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Camp report: tight battle


Rookie tight end C.J. Uzomah has the size and speed. On Monday he showed the want to.

Ever since the Bengals gathered in the spring there has been a buzz about their intriguing class of rookie tight ends. One reason is because the shortest of them is 6-6 and the other reason is because they need their tight ends backing up Tyler Eifert to replace the blocking of Jermaine Gresham.

After Monday's first day in full pads, the kids did nothing to quell the buzz. The Bengals are looking for these athletic, lean guys to mix it up and they had no problem doing that. Undrafted Eastern Kentucky's 6-8 Matt Lengel had an impressive day, locking up third-round pick P.J. Dawson in one-on-one pass rush against the linebackers and then wiping fourth-rounder Marcus Hardison off the edge in 11-on-11.

Fifth-rounder C.J. Uzomah, the 6-6, 271-pounder from Auburn who came in with an advertised 4.6-second  40-yard dash, got a good block  on right end Will Clarke in 11-in-11 and stood up linebacker Chris Carter in the one-on-one stuff in a week that Carter has been virtually un-blockable.

"It's a good start. I think we've got a bunch of capable guys," said tight ends coach Jon Hayes, yielding even less ground than when he blocked at tight end in the NFL for 12 seasons. "We just have to develop them."

Uzomah and third-rounder Tyler Kroft came out of college known for their catching but they held up OK in the physical game Monday. For instance, the 6-6 Kroft got enough leverage and hands on athletic nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur in 1-on-1 and running back Giovani Bernard pecked out some yards behind him on a few runs in the team stuff.

The other rookie, 6-8 local favorite John Peters via Cincinnati's Lakota West High School and Mount St. Joseph, is in his first practices as a tight end on any level and is trying to get to the practice squad. Jake Murphy, undrafted out of Utah who spent the last half of last season on the practice squad, is a mere 6-4 trying to get noticed.

But it is Uzomah and Lengel that get you thinking. Kroft figures to make it behind Eifert. And Uzomah oozes so much potential it's hard to see them cutting him. But if that sixth wide receiver never emerges, or isn't as good as the potential of say a Lengel, could they possibly keep four tight ends?

Who knows? Just enjoy watching them run around. Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst for 30 years, says it's the best tight end group from to bottom he's ever seen in a Bengals training camp.

Start with some New England irony. Lengel began his college career at the only place that offered him a football ride coming out of Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley High School, Boston's Northeastern University. It happens to be the home of the greatest Bengals' pass-catching tight end, the late Dan Ross, Lapham's good friend on Cincinnati's 1981 AFC champions who set the Super Bowl record for tight ends with 11 catches.

 "It sounds familiar," Lengel said of Dan Ross before he was told more. "Oh wow, I didn't  know that."

Lengel probably would have heard of Ross if Northeastern hadn't dropped football after he red-shirted. He had more offers than he did out of high school and it turned out that playing in Eastern's ground game probably helped him get noticed by the pros. EKU ran the spread but, as Hayes notes, Lengel had his hand on the ground like he does here.  

"That's how I sold myself to teams. That I can do that other stuff, the blocking," Lengel said. " "We had a saying at Eastern. When in doubt, run the power. We were a running team. I'm not afraid to work on other parts of my game,  but that's what I had to be good at."

Lengel could be one of those diamonds-in-the-rough. They think they've already got one in Uzomah. After they made their fourth-round pick, Hardison, the defensive tackle from Arizona State, there was a sigh in some quarters as they looked to the fifth round.

"I wish there was a fifth-round pick as clear as Marv Jones a few years ago,' some wished.

"There is,' others said. "Uzomah."

The  knock on Uzomah is Auburn didn't throw it to him very much and, like Lengel, he comes out of a spread offense. But, unlike Lengel, he played in a two-point stance coming out of the backfield.

So Uzomah felt it was extremely important on Monday to hit, hit again, and ask questions later.

"My M.O. today was coming off the ball hard," Uzomah said. "I know the steps and getting my hands inside are going  to come. But I wanted to show the coaches I'm a physical guy. That's because I haven't shown any of that in college. I wasn't a down blocker. I was just trying to drive at the point of attack. I thought for the most part (Monday) the point of the attack was very good. I was a little erratic at times with my angles."

He knows how big the jump is.

Cincinnati Bengals host training camp practice at Paul Brown Stadium 08/03/2015

"Being in a three-point stance and pass protecting is a completely different motion," he said.

But plays like the one at the end of practice Monday can help soften the growing pains in the blocking game. The kid is hard to cover. He ran a drag route and completely lost the linebacker across the middle and was wide open for one of the day's rare big completions.

 "We know he can run and catch. But what I wanted to see is how he blocks and he's not apprehensive about it at all. He stuck his nose in there," Lapham  said after practice. "He's got broad shoulders, wide hips. Danny Ross, God rest his soul, never blew people off the line of scrimmage. But he occupied them, he fought them and that's the kind of thing you need at the tight end position and I think they have the candidates to do that…(Ross) would come back to the huddle saying, 'That guy kicked my tail,' but we got six yards on a running play."

WILL POWER: With Margus Hunt yet to take a snap, Michael Johnson down for what looks to be at least a couple of weeks with an knee MCL sprain, and Wallace Gilberry resting Monday what looks to be a sore hamstring, Will Clarke better hope he doesn't shrink back to 270 pounds with all the work he's going to get at both left and right end.

Even before all that, Clarke found himself and Gilberry moving over to left end and Carlos Dunlap taking a few snaps at right end.

"Carlos switched (Sunday) when Mike went down. Carlos usually plays the left defensive end and he went to right defensive end and I went to left," Clarke said before Monday's practice. "I'll play right from time to time, but coach wants us to be versatile and be able to put each hand down just in case they want to move us around and put different groups of guys in there at different times, especially if we're going to have the rotation that we're anticipating we'll have."

There are high expectations for Clarke, the 2014 third-rounder. He has put on 20 pounds to get to 290 and they love his weight-room work ethic. They just feel like they need to get him reps after he played only 64 snaps as a rookie. He's getting them now and he looks quite comfortable at his new weight.

"I'm not getting displaced as easily as I was last year. (Sunday) was the first day of pads, so there's still a lot of things to determine," Clarke said of the move to shoulder pads. "But the displacement on double-team blocks, I'm not getting moved as easy."

Later Monday in the half-line drill, Clarke showed his strength when he muscled rookie left tackle Jake Fisher out of the way on one snap. Like Johnson before him picking the brains of Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom, Clarke has been picking it up from Johnson and Dunlap.

"Just working half a man and being more violent, doing fluid moves and continue to rush the passer. Be able to rush full speed while doing a move and getting your hips out and things of that nature," Clarke said. "Michael and Carlos, that's what their specialty is, working half man, working the pass rush move. So they've just been trying to help me with different moves that would involve moving guys with my upper body and with my hands and stuff like that, different techniques. And I'm trying to implement the same thing they do into myself."


Carlos Dunlap, seen last season, loomed large Monday.

PLAY OF THE DAY: Another tough day for the offense. The fact is, this defensive line is all over the place, from the starters to the third-teamers, and it has dominated during the first two days of pads. All the quarterbacks have been under the gun, which didn't make for many big plays in 11-on-11 on Monday. Not all that jarring since the defense is usually ahead of the offense, but the offense could use some big plays. On Monday, the only big passes came to wide-open tight ends, Uzomah and Eifert.

One good play for the offense came in the final team drill when quarterback Andy Dalton threw a screen to running back Giovani Bernard. Left guard Clint Boling, an excellent athlete, did  a good job getting out in front and center Russell Bodine was there to finish it off with a pad-cracking block on linebacker Jayson DiManche.

PLAYER OF THE DAY: Dunlap, like many of his linemates, couldn't be stopped Monday. One back-to-back sequence showed just how dominant Dunlap can be if he can harness his bountiful gifts more consistently. Right tackle Andre Smith has had an excellent camp. He's lost 23 pounds and has been flying all over the place. But on two straight snaps Dunlap simply blew by Smith off the edge to blow up both plays. The guy's skills are just immense.

"We have to win one-on-ones. That's the main emphasis  in what we're doing with the pass rush,' said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Guenther on tackle Devon Still's strong camp:

"He's in the best shape he's been in since he's been here. He's a man on a mission. He's trying to win a spot on the team just like all these other guys.  He's doing pretty well so far. Obviously he had a lot on his mind last year. He's got a different  mindset. He's all about work and he's focused on football."

QUOTE OF THE DAY II: Guenther on WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict's first appearance of training camp on the rehab field:

"He's doing everything the trainers are asking him to do. Just like the defense, he has to put one day on top of the other. When he's ready to go, he'll be ready to go."

SLANTS AND SCREENS:  After Burfict (knee) surfaced with his teammates and joined Hunt, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and linebacker Sean Porter (knee) on the rehab field, he looked as good as the others and it looks like his return is still set for a few more weeks. Guenther has been talking about getting him ready for the third preseason game…

Guenther said Michael Johnson would be out "a few weeks." …

Starting running back Jeremy Hill ended practice on the sidelines with ice on his knee, but it didn't appear serious. Wide receivers Marvin Jones (muscle soreness) and Onterio McCalebb (knee) didn't work….

Like he did on Sunday when he hit rookie wider receiver Mario Alford on a corner route to end an inconsistent day, backup quarterback AJ McCarron did it again when he ended an up-and-down practice on a crisp crossing pattern to wide receiver Tevin Reese…

The Bengals continue to be bothered by bad snaps. Trey Hopkins, who is backing up Bodine, fired a low shot-gun snap to McCarron and that blew up one play in 11-on-11…

Rookie kicker Tom Obarski tried his first series of six field goals and missed one when he hooked it wide left…

Alford handled a couple of Kevin Huber punts that were high and twisting to the sidelines. The technique isn't always aces, but he's showing good hands and alertness. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons can teach him the rest and, my, the kid can jet…

Brandon Tate, one of the incumbents, had a rare dropped punt when he ran up on a liner…

Speaking of Tate, he moved into Jones' spot when he couldn't go, which seems to indicate he's the leader-in-the-clubhouse for that fifth receiver spot behind Jones, Alford, A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu. But the big questions are if Alford is going to be active on Sundays, if anyone else emerges, and if they'll chase another wide out late in the preseason.

One guy who is poking his head out of the pack is Jake Kumerow, the undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He's raised some eyebrows, he just needs to be more consistent.

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