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Bengals Notebook: Looking For Many Happy (Punt) Returns; Jacksonian (Carman) Era Begins; DT Shelvin One Of Big Takeaways

LSU defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin: Big man moves.
LSU defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin: Big man moves.

Asked if an old Kansas punter can teach one of those Kansas comets to catch punts, Darrin Simmons didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely," Simmons said after Friday's rookie minicamp.

If anyone can show scat back Pooka Williams Jr., how to catch those heavenly parabolas, as well as all the others lining up for one of the biggest openings on the Bengals roster, it is Simmons, the Bengals special teams coordinator heading into his 19th season.

During the longest tenure in the league's kicking game, Simmons has coached one AFC punt return champion in Adam Jones and three of the top five all-time Bengals when it comes to punt returns and punt return yards and that includes franchise leader Brandon Tate.

He's trying to replace Alex Erickson, an undrafted free agent whom he guided to the third most punt returns in club history, and there's no one flying off the radar behind cornerback Darius Phillips. Phillips is spectacular and has a stunning return resume from his days at Western Michigan. But he's also been an inconsistent punt catch and battled injuries.

Hence, Simmons deployed two more undrafted rookies on Friday along with two tryout wide receivers (rookie Jimmie Robinson and veteran Trent Taylor) to catch punts from rookie free agent Drue Chrisman and missiles from assistant equipment manager Sam Staley's jugs machine.

Riley Lees, the undrafted Erickson clone from Northwestern, battled the Lake Michigan winds on his share of 53 career punt returns. But Williams, a slight, quicksilver playmaker who scored 17 career touchdowns rushing, receiving and kick returning while in Lawrence, never caught a punt until Simmons put him back there during his pro day.

Simmons, a Kansas native (Elkhart) who averaged 41.7 yards per his 92 punts during two seasons in the mid-90s for the Jayhawks, went home to see if Williams could do it after poring over area scout Christian Sarkisian's encouraging reports.

The answer after Simmons ran the workout must have been yes because he was here Friday catching punts for the second time in his life.

"I think all four of them did a solid job. They caught the ball," Simmons said.

Until Simmons directed them to catch it with one hand, or catch it with one while holding a football, or catch it after the four of them ran in a circle before one of them had to call it as the ball hurtled at them.

"It was impressive," said head coach Zac Taylor. "Four guys catching a lot of punts, no balls on the ground really until the end when we made them carry multiple balls and juggle and the things it's fun to sit there and watch and not actually do.

"But I was impressed. All four of those guys did a nice job. We need some competition at that position with Alex leaving. That's something you'll see battling all through the offseason and training camp and finding a guy that can do that."

Phillips would have to be the leader in the clubhouse and if he can catch it consistently, he's a gem. But don't sell Williams or Lees short. Simmons has done more with less.

The 5-9 Williams looks even lighter than his listed 175 pounds, but his moves are lethal. Sarkisian has kept emphasizing that Williams, whom broke the Kansas Comet's records when he passed Gale Sayers with 1,000-yard seasons as a freshman and sophomore, finished second among draftable running backs in forcing missed tackles.

On Friday, Williams showed off those hands that caught 66 balls out of the backfield during his Kansas career. 

"He's a talented guy once you get the ball in his hands," Simmons said. "He better be relative to his size. It's a big man's game. "He's got ability, we just have to get him acclimated to catching the ball."

Simmons kept reminding him to catch the ball higher. Williams would catch it, but it would seem to be at the last instant as he dipped low to gather it in.

"Remember, that's the second time in his life he's done this," Simmons said. "We can adjust to things and fine-tune it and get better at it. But I was pleased. There are things to build on."

Not exactly easy. Michigan rookie running back Chris Evans has done it in the past (he backed up Jabrill Peppers in Ann Arbor and had one punt return for 15 yards as a freshman five years ago), but not on Friday. He was watching, though.

"It's different seeing the punt going up and you're in an NFL stadium," Evans said. "It's kind of sweet to see."

CARMAN COPY: Even though he's making the switch from big-time blind-side protector as Clemson left tackle to interior NFL player as Bengals right guard, second-rounder Jackson Carman looked pretty comfortable on Friday for a variety of reasons. One, of course, is that he grew up within a 30-minute radius of Paul Brown Stadium, and another is that he seems to get along pretty well with offensive line coach Frank Pollack.

Pollack is a demanding guy and he's got a pretty blunt approach to things. When he asks players questions, he wants specific answers. A general response irks him and isn't good enough for the details a lineman needs to be good. Which is fine with Carman, because he's a film junkie and he had no problem pulling Pollack aside after that first workout to go over his stance.

"We were working on me getting more comfortable in my guard stance and critiquing the nuances and different weight shifting and where my feet exactly should be," Carman said. "Different weight angles and things like that. Just fine tuning some things.

"Everything being on both sides of you," Carman said when asked of the biggest difference at guard, "and having your stance the majority of the time compared to being in a two-point stance."

That's another thing where he looked comfortable. The stance. After back surgery four months ago for a herniated back disk, he was able to get low and stay down as Pollack told him what to do with his feet.

"Ever since I got drafted, I've been lifting my weights, getting my body right, physical therapy, working more right guard and three-point stance work," Carman said, "and getting on the field and getting more comfortable moving around."

The conventional wisdom is Carman is playing guard as a rookie before moving to tackle, but he's already been watching a couple of NFL guards on tape. The attention he's paying to the Colts' Quenton Nelson is significant because Nelson is known as much for his tone-setting intangibles as he is his Pro Bowl domination.

"I love watching Quenton Nelson and (Cowboys guard) Zack Martin. They are two of the best in the game," Carman said. "I actually used to watch Quenton Nelson highlights before every game just to get my mind right and just the intensity I need to play with for the game. Being able to watch guys on tape like that is really going to be able to help me in my transition."

Once the vets report, Carman is going to have help from a guard on his own team that he's known for years. Michael Jordan actually hosted him for his visit to Ohio State.

"He's really been a great resource for me and a great friend," Carman said.

BIG MEN CAMP: After drafting seven linemen, the big takeaway was just that. Big. The Bengals have some new big guys and none bigger than fourth-rounder Tyler Shelvin, the gargantuan LSU defensive tackle. He's listed at 350, but he's got the kind of frame and feet that allow him to move even if he ever puts on a little extra. The big man can move.

"Big T is my guy," said first-rounder Ja'Marr Chase, his college teammate. "T is a very aggressive player. He's one of those players who can always get double teamed and he'll still beat the double team. That's what he did at LSU and you can see it on the film."

Shelvin caught the eye of third-rounder Joseph Ossai, the Texas edge.

"He's a big dude. He's a big dude," Ossai said. "I was working out there with him and he can move pretty well. I'm very impressed with that. That's he that big, that massive and can move like that."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Drue Chrisman, the undrafted punter from Ohio State via Lawrenceburg, Ind., and Cincinnati's LaSalle High School, reminisced about that 41-yard field goal that beat Colerain High back in the day. In the rain and he had pretty much just started kicking the week before because of an injury.

Undrafted Ball State cornerback Antonio Phillips is being brought along slowly after recent back surgery. But he looked like he may be close soon.

Fourth-round tackle D'Ante Smith of East Carolina continues to put on weight and is about 311 pounds. That's after being 283 pounds for the Pirates' opener and in the mid-290s at the Senior Bowl. They love that because his 6-5 frame with 36-inch arms has plenty to fill out.

Take a look inside the Bengals rookie minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium.