Marcellus Wiley, a rare mix of pro football brawn and Ivy League brains, is smart enough to know that he still has a lot to learn about playing defensive end in the NFL.
He is still grasping the finer points of exploding out of his stance the instant the ball is snapped, of winning the hand-to-hand combat with offensive tackles, of turning the corner sooner on his way to the quarterback.
"There is still so much unrealized potential in me," Wiley said after his second preseason with the Buffalo Bills ended with Friday night's 27-17 victory over the Washington Redskins.
But he clearly has realized more of it this summer than he did last year after joining the Bills as a second-round draft pick from Columbia University.
The 6-foot-5, 271-pound Wiley started all four exhibition games at right end in place of Bruce Smith, who had his usual preseason respite. Through the first three, he applied consistently strong quarterback pressure but did not have a sack. Then, against the Redskins, he had his breakthrough, registering two of the Bills' three sacks. The second resulted in a fumble that set up Buffalo's third touchdown.
"I was doing well in games as far as pressuring, but there were no sacks," said Wiley, who did not have a sack in 16 regular-season games as a reserve last year. "For it to finally culminate in two sacks in one game, especially (the preseason finale), really gives me good confidence going to San Diego (for Sunday's season-opener) and for our regular season.
"I just wanted to prove to (the coaches) that when they did put me in, I was going to make a positive contribution. And I think I've done that this preseason."
Wiley's performance figures to have earned him a larger role this year, even with Smith returning and left end Phil Hansen looking as dominant as ever.
Besides entering games as a pass-rush specialist on the four-man line in dime situations, Wiley is also expected to receive more playing time in the Bills' base 4-3 and 3-4 alignments. Some could be in a rotation with Smith and Hansen. And there's still a possibility that he could start at left end in the 4-3, with Hansen replacing Sean Moran at the tackle spot next to nose man Ted Washington.
"I look for him to play a lot, let's just say that," defensive line coach John Levra said. "The guy's proven to me he's going to be a good player who can help us win."
"It won't be a case where Bruce or Phil will have to stay out there extra snaps because we don't have good enough backups," Wiley said. "If it leads into a starting role, it does. But I'm young in my career and those guys are a little older, and I'm just trying to learn from them while they're still here."
Wiley hungers for knowledge about how to improve his game. And he is receiving a steady diet of information from the obvious sources, such as Levra, and even some not so obvious ones, such as Smith.
His self-centered reputation notwithstanding, Smith has gone out of his way to give Wiley a great deal of one-on-one instruction, including some of his best-kept secrets, this summer. Without saying so publicly -- Smith has said very little to the media this preseason -- he has assumed the role of preparing the heir apparent to his pass-rushing throne.
"He's definitely helped out a lot this year," Wiley said. "Last year, when I was a rookie coming in, I guess he wanted to feel it out to see if this kid has what it takes. This year, he's really been helping me hands on. He has a lot of tips. Not the Xs and Os that the coaches have, but a lot of things that he doesn't disclose to a lot of people. And this preseason, he's really been helping me out as far as how to get off on the ball, what kind of reads he makes, some of the (pass-rushing) risks he takes during a game."
The hand-to-hand combat with tackles has ranked as one of the bigger adjustments Wiley has had to make from the Ivy League, where his natural speed and quickness usually kept him away from entanglements at the line. Holding tends to be far more liberal in the pros than on the collegiate level.
"It's just basically a game of you run to him, he tries to stop your momentum, and you try to swat his hands off you to get around the edge," Wiley said. "And if you don't do that in that split second, that's when the quarterback gets the ball off. My main concern is getting the hands off me. Some plays I do, some plays I don't. But the frequency with which I'm doing it is a lot higher than last year.
"Also, last year, I don't think I turned the corner one time, and this year I've turned it several times and I'm finally getting the sacks out of it. Once you get on the edge or around the corner, that's when all the potential for a sack is there. If you don't do that, you're still shielded by a tackle.
"It's not my physical abilities that inhibit me from doing that every play, it's more of the technique stuff, and that's what I'm learning. A defensive end doesn't have to have great ability if he has great technique. And since I feel I have great ability, I want to have great technique so I won't have to compromise on the field. Bruce is a perfect example of that -- great technique and great ability, and look how great he is."
The Bills see the potential for greatness in Wiley. First, though, he needs to improve his game.
And much of that will come through his ability -- and willingness -- to learn.
"He's got to use his hands more on the rush and he's got to improve his take-off on the snap," Levra said. "But his speed and his strength and his effort have been outstanding. He's a bright-eyed guy, he's smart, and he works harder than heck in practice.
"I really like what I see. I think he's an excellent young player. I think he's got a chance to really be exceptional."
The Bills must trim their roster from 60 to 53 by today's league-wide 4 o'clock deadline.
Players who seem to be at the greatest risk of being waived are newly acquired kicker Cole Ford, center Dan Williams, offensive tackle David Mudge, wide receiver Fred Coleman, defensive back Raymond Hill, linebackers Dwayne Sabb and Joe Cummings and defensive tackle James Grier.
Several of the players could be re-signed Monday to the Bills' practice squad.