip to illustrate it. The rookies nod their head in appreciation when Austin plays a clip of a particularly impressive sack by Atkins.
Austin won't get too deep into his concepts at this stage of the rookies' development. Although he appeared to go fast, he laughs later on when he points out just how slowly they'd actually moved. The rookies are getting a break now, but by the time training camp starts, things will move at twice the speed. It's clear the bigger focus right now is on technique and communication.
"Make sure you're not a repeat-mistake guy," he cautions the rookies.
Austin knows they're throwing a lot at the rookies at once, and their main goal is to see who can start to figure out things quickly.
"With the rookies, you don't give them as much as fast," he said. "What you're doing is trying to see what they can pick up in a short amount of time and what they can fix. Because a lot of times they come in and everything is new for them, new terminology, new system, and they're going to make mistakes. What you're trying to find out is when they leave here on Sunday, are their mistakes cut down? Are they starting to pick it up? Are they starting to get it? I think that's really what you're looking for in a lot of these guys."
During the meeting, Austin stops often to ask questions. He makes the rookies repeat a particular point loudly to make sure they understand. There is a lot to learn and only a few days to actually teach it. That's why he wants to make sure the rookies leave that weekend with the fundamentals down pat. He cautions the importance of staying within the assignment -- "Remember, you can't get a sack on a running play." He praises the rookies when they speak up.
"You got the words mixed up but that's OK because you said it loud," he tells one rookie.
Throughout the day, it has become clear that Austin's laid-back demeanor applies to his coaching style. He's's clear to take into account others' concerns and reevaluate himself if something isn't working. Even in the classroom, he immediately stops to rephrase a question when it becomes clear he's not getting an answer.
"Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer," he said.
The rookie meetings will take place throughout the day, with another one after lunch and right before practice, but none lasts longer than 45 minutes. Austin said he thinks shorter meetings make for more alert players and jokes that even he reaches his limit after an hour.
"He's a laid-back guy," rookie Andrew Brown said. "He makes sure we understand and process the information, and he's not going too fast. He's breaking it down to a point where we can understand."
Every defense has its own style, and Austin's will develop in time. Even though NFL offenses now rely on the passing game more than the run, Austin still believes in stopping the run first. And while Austin likes to show different looks, he also will tailor his scheme around the abilities of his players, instead of the other way around.
"They say he's unpredictable, and that's a good thing as a defensive coordinator. You don't always want to do the same thing," new linebacker Preston Brown said. "It might be the same thing, but it's a different look. He's big on looks and showing different things with the safeties and linebackers, so it should be fun. He'll line guys up all over the field. You might say (you're a) Mike, but you might not be in a Mike position."
Kirkpatrick, who has gotten to know Austin over the spring, said last month that he already loved Austin's style and felt that he was going to figure out a way to make players "think less" on the field. Kirkpatrick stopped by rookie camp to watch practice, perhaps to get a feel for how Austin ticks.
Austin was clearly doing the same thing with the younger players, trying to figure out just how he could make things click into place for them as fast as possible. He'll get a lot more of that when OTAs begin next week, and he already is looking forward to the extended time outside.
"It's good, a lot better than being in the classroom and doing all that stuff," Austin said on Saturday after practice. "It's nice to be out here with all the guys and start looking at some of the things that you're putting in and seeing how they fit, and things you've got to change. Because not everything is going to be right."
And then he walked off the field to another meeting.