It doesn't take much for old guard Dave Lapham to get pumped up about any upcoming season, but talk about two new guards and the long-time Bengals radio analyst immediately starts sizzling about 2012.
"You've got the consummate pro at left guard," Lapham is saying as he watches the Wednesday practice of mandatory minicamp. "At right guard you've got the young kid who wants to be great. They're examples of how high-caliber this locker room is. There's no jerk factor. It's unbelievable. The bleep quotient is zero and these guys fit right in."
Travelle Wharton is the consummate pro bringing his 99 starts from Carolina at both left guard and tackle replacing Nate Livings. Kevin Zeitler is the first-round pick replacing one of the Marvin Lewis era's standbys in Bobbie Williams. Livings and Williams were the starters on two of the last three lines that went to the playoffs, but the winds of change have buffeted the outlook.
"They are certainly a little more athletic at guard now," Lapham says.
Paul Alexander, who has been the Bengals line coach since Zeitler was in kindergarten in suburban Milwaukee, says he's never seen a player with more determination to succeed than the kid that played at Wisconsin.
"I was impressed before the draft," Alexander says after practice. "Now I'm really impressed."
Wharton and Zeitler are getting plenty of work. The one concern is getting their timing down with each other and Alexander is taking care of that by giving the first line an inordinate number of spring snaps, more than half he says.
"We don't have musical chairs; everybody is lining up where everybody is going to be so that shouldn't be a problem as long as we can keep everybody together," he says.
And, the transition has been smooth because the O-line has "The Chef" quietly keeping the varying ingredients bubbling with just the right chemistry. Kyle Cook heads into his fourth season and people are starting to take notice. Alexander calls him "one of the best centers in football," and doles out this high praise for an offensive line room where Rich Braham is still royalty:
"I haven't been around one that's smarter. He's at his best sniffing out blitzes, calling protections, aligning the run calls."
Alexander catches himself catching offensive coordinator Jay Gruden asking after some snaps, "How did he do that?" and Alexander just shakes his head. "But he did."
Wharton has seen this kind of guy before. He played next to Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil in Carolina. His one adjustment is that Cook rattles off so much information at the line that sometimes Wharton has to tell him, "Don't tell the defense what we're doing. I've got it."
"Communication is one of his strong points," Wharton says. "He reading the safety, he's reading everything and the window is only so big and he's spitting it out right now. Cook is smart, physical, tough. All the things you're looking for in a center."
Wharton says Cook has helped ease a transition complicated by fact he's doing everything differently than he did in Carolina because of the change in technique. But Wharton likes the new style so much he says he told left tackle Andrew Whitworth, "Y'all been cheating up here. It all fits together with the offense."
Cook was the first lineman to talk to Wharton after he signed in March. And when Zeitler got drafted, there was a natural Big-10-upper-midwest bond with Cook. Cook, a Michigan native, played at Michigan State and, like Zeitler, likes to keep it simple.
While Zeitler has no car, Cook has never been able to give up his 2001 Ford truck. He recently bought a new one, but keeps the oldie but goodie around to drive around town. Until it broke down recently.
"I offered to sell it to Zeitler but he didn't want it," Cook says before practice. "I was going to sell it for $1,500, but for him, its $2,000."
Zeitler is used to getting a raft of verbal abuse as the kid on the line. He laughs. He came into the NFL heralded as one of the smartest guys of all-time because of what has been reported as either a 33 or 40 Wonderlic on his mental aptitude test. Either way it's out of 50 and very good.
But Zeitler says he's no Cook.
"He's so much smarter than me in football it's not even funny," Zeitler says. "A lot of that is experience and I'm the least experienced. And he knows this offense like that. Anything you need to know, he knows it."
Cook has hosted Zeitler and Notre Dame rookie guard Trevor Robinson at his Loveland home recently, along with veteran tackle Dennis Roland and Cook grilled out some chicken,
"Great house, great grill. He had some Rice-A-Roni, too," says Zeitler, who has been sentenced to a hotel until he finds a place. "It was a lot better than what I've been used to."
The changing of the guard has brought a change in physical chemistry because Zeitler is about 30 pounds lighter than Williams, and Wharton has a more athletic rep than Livings. But Alexander and his line don't see a difference and Cook says he still sees the same physical mindset the Bengals have used in the AFC North wars. Alexander calls Williams one of the best run blocking guards in the league, but says Zeitler is a good run blocker.
"Zeitler is a big, physical young guy," Cook says. "He's obviously not as experienced as Bobbie, but I think the styles are pretty similar."
And Wharton, who is about the same size as Livings, cringes a bit when someone uses the word "finesse" around him. He takes pride in his own physicality.
"We ran the ball pretty well in Carolina," Wharton says modestly after the Panthers finished third in NFL rushing three of the last four years.
Lapham can't wait to see it. He admits we won't really know how the spring and summer have all come together until the Sept. 10 opener in Baltimore.
"When the noise is deafening and they switch looks with 10 seconds left on the play clock and you've got to communicate it with everything on the line," he says, and he senses they can. "These are good, solid guys in the locker room. They set the bar high (with Livings and Williams) and there's been no dropoff."