Centering the draft

2-20-03, 8:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ The Bengals are looking for young, athletic offensive linemen in the interior like University of Miami center Brett Romberg.

The 6-2, 290-pound Romberg, South Florida's wordsmith, is looking for a team like the Bengals that has put all hands on deck to right the ship.

They found each other here at the NFL scouting combine Wednesday night when the Bengals scheduled Romberg for one of their 60 interview sessions this week with prospects they may take in the first few rounds of the draft.

"Great staff," said Romberg Thursday, never shy about dispensing his many varied and witty opinions. "The whole staff was there. They look really hungry on what they have to do there. They're gutting it. They're looking to change everything around.

"Their big thing is, 'If you ain't with us, get off the boat and good luck somewhere else," Romberg said. "I'm all for people who like to win. The people that put that much more work, more effort, and take pride in what they do, I'm kind of a sucker for things like that."

With center Rich Braham and guards Matt O'Dwyer and Mike Goff all coming off injury-plagued seasons, the Bengals are looking to get younger and healthier inside. Braham, 32, is also a free agent and the Bengals are mulling options in the draft and free agency. When they would opt to draft a center-guard type is a guess, but Romberg and the other top two or three prospects figure to go between rounds two and four.

What is clearer is new head coach Marvin Lewis' desire to find athletes at that spot rather than big bodies.

"You always try to improve your team athletically. Those guys aren't going to help you," said Lewis of the road graders. "At the end of the day, they're on the ground. Guys that are on the ground in football aren't very productive for you."

Romberg has been in the middle of the Hurricanes' wildly successful run and feels his experience in Miami's pro style offense makes him an attractive target. Yet he knows he comes in rated behind Notre Dame's Jeff Faine, an early-out junior who also picked up some pro experience in the first year of Tyrone Willingham's system in South Bend.

And, some gurus have Romberg ranked behind not only Faine, but Wisconsin's Al Johnson and Iowa's Bruce Nelson. All had 15-minute interviews scheduled with the Bengals.

"I have to prove something to the scouts," Romberg said. "Not many words have been spoken (between him and Faine) With the guards and tackles, it's fine. I guess it's a sworn thing with guys you're competing against."

Romberg doesn't know why the 6-2, 297-pound Faine has the nod, but he guesses it's because he's viewed as quicker and more mobile. He was disappointed he did only 27 repetitions of the 225-pound bar Thursday, especially after he continually edged out his Miami teammates by at least two reps in their recent workouts.

But he can tick off his strengths in the team interviews, particularly in discussing the adjustment to the pros.

"I think I fit the bill," Romberg said. "Our scheme at Miami was always three-play checks, or two-play checks, different pro set offenses, so I think I'm well versed in terms of any complicated deals going on the offense."

The Bengals would love a guy that can play both guard and center, and the top centers insist they can make the switch without a problem.

"It would be OK because the centers pull a lot at Notre Dame and the only difference would be you don't have to make so many calls," Faine said.

Faine didn't have the national media eating out of his hand like Romberg did in the week leading up to the national championship loss to Ohio State last month, but he's also an interesting guy. He's majoring in film ("at most schools it's a communications major), did an internship at a local NBC affiliate, and directed a Saturday Night spinoff for one of his projects.

His favorite film is "Heat," but he also gives a thumbs-up to the Notre Dame football cult film "Rudy," which, "I've seen about 1,000 times."

One guy who figures not to be available in the second round is Iowa guard Eric Steinbach after he seamlessly made the move to tackle last month at the Senior Bowl practices. He would be a great fit for the Bengals because they are also looking for a backup tackle, and Steinbach did say the Bengals planned to meet with him in a 15-minute session.

"I've been telling teams I can also play center," Steinbach said. "I'm more comfortable at guard, but after playing tackle all week in the Senior Bowl, I think if I put in a lot of practice and got coached the right way, it could be the position for me in the future."

Romberg played guard early in his career at Miami, but won the national Rimington Award and was a consensus All-American at center.

"Those awards really don't mean anything three months after when its draft time," Romberg said. "It would really mean a lot to me to be the first center taken."

What he's got going for him are brains and toughness. Before Miami went kinder and gentler, they say he is tough enough that he could have played for the Canes when they showed up at bowl games draped in fatigues instead of tradition.

He's also smart enough to figure out the team's puzzling I.Q. exams. Take, " Do you like to be in front of a lot of people when you speak or do you like to be alone?"

"Are you intimidated?" is the way Romberg read it, and, of course, he's not. "Then a page away, they ask, 'Do you get frightened in large places?' It's kind of the same questions."

Plus, he's got a terrific personality going for him that would fit in any locker room. Romberg also interviewed with the Browns and walked into a Miami reunion with some of his teammates, meeting up with head coach Butch Davis and some of the assistant coaches he brought from Miami. Romberg promptly plopped down and did a dead-on imitation of one of the coaches.

But he doesn't think Miami is a fit because they drafted Melvin Fowler out of Maryland in the third round last year

Now Denver. . .

"I wouldn't mind playing in Denver," Romberg said. "I like that style of the leaner, faster, more mobile, athletic centers."

He also wouldn't mind Cincinnati after a meeting that blew up any perception he had of the Bengals. He said it looked like there were about 15 people in the room between scouts and coaches. And Lewis sat right next to him.

"I met Coach (John) Cooper (scouting consultant) and it went all the way around to the tight ends coach," said Romberg of Jonathan Hayes. "Anybody who was anybody on that coaching staff was there. I'm glad to see that team is really interested in winning."

One thing that kept coming back to Romberg during the meeting was his time with Dave Rimington at the dinner for his award. Rimington, of course, was a No. 1 pick of the Bengals in 1983.

"He had some great stories about back in the day of Cincinnati. Good stories," Romberg said. "Great guy. He gave me his number and said to call him anytime I needed anything."

Maybe Romberg, a pretty good storyteller already, gets to tell Rimington a bunch of the next Bengals' stories.

"I'm all for people who like to win," he said.

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