Clayton Fejedelem has a knack for seizing opportunity when it’s presented, and its showing itself again this summer.
Injuries to Cincinnati Bengals starting safety George Iloka and backup Derron Smith during Sunday’s practice thrust Fejedelem into an expanded role Monday, and the extra work is expected to continue with published reports indicating Iloka will be three to four weeks with a sprained knee.
“He’ll get a lot more snaps with the first group and work with those guys,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “I’m sure he’ll try to take advantage of the opportunity. He got in there last year and proved it wasn’t too big for him. Hopefully he’ll take the next step.”
Based on Fejedelem’s past, that next step could be a leap.
Barely recruited out of high school in Lemont, Ill., he turned down his biggest offer from Division II Grand Valley State to stay close to home and play with his brother at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
Fejedelem led the Cougars to the NAIA national championship as a freshman, earning the team’s Newcomer of the Year award. But after an 11-2 campaign as a sophomore, he started rethinking his plans.
“I was like ‘If my goal is to play on Sundays, which it was, I might have to go bigger,’” Fejedelem said.
He walked on at Illinois and after sitting out his first season per NCAA rules, Fejedelem played safety on a rotating basis as a junior and was a starter and team captain as a senior before realizing his goal of playing in the NFL when the Bengals drafted him in the seventh round last year.
“I know what it’s like to be the low man and work your way up,” he said. “Being a seventh-rounder, you never know when your opportunity is going to come. You don’t get the opportunity that higher round guys get. Whenever I have a chance to shine, that’s why I try to do.”
His first chance came in the preseason as a rookie, which is when he cemented his spot on the 53-man roster.
“He earned it with what he did in the preseason,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “That’s the test for these young guys, what they do in the preseason games. And he was fantastic. I felt very confident he was going to excel, and he has at a faster pace than I thought he would.”
Fejedelem not only made the 53-man roster as a rookie seventh-rounder, he appeared in all 16 games and played on all four special teams units.
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With injuries mounting and the Bengals falling out of contention last season, he got an opportunity to play more on defense in the final few games.
“I know I can play at this level and do great things at this level,” Fejedelem said. “There was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t (make the roster last year). Just that mindset of being a walk-on and competing at Illinois and becoming a starter and becoming a captain, that kind of thing. But being a seventh-round guy, I know there are rookies and free agents trying to get my spot this year.”
Not only is his role on defense expanding with the injuries to Iloka and Smith, Fejedelem also is taking reps at a more important role on special teams, working as the personal protector on punt coverage.
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That’s the role Cedric Peerman has excelled in for years, earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2015, but Peerman currently is on the Non-Football Injury list, creating another opening for Fejedelem.
When Peerman was hurt last year, Rex Burkhead filled the role, but he signed with New England in the offseason. Iloka and Smith also tooks reps there before getting hurt Sunday.
“We’re down a bunch of PPs right now, and (Fejedelem) played a little bit of that a rookie in practices, never in a game,” Simmons said. “You’ve got to be intelligent to play here, and he is. It’s like a quarterback or a center calling out a protection. He has to know which way we’re going to slide and get us in the proper call. Then he has to be great in coverage because a lot of times he’s going to be the first penetrator down the field.”
Fejedelem split the first-team reps with 2015 fifth-round pick Josh Shaw on Monday, and that should continue as the Bengals work their way toward the preseason opener Aug. 11 against Tampa Bay.
“Camp’s a good time to work on your technique and focus in on your Xs and Os and this gives me an opportunity to run with the 1s more,” Fejedelm said. “Getting that timing and communication down with them will be awesome.
“It gets your confidence up knowing you can compete at that level,” he added. “Whenever my number is called I’m going to be ready.”