Marcell Dareus misses Kyle Williams more than you know. Williams was the guy he leaned on in his rookie season, the Bills' only returning Pro Bowler, a fellow defensive lineman who understood what it took to survive a long NFL season.
When the veteran nose tackle was lost for the year with an ankle injury in October, Dareus felt lost at times. Kyle was right. Until you played a full season at this level, you had no idea what a toll it took on your mind and body.
"I look up to him," Dareus said Wednesday at One Bills Drive. "I'll ask myself, 'What would Kyle do?' "
One thing Williams would do is play hurt. Late in a season, he'd joke that every part of his body was sore. He played for years with bone spurs in his ankle until he had to shut it down. Dareus took note. He had an ankle injury in training camp. He has a sore shoulder and a bad hand. But he has persevered.
"There's no rest for the weary," Dareus said. "While I was hurt, we had guys falling all around us. I felt I had to stay on the field. I could have said, 'I can't play in this game,' but you fight through them. I fought through them in college. It's no different here.
"I'll just play through the season, play through my injuries and bandage them in the offseason."
Dareus said he felt sore in every part of his 330-pound frame. He's had quite a rookie education. Williams was right. The game is faster than you can imagine. Players are bigger and stronger and smarter than in college.
He's had an up-and-down season. At times, Dareus has been a force. At others, he has been barely visible on a porous Buffalo defense. He has 5.5 sacks, the most by a Bills rookie since Aaron Schobel had 6.5 in 2001. Dareus has 42 tackles, sixth among rookie linemen.
You expect more from the third pick in the draft. Dareus does, too. No Bill was selected to the Pro Bowl for a second year in a row. He plans to change that.
"Of course, there'll be a Pro Bowl in my future," Dareus said with a laugh. "Hopefully, next year. I'm going into the offseason, work my butt off and get better. There's things I lacked this year."
Dareus said he'll work diligently with conditioning coaches Eric Ciano and John Gamble to add muscle and improve his strength and stamina.
"They got my weight down so I'd be able to play this year," he said. "Just imagine the offseason what they're going to do for me. I can't wait. We're going to do a lot of different things. I feel like I play real well early in the game, but in the offseason I'm going to train hard, so I can have more in the fourth quarter."
He seems more secure with his role as an emerging leader. Before the road game at the Jets, Dareus stood up in the locker room and gave an impassioned speech, urging the players to rise up in the midst of a losing streak.
Dareus grew accustomed to success at Alabama, where he played on a national champion. Losing is tough. But for Dareus, it's one year without the playoffs, not 12. That's the hope for Bills fans, that this agile, affable giant can be the anchor for a defense on the rise.
Dareus said he and his fellow defensive rookies are determined to turn the team's fortunes around. He said Kyle Williams is moving around again and expects to be fully healthy next season. Put those two alongside each other on the defensive line. Add another solid rookie or two in the draft. Get some help in free agency. It's something to build upon.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," Dareus said. "We looked good as a team at the start. We need to get out there and change our identity as a team. My main focus now is getting my rookie class on the same page. We've got our rookies playing and contributing. We want to do more next year. Slowly but surely, we want to turn this team around."