Bengals up front about athletes

5-26-04, 3:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

On Tuesday, his teammates on the defensive line found out the nickname Matthias Askew has had ever since that first day he stepped on a football field.

"Huey," the rookie tackle reported unabashedly after practice.

For "Baby Huey?"

"You would have to assume," said defensive tackle John Thornton, the six-year veteran who compares Askew to a first-round draft pick he played with at Tennessee in Albert Haynesworth. "You get tired of calling a guy, 'Matthias,' all day."

The name of the game is speed. Size is nice, but. . .

"The minute I went out there," Askew recalled, "I was bigger than the seniors. They all looked like little kids. I was the big, goofy kid and it kind of stuck with me."

Now he's no longer goofy, just gangly at 6-5 and 310 pounds of pure, uncut potential. With Bengaldom yearning for a land mass that would anchor a front bludgeoned for nearly 140 yards per game on the ground last year, head coach Marvin Lewis, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and defensive line coach Jay Hayes stood true to their principles of athleticism in the fourth round and took Askew, the Michigan State junior who was then dubbed by some draftnicks as "The Steal of the Draft," because they felt he was destined to be a first-rounder next year if he stayed in East Lansing.

And, if national reports are true and the Bengals are poised to sign Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener next week, the same philosophy is at work. The 6-6, 300-pound Gardener lives on speed and strength and not pounds.

"We want athletic people period. I don't care what your body looks like," Hayes said. "If you're athletic, we can use you. We want guys who are going to stay on their feet."

The Bengals and Gardener's agent still aren't commenting on last month's reports that they've reached a four-year deal. Neil Schwartz has confirmed his client's intense interest in Cincinnati because of the relationship he built with Lewis in Washington during the 2002 season. Although the reports said that the Broncos gave permission for Schwartz to talk to other teams several months ago, they don't plan to cut him until June 1.

The Bengals' players have heard the reports of the 31-year-old Gardener's possible arrival.

"If he doesn't come, I think we're still going to be OK. If he does, then we're that much better," Thornton said. "I've just heard the stories about him. About how big he is, how he looks like a monster and he's going to make me and everybody else look small. It should be fun."

Hayes was having some fun after practice with his two fourth-rounders, Askew and Georgia end Robert Geathers. They were looking through a catalogue and Hayes asked, "What are you getting for me?" and when Askew said, "Anything you want, Coach," Hayes just smiled.

"Sure, sure," he said, knowing that's what 21- year-olds say.

"He's not even 22. He's a good person. He has to learn what it takes to play in this league," Hayes said. "He's got a lot of potential. He's a natural pass rusher. As a coaching staff, we have to bring it out of him. We have to be patient enough with him to see that he does have these things and get it out of him."

Askew, a Miami native, came out a year early to make money for his family. He insists he was on course to graduate, but it was something he felt he had to do, and he realizes now into his third week of on-field work that this is a much different game.

"Fast. Trust me. Fast," Askew said. "Those are grown men out there. It's a matter of me adjusting to my surroundings. The playbook is (the toughest adjustment). There are a lot of checks. You're down in your stance, there's the ball, and the man across from you, and you get the checks coming from behind you really fast before they snap the ball."

The word on Askew is he needs to be pushed. The good word is he doesn't mind.

"I've sensed that a little bit," Hayes said. "It's not like he's defiant. He's young. One or two times he thinks he's going hard, or he thinks he got nicked up and I'm like, 'You decided to come out and be a man, I'm going to treat you like a man. This is a man's deal. This ain't college. If you don't feel good and they might baby you,' I don't have time to do that with him and he understands that. He does have that in him a little now and then. That kind of wallowing, and not just that burst and burst and burst like I need from him."

The likeable, earnest Askew has no problems with it. He figures, "It's when they're not getting on you, then you have to start worrying.

"My big problem is my height," he said. "Standing up on the ball. I've got to work on staying low."

Some insiders feel that Askew can contribute this year as a roll-through player in a tackle rotation that also has Thornton, Gardener and Tony Williams. If he is, it's because he has worked on three areas outlined by Hayes.

"He's strong, but he's not as strong as he probably will be and he has to work on that," Hayes said. "And he has to play low and stay on his feet."

After watching the 6-6, 320-pound Haynesworth make similar adjustments in Tennessee, Thornton thinks Askew is going to be able to help pretty soon.

"He's been playing hard here," Thornton said. "I'm sure he'll learn as he goes along, and once he gets in pads it will be easier for him to get better and see where he is. He's obviously got a lot of talent."

Williams has noted the drafting of Askew and has heard the buzz about Gardener, but he has no doubts that he is still in the mix. He says his weight is at 293 pounds, which was his weight at the scouting combine eight years ago, and his body fat is down from last year. He has a big salary cap number ($2 million plus) as he heads into the last year of his contract, but Lewis likes to keep around players who have a lot on the line.

"I've played with good players. That doesn't bother me," Williams said. "I feel like I'm going to be the best out there when all is said and done and that if I'm not out there it's because of politics. I'm ready to play."

Gardener seems to fit the profile of the hungry veteran player with something to prove that Lewis has been seeking. The Bengals have already signed guys like safety Kim Herring, middle linebacker Nate Webster, right guard Bobbie Williams and traded for cornerback Deltha O'Neal. Herring missed all last season with a broken arm and wants to show he hasn't gone anywhere. Webster has been a career backup committed to proving he can be a starter. Like Webster, Bobbie Williams sat in Philadelphia behind some good players and is dying to prove he is a solid No. 1, and O'Neal went from the Pro Bowl to the doghouse in two curious years in Denver.

Gardener also found the going tough in Denver this past season, where he was suspended for two games for conduct detrimental to the team just months after signing a seven-year, $34.8 million deal. Denver fought to recoup the $5 million signing bonus, and whatever agreement they came up with is going to spring Gardener next week, according to national reports.

Although he's coming off a year of problems, the best year of Gardener's career came with Lewis in 2002, when he was good enough to be the Most Valuable Player on a Washington defense that also featured Champ Bailey, LaVar Arrington, and Bruce Smith. Schwartz has been saying all offseason that Gardener would love to play for Lewis again.

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