Dalton's first debut

Andy Dalton

Justin Fuente, TCU's co-offensive coordinator and Andy Dalton's position coach, isn't quite sure what his top pupil is going to experience Wednesday when the Bengals rookie quarterback makes his NFL practice debut.

"I've never coached or played in the NFL," Fuente said.

Hey, join the club, Coach. There are seasoned NFL vets all about the country that have never been involved in any NFL like this and have no idea what to expect, either, as the lockout hits 90 days on Thursday.

The Bengals usher in their new era Wednesday when they gather on the site of the old meeting grounds. They huddle for the first time this season as a team at the University of Cincinnati, where they played their games during their first two seasons in the NFL all those years ago.

Those Baby Bengals of expansion had helmets and coaches and while these Lockout Bengals have neither, that hasn't doused their enthusiasm with 47 players in tow during the first two days of the voluntary voluntaries, as reported by various media outlets.

The front men with the money and logistics are left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko, according to the published reports, but Fuente thinks Dalton will eventually grow into a similar leadership role.

"He was like the Pied Piper around here," Fuente said Tuesday from Texas. "No matter what time he told the receivers he was throwing, all of them were there. We loved him. He doesn't come off as pompous and the players respond to that. Once he gets comfortable, he won't do it in a demeaning way, but he'll correct."

With Whitworth informing the media a few weeks ago that he's got a copy of new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's playbook (the lockout was lifted one day during the draft), it can be assumed that Dalton also has a copy. That's not to be underestimated, Fuente says, even though Dalton has no coaches to teach it or veterans to help him because they are new to it, too. Even without the coaches, Dalton can memorize the names of plays and protections as well as learn the formations.

"He doesn't have a photographic memory, but he's a real bright guy; very smart," Fuente said. "He's got the ability to digest a lot of information in a short amount of time and give it back to you. And he's one of these guys that you tell him how to do something and it sticks. If you tell him to read something this way or that way, or tell him something with his footwork, he reps it once or twice and you don't have to worry about it."

Even though Fuente says the Horned Frogs' base personnel group had Dalton in the shotgun with four wide receivers, he says the transition to taking the center snap is hardly going to register.

"They may have to tweak a few things, but his training and background is actually under center," Fuente said. "We ran some of that and he'd always want us to put a little more of it in, so that's not going to be a problem once they get him because that's been the foundation of his game."

Fuente talks to Dalton often and says he's anxious to get a foundation here. With not only football, but life in general.

"I look at him in a fatherly way, we've been together so long," Fuente said. "This has been a tough deal. A lot of these guys just got through a process where they were waiting to see if they got drafted, where they got drafted, how high they got drafted, and now they can't even practice. But he's fired up. He's thrilled. He's got his wedding on the horizon (next month) and he's anxious to start practicing. You want him to go to a good, stable situation, and I've talked to Jay Gruden a few times and he seems like a great guy. It sounds like it's going to be a good fit."

Yet you don't have to be a two-time Pro Bowler to realize the enormity of the challenge staring at Dalton.

"I don't know if he could come in under any more difficult circumstances. When you think about it, it really is amazing," Fuente said. "If anybody thinks there's not going to be a few blips in the process, they're kidding themselves. The two questions in my mind are how he's going to adapt to the complexity and speed of the game. A lot of intelligent guys can't play quarterback. It comes down to those four big guys chasing you trying to tear your head off and the kind of decisions you make."

But Fuente saw how Dalton persevered in Dallas in an up-by-the-bootstrap program. With all this talk about a new playbook, he says don't judge this book by its cover.

"The thing about Andy is his strength of character and how he lives his life," Fuente said. "He's incredibly polite. In the conversations I've had with him, he comes across so humble and he's concerned with serving others. But that doesn't mean he's not a tough competitor. He's as tough as a competitor as I've ever seen.

"If he hears someone doubts he can do something, like say throw a comeback route, he'll just say, 'Oh yeah? Watch this.' He doesn't lack for confidence. He's not arrogant and he's not one of these guys that's going to be in the middle of it yelling. But he's got enough confidence in himself to get it done."

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