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Burrow's Pocket Cool Formed In The Horseshoe Heat

Joe "Cool," Burrow in the pocket.
Joe "Cool," Burrow in the pocket.

Remember, he was one of those guys. A scout-team-back-up-back-of-the-depth-chart quarterback they would throw to the wolves and the first defense. And sometimes on student appreciation day at rabid Ohio State you didn't know which was which.

So when the Bengals defense came after Joe Burrow Tuesday in that first padded NFL practice, no wonder it rolled off him like a 10-foot putt on the Scarlet and Gray.

"When young quarterbacks go live against the one defense or two defense, that is not a pretty thing some times in spring football," says Luke Fickell as the patient University of Cincinnati head coach set the scene.

"He not only had to do it once, I think he had to do it twice," says Fickell, then one of the Buckeyes' defensive coordinators. "That's the defense's show. Especially some of those days when you have fans or students there, it gets pretty wild. Anybody that can handle that, I would have taken him on defense, I can tell you that."

Be clear that Burrow's offensive line is so much better than all that. It wasn't live like that Tuesday. It will only be a little live in Friday's scrimmage. And since he's wearing an orange jersey, they can't touch him like Joey Bosa and Tyquan Lewis could. When old friend Sam Hubbard batted a Burrow pass that ended up in a Carlos Dunlap red-zone interception on Tuesday, why would it faze him?

It was like old home week. Before LSU and the Heisman there was Ohio State and those gold-plated defenses against green offensive lines with a cringing mother in the stands.

"His dad wasn't there," says Fickell of Jimmy Burrow. "He was coaching.

"He might not have got hit much at LSU, I don't know," Fickell says. "He got hit plenty in his first couple years of college."

Hubbard counts five NFL draft picks on his Buckeyes defensive line salivating in those scrimmages against Burrow. Burrow called the shots against a defense that sent seven players to the first round of the NFL Draft from 2016-18, but it was he who usually took the shots.

"Joe never backed down from anything. One of the most competitive guys on the field at all times," Hubbard says. "He'll pop up faster than the person that hit him. That's his mentality and that's the way he plays the game, which it's why it's so contagious."

A spry free safety named Vonn Bell, who would go to the pros in the second round of 2016, caught the kid's act when Burrow had just arrived from Athens, Ohio. The already worldly Bell, raised in Tennessee before playing for a Georgia state championship, saw something then, too.

Fickell may have winced, but he was blitzing and letting them loose in those scrimmages. Bell didn't usually blitz back then, but he thinks he may have gotten Burrow on the sidelines once or twice. Joey Bosa got him a few times, he thinks.

"They were getting after him up front," Bell says. "That's how he got the clock in his head for the progression down the field. If he didn't have anything, he took off running. Very mobile quarterback. He can make plays with his legs. He takes what the defense gives him. That's what makes him great.

"He never batted an eye. He always stepped up to the plate. He's got that character. That little swagger. He'd get up, brush it off and just keep going. That's how he got the clock in his head."

Now through the power of free agency, Bell, with already five NFL playoff starts by the age of 25, is lurking back there again watching Burrow as a Bengal. The memories are easy to find.

"When I was going against him in practice, I saw he had something to him. He's got that grit to him. You can tell he loves ball," Bell says. "And that's the biggest thing. He has fun with it and that's what made him go out and compete every day. He wasn't getting the recognition at that time. He was just enjoying the game and enjoying getting better every day and how he contributed to the team. That's what made him a great teammate and a high character guy."

Coordinators have to know temperament as well as tendencies. Fickell loved what Burrow showed on those scrimmage days. It wasn't so much what he did against the blue chippers, but how he did it. He didn't gripe about the guys blocking for him or roll his eyes as he was getting rolled while thinking he didn't deserve to be hit.

"All quarterbacks are going to take those hits. It's how they react to them," Fickell says. "Does he think, 'This is B.S.?' Do you have that demeanor that says, 'Those stupid guys in front of me, they stink.' Anybody can take a hit and get up. But do you have the right attitude about it? It's a really crappy situation when you're playing behind that line and they're lighting you up.

"He didn't complain. He didn't moan about it. He kept going. He earned an incredible amount of respect for his physical toughness. And mental toughness for going through the situations he had to go through. Whether it was two (quarterbacks) in front of him or somebody else jumps in front of him. That mental toughness to still continue to grow, have a plan, execute a plan, that doesn't happen to even the most talented people in the world because you're crushed by those mental situations."

For a year, Bell saw Burrow stack anonymous days on top of nondescript practice scripts.

"He'd get himself better every day," Bell says. "He went out there with a chip on his shoulder to get better and to make us better as a team."

Of course, Burrow's first NFL game is against Joey Bosa's Chargers next month. And Fickell has to laugh. Burrow, he says, knows, "Bosa is more pass first, react to run."

Bosa, the third overall pick in Bell's draft, might have actually held off leveling him now that Fickell thinks about it.

"Joey's probably a good enough friend. He would have listened to me," Fickell says. "If you come free, 'please just don't kill the guy.' Joey probably would have listened and just chucked him. But the rest of them …"

Burrow figures to get some pressure in Friday's scrimmage and the Aug. 30 scrimmage. But he won't get the high heat until that Sept. 13 date with Bosa and the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium. Fickell and friends have no doubt how he'll respond. He talks quarterbacks often with his best friend, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, because that's what defensive coaches do. It helps Vrabel shared a work space with Tom Brady for so many years.

"You need one of two guys," Fickell says. "You need a Hall-of-Famer like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Or you need a guy that can relate to those linemen and can relate to those guys and be one of their best friends and hang out with them and be a dude. Even if he's not a Hall-of-Fame quarterback, he can get everyone around him and make them better because of his work ethic, his personality, his abilities. I'm not saying he's not Tom Brady. I'm not saying he's not Peyton Manning. I know the people around him love him."

The pads are on and so are the expectations. The thing is, in a lot of ways, Burrow has already been here.

"Never batted an eye," Bell says.