The decision to forego his senior year of college haunted Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Andrew Billings his entire rookie season as he sat on injured reserve.
Twenty-eight months after the Bengals selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, he finally walked across the stage to receive his undergraduate degree at Baylor University on Saturday.
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Billings can now say for sure he has no regrets, and with school now behind him, he’s gearing up for a big year on the field as well. The 23-year-old nose tackle said he is feeling back to his old self for the first time since tearing his meniscus during a practice before the preseason opener in August 2016.
“Leaving early was a battle: ‘Was it the right decision? Should I have stayed?’” Billings said Monday before practice at Paul Brown Stadium. “But looking back at it, I’m glad I made the decision because I still got everything taken care of, and it meant a lot for me to finish. It just sucked sitting out that whole first year, not having anything to do even though I just made a big step in my life. It hurt but I was just focused on getting back.”
Billings, who majored in communications and minored in business, returned to the field last year in time to make his debut in the season opener against Baltimore, and he was getting regular snaps at nose tackle by Game 8.
However, it wasn’t until the end of the season that he really started feeling physically back to normal, and he still couldn’t say the same for his mental approach to the game until now. He played in 15 games, for 29.4 percent of all defensive snaps, and finished with 13 tackles.
“I feel a lot different mentally and physically,” Billings said. “Physically, it’s just a process. You’ve still got to make sure everything is right, I’m still rehabbing. My muscles still aren’t the same as my good leg, so I’m still trying to get that back, but I’m feeling way better. Mentally I’m feeling 100 percent. At the end of last season I was still a little worried about it.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said he sees a difference in Billings from a year ago. Billings has “had a good camp,” Lewis said, and this preseason is important for him in terms of his development, as he is now two years removed from the injury.
“They really believe the player needs 15 to 18 months to get back (from knee surgery),” Lewis said last week. “… In Andrew’s case you have a young player who never really got to play and got hurt and missed time. The injury he had affects the ability to push on big people as big people push back on you. You need the leg strength and balance. The only way to gain that again is by doing it. Nick Cosgray (Director of Rehabilitation) out there pushing on him isn’t going to help much. He’s got to do it all the time. It’s good he perked up through the end of last year and he’s come here into camp and done it.”
Billings said that although he is still building strength in his knee and the muscles surrounding it, the mental part of the recovery process was the most difficult.
He looks forward to playing this season without doubts about his ability creeping back into his mind.
“The hardest thing is just not worrying about it, not trying to baby it around and really just moving your feet,” he said. “That’s how you get injured in the first place not moving your feet.
“Physically, the weight is what you’re worried about, too much weight on there. For a running back, it’s probably more about cutting, but I’m not running full speed so I think maybe in that sense it’s a little easier. I’m just pushing some guys. I can squat with a knee injury but running, I don’t know.”
Billings no longer squats as much as he used to. Instead, he focuses on less power and more reps, which was a big adjustment. The Waco, Texas, native had been dubbed as “college football’s strongest player,” by NFL.com in early 2016, which made him a widely touted prospect before he surprisingly slipped until Day 3 of the draft.
Draft analysts considered him a steal for Cincinnati and he’s out to prove them right. Sitting out his first year put him behind, but Billings is ready to “get everything right” this season.
“I lost a year of experience, a year of practice experience, a year of playing experience, but I try not to focus on being behind,” he said. “I’m just working to catch up. I wish it never happened, but it is what it is.
“I’m working on my technique every day, so now it’s more my hands that I’m focused on than my knees really at this point. I’m ready to get my grind on and help the defense. I want everyone to see me on the other side of the line of scrimmage. That’s where I want them to see me at all times.”
Bengals at Cowboys, 7 p.m., NFL Network, 1530, 102.7, 104.7