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Active forecast with Bengals backs


Giovani Bernard

Maybe it was fitting the final Bengals practice before next month's training camp came on a Thursday morning where thunder and lightning slow-danced above Paul Brown Stadium.

Since rookie running back Giovani Bernard has proven to be Broadway-worthy of his advanced notices. After five rookie minicamp practices, nine voluntary field practices (OTAs) and three mandatory minicamp practices, it's clear he has what wide receiver Andrew Hawkins calls "juice," a perfect yin for bruising BenJarvus Green-Ellis's yang.

The Bengals are a franchise known for power backs and the most elusive guys they've had under head coach Marvin Lewis—Chris Perry and Bernard Scott—have suffered more knicks than knacks for making people miss.

"That's the AFC North in general," Hawkins says of the power game. "But the NFL is evolving. A lot of teams use the thunder and lightning approach. When one team does it and has success, the next team tries it out.

"Look at a team like the Saints, who have an offense that is very similar. They have Darren Sproles, and the things he's been able to do for that offense. (The Bengals have) the same offense. And you've seen the success (the Saints) have had in years past. It would only make sense to add very similar pieces."

Hawkins, who has some juice himself as the club's most electrifying player next to two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, knows a live wire when he sees it.

"He's got the lateral quickness. He's smart. He knows his stuff. He works his butt off," Hawkins said of Bernard. "He's elusive. He's an exciting player. You can see it the first time you see him. He'll be exciting to watch."

If Hawkins is invoking Sproles and Bengals historians are reminiscing about James Brooks, then Bengals running backs coach Hue Jackson is thinking of, well, Giovani Bernard, the guy the club vetted exhaustively at North Carolina before making him the first running back taken at No. 37 in the draft.

After Jackson and the Bengals personnel department sifted through Bernard's career and his workouts, they were convinced his speed and versatility fit their needs better than the big backs that went 48 (Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell), 58 (Wisconsin's Montee Ball) and Alabama's Eddie Lacy at No. 61.

Now after seeing Bernard work for a month in this offense, Jackson thinks he can do even more than that as a potential wide receiver in some sets. Jackson knew what he was getting, but he learned some things, too, this past month.

"He's so natural catching the ball. He can catch it like a receiver," Jackson said. "I knew he could catch it really well, but I wouldn't be surprised if he could go out there and line up outside and catch balls like some other guys can because he has that skill set."

The spring's individual drills caught Jackson's fancy whenever he split Bernard wide and found himself saying, "Wow, this guy can really do that" with each catch at receiver.

"He's everything I thought he would be," Jackson said. "He has extreme quickness, suddenness. He has top-end speed. He has change of direction."

Bernard has the kind of ability that can make you change direction on the concept of padless practices. The standard line is you can't tell squat without players wearing pads. But with him, the thinking is his talents transfer easily to pads. What you see is what you get, Jackson says.

"I like pads. I don't like shorts," said Bernard, sounding more like a right guard than a change-of-pace back. "It's not really football. It's like seven-on-seven, almost."

Maybe it's because Jackson, and maybe more importantly Bernard, don't see him as a change-of-pace back. That was pretty clear after Thursday's practice as Bernard ticked off what he thought he proved this spring:

"A guy that can understand the playbook, a guy that can understand the system, a guy that's willing to work hard and if it's fourth-and-one, I can still get that fourth-and-one."

It was Green-Ellis that led the NFL last season in converting third-and-ones, so the Bengals are looking for Bernard to do the glitzy stuff.

"Right now the most important thing is playing fast," Bernard said. "They're telling me I can worry about my role later when it comes to game-planning."

But this is the AFC North, after all, where there isn't exactly a bonanza on running room.

"One of the reasons I stood up for him, I think he'll churn out those tough yards. I don't think he shies away from that," Jackson said. "He's 208 pounds. I think a lot of people think he can't do it. I'm not ready to say that. I don't see that. We obviously know he's not afraid to run between the tackles.

"Can he do it 25-30 times a game? That's yet to be determined. There are guys in this league that are his stature that have done it and done it well. I'm not willing to say he can't. But right now we don't need to find out if he can because we have another guy that can do that. So I think by committee this will be a very good unit."

That guy is BJGE, one of the consummate pros Lewis has been stocking the last few years. (See Geathers, R; Whitworth, A.; Peko, D.; Hall, L.; Johnson, M., etc.)

"Having a veteran like that in the room definitely helps. You see the game through his eyes almost," Bernard said. "I'm glad he's on my team and he's in the running back group. He's the type of guy if you don't understand something, if you don't see something, if you don't get something, just go to him and he will definitely help you out. I've been around some people that don't want to share much. Benny's not one of those guys."

Bernard is having trouble finding any of those guys in this locker room.

"One thing I would say is a little bit different than I thought it would be is I thought guys were going to be a lot meaner," Bernard said. "But most of the guys are cool guys. They're always reaching out. They're great character guys and that's what Coach Lewis is trying to do."

The forecast? Seven weeks until the Bengals hope there is some mean thunder and lightning.

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