6-17-03, 4:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
There was Otis Sistrunk, a unique enough specimen of 1970s player that Howard Cosell nasally baptized him from, "the University of Mars," for Monday Night television audiences.
Now comes Khalid Abdullah from Mars Hills College, a very real place in North Carolina that has given the Bengals their fifth-round draft choice. A low pick, but he brings a high level of significance. Like some far-flung probe to Mars, the new Bengals' regime offers a glimpse at the future with his selection:
At 6-2, 225 pounds, Abdullah gets yeah-right funny looks when he tells people he plays linebacker. They say he looks like a safety or running back. He definitely doesn't match the measurements of the two guys playing in front of him on the right outside in the 6-3, 250-pound Brian Simmons and the 6-3, 243-pound Riall Johnson.
But Abdullah plays linebacker the way head coach Marvin Lewis, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and linebackers coach Ricky Hunley want their backers to play.
4.53 seconds in the 40 fast.
As the first linebacker drafted in the Lewis era, Abdullah figures to become the blueprint.
"I'd rather have a guy that is athletic," Simmons says. "You can teach him. That's better than if he can't move, but knows technique or whatever. He's one of the more athletic guys on the team."
Hunley first noticed Abdullah from watching the damage he wrought on special teams. For years, the Bengals, a team that has finished 26th or lower in the overall special teams ranking since 1996, have been criticized internally and externally for not making teams a priority. But the Bengals picked Abdullah with special teams specifically in mind and he says they have already put him on the first kickoff team.
"If you don't start, you better be a great special teams players and that's where we see him contributing at first," Hunley says. "You better be able to play special teams. It's a third of the game. He has a chance to be a force there."
For a team that has been knocked for not willing to beat the bushes for small school talent, Abdullah comes barging out of the brush into Paul Brown Stadium from Div. II. Since the draft went to seven rounds in 1994, it's believed Abdullah is the first non-Div. I player the Bengals have chosen.
"There's a lot of stench going on about they made the wrong decision to take a linebacker from a small college," Abdullah says. "I see on the internet how (Cincinnati) could have waited until free agency, saying I'm raw and undisciplined. "I have high expectations for myself."
Abdullah, a product of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., tried to follow brother Rahim, a former NFL linebacker with Cleveland, to Clemson. But problems with grades and a coach's firing complicated all that and he ended up with four years at Mars Hills in which he set a career-record for 49 stops for losses playing the likes of Virginia-Wise, Edward Waters, Catawba, and Lenoir-Rhyne.
In his tour of the blue highways, he also had 28 sacks, eight quarterback pressures, nine forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, 21 pass deflections and five interceptions in an honor roll topped by last season's South Atlantic Conference Defensive Player of the Year award.
"They said the reason I stuck out and was head and shoulders over everybody was because of the competition," Abdullah says. "But the bottom line is we put our pads on the same way as the big schools. If you can play ball, you can play ball. I don't care where it is."
Which is basically how Hunley feels. But he has coached at three major colleges and he admits there is a pretty big gap between the haves and have-nots.
"There is a huge difference with the level of investment and money," Hunley says of Div. I and the rest. "The bigger schools have more coaches, so it gives a guy more opportunity to be sound. But they sent us out on a mission to find the best players and there are things that counteract that.
"Can you make football plays and can you get there fast enough to make the plays?" Hunley asks. "And are you coachable? Do you want to do well? He has been a pleasant surprise. He's put a lot of rumors to rest. The guy got a bad rap."
Hunley likes the fact Abdullah is going to spend the summer in Cincinnati. The kid doesn't seem to miss a workout and he appears to be fueled by at least matching what his brother did and accomplishing more in the league.
"There are so many reasons why someone has problems learning in school," Hunley says. "But he hasn't shown any problems when it comes to trying to work at what we're teaching him. I mean, he wants to learn. You know that he is committed to the program."
They also like the fact he's close to his family, and he says he talks to his mother every day. And, they get into football pretty good.
"She asked me how much I weighed and how much they want me to weigh and I told her 225," Abdullah says. "She wanted to know, "Are the big boys causing problems?' I said, 'No,' because the only time they cause a problem is when I make a bad read.
"Then I get stuck and the guards get out on top of me," Abdullah says. "They don't want me running up underneath. They want me crossing. If was to get my reads down pat and learn how to read run-pass real quick, as quickly as they move, it will never be a problem. That's where discipline comes in."
Abdullah has heard that for the last four years from his coaches. There will come a day you can't rely on your quickness and athleticism and Div. I dominance in Div. II to make up for bad reads, or the wrong steps, or failing to diagnose pass quickly enough.
"That day is now," Abdullah says.
He's also trying to adjust to the scheme. In college, he played all three backer positions, and they asked him to play the right spot by containing. With the Bengals, they prefer he ,"fill and spill to the outside or inside. They want me to be aggressive. They want me to be quicker."
Simmons says there are signs Abdullah isn't as polished as his big-school counterparts, but he doesn't see the problem.
"He's a little raw, but I think he's going to be fine," Simmons says. "I think he's really going to help us on special teams. He makes us more athletic, he makes us faster, and that's what you need on special teams."
In this foundation season, Hunley likes his first brick.
"When you're trying to build something," Hunley says, "you have to get guys athletic, versatile and can do a lot of things. The first thing is speed. Everybody knows a play is over in three to five seconds. That's all. Nothing makes up for a mistake like speed."