BUFORD, Ga. — Orson Charles didn't take it as an insult when the Bengals told him they wanted him to switch to fullback after playing his rookie season at tight end.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and new running backs coach Hue Jackson went right to the top when they made the pitch.
"I was happy because looking at a couple of fullbacks in the league like the guy from the Texans (now Eagle James Casey), Marcel Reece, Delanie Walker, they're fullback guys that move around," Charles says. "The offense flows through them and they're key guys on the offense. That's what Coach Hue says he sees in me. I have to clean up some little things so I can show the coaches I can do the job."
The position is so new in these parts that there had even been some uncertainty about the name of it until head coach Marvin Lewis set Jackson straight. Jackson sees Charles as a pure fullback because he lives in his meeting room. Lewis has put on the depth chart "H-B/FB." As in "H-back." Think a hybrid fullback/tight end.
But Jackson can be excused for calling Charles a pure fullback. Gruden says Charles will move back to tight end for a little bit next week, but as Charles says, "They already know what I can do as a tight end."
And for now, at least, Charles is a pure fullback as he learns the nuts and bolts in a literal crash course. Just the fact he's willing to try is a feather in his cap, Jackson says.
"To take that on without any reservation. To not say, 'Hey put me back at tight end,' " Jackson says. "That's a violent and physical position that's head-popping all the time. You have to have the will and desire to want to do that. He does. He's growing. He's getting better."
Lewis says Jackson "hand-picked" Charles for the position after he took the running backs job in the wake of 29-year coach Jim Anderson's retirement. As the offensive coordinator and then head coach of the Raiders, Jackson employed the undrafted Reece in a similar role and the 6-3, 255-pounder has turned into a beast.
Last year Reece carried 59 times for a 4.6-yard average while catching 52 balls in 676 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Then there is the 6-3, 235-pound Casey, who played 668 snaps, 260 of them on passes and 365 on runs, according to PFF while catching 34 balls and running once.
The 6-1, 240-pound Walker, drafted by San Francisco in the sixth round as a wide receiver in 2006, has been listed as both a fullback and tight end down through the years. Last season he had 21 catches for a 16.4-yard average in 717 snaps that PFF says was split up on 319 passes and 360 runs.
So while it may be a position of versatility, it is also a valve, fitting where the engine needs it. Blocker? Receiver? Runner? After watching the 6-3, 245-pound Charles catch eight balls last season, the Bengals think he can give people matchup fits out of the backfield.
"That fits into how he comes along and Jay's vision of the offense," Jackson says. "I'm not comparing him to Marcel Reece, but he's got a similar skill set. He can run and he can catch."
And that's the thing. The whole idea of the H-back is to make defensive coordinators queasy.
"You're playing from an advantage because you can put those guys in so many different spots," Jackson says. "A guy can be in the backfield, split out wide. It's hard to set a plan as a defensive coordinator. It's hard to predict where they're going to be from week to week. It's a defensive nightmare in so many ways."
With Charles listed first on the depth chart ahead of two traditional, straight-ahead fullbacks in John Conner and Chris Pressley (Pressley may be headed to PUP since he hasn't worked yet in training camp rehabbing his knee), the Bengals look ready to make a drastic change in their offensive mix. Last year before Pressley got hurt in the 14th game in Philadelphia, he played just 187 snaps.
If the Bengals think Charles can be as effective as other H-backs, he'll be on the field a lot more than that. He got a taste of it after Pressley got hurt in finishing the season with 308 snaps, according to PFF.
"This spot should be interchangeable (with tight end), but since he was brand new last year and pretty raw, we wanted to take baby steps with him," Gruden said. "As long as they can do enough damage on the outside to make you a viable target, then when you come back inside and run your power game and two-back running game and play-action it makes it tough for a defense to handle.
"Variety is good. We're working on both those aspects. Two tight ends in the running game and we're also working the power running game with fullbacks."
It's hard to see the Bengals keeping two fullbacks, so the big question is if Charles can handle the monster blocking that has kept Pressley and Conner in the league as traditional big boppers.
"There are all kinds of fullbacks in this league. Everybody thinks the fullback position is a bruiser that knocks you on your back. Not every guy has that," Jackson said. "There are some guys that can stop you and get in your way. Some guys get pushed back. Whatever that is, the runner wants to know what it is so he can play off it.
"(Charles) is not a bruiser yet, but we're trying to make him one. He has the characteristics to do it."
After what Gruden saw Charles do in the Oklahoma Drill, he thinks he can be a mauler, too. Charles took on the first-, second- and third-team middle linebackers (245-pound Rey Maualuga, 250-pound Vinnie Rey, 232-pound J.K. Schaffer) and got better.
And that's the biggest change. From blocking right up on the line to blocking off the line of scrimmage in space behind the line.
"I don't mind contact at all," Charles said. "I don't think there's too much a change. There's more contact that I definitely don't mind.
"Finding the guy that you have to block and just going to meet him in the hole, that's more of a want thing. You've got to want to do it. You've got to do it for your running back who's running hard."
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, that guy running hard, is learning Charles as Charles learns the position and Green-Ellis likes what he sees.
"It's going to be an adjustment. You have to take it day by day. It's not too much different than what he was doing last year," BJGE said. "But it's just a whole different mindset; a mentality is going to be his biggest thing and playing a whole lot lower. Because when he comes out of his stance, before he's used to the guy being right over him, now he has to get his pads down."
When the Bengals first offense was on the goal line Thursday night, BJGE followed in Charles for two touchdowns.
"He's a big, strong guy. He just has to play with a lower pad level. He's doing well. There are still times he has to make sure his pad level is down and keeping his hands inside," BJGE said. "It's not like John or Chris where they've been playing fullback for a while. He's doing a good job; he just has to work on the little things like we all do."
The perfectionist Green-Ellis says it's a process working in concert with a fullback.
"We always want to see things through the same set of eyes," he said. "I have to know what he's thinking before he thinks it. That's what is going to make us a good offense."
And, the Bengals hope, a little bit of variety.