Eating to win

5-28-04, 12:50 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

BREAKFAST: Grits. Eggs. Sausage. Oatmeal. Protein drink, "that old people use."

This is what Bengals linebacker Khalid Abdullah inhales in the morning in the first of five eating sessions during the day. This is the top of the menu that has helped him grow from last May's scrawny 220 pounds into this May's steel vat of 232. Throw in his five percent body fat and his 4.5 or 6-something speed in the 40-yard dash, and the Bengals have been very impressed this spring with what's brewing with their second-year backup weak side backer.

"He's quicker, partly because he understands more what is going on, and he's stronger," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier Thursday after the Bengals closed their second week of on-field coaching sessions. "He's becoming in practice the athlete he was in college. Our goal is to get him on the field on some third down with some work ahead of him. But don't discount him on the early downs if he keeps improving."

With veterans Adrian Ross and Dwayne Levels rehabbing knee injuries, all the backup linebackers have opened eyes the past two weeks. The 225-pound rookies, Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson, may indeed end up looking like some form of Abdullah next year.

"You can't predict DNA programming, but the indications are that adding calories to their diet and allowing their bodies to mature, we should see Caleb and Landon get a little bigger and stronger," said strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton. "Khalid made his own adjustments when it came to eating. He's obviously eating better and probably more of it." **

LUNCH: Baked chicken, mash potatoes, peas.**

"I had an immature diet," said Abdullah, 25, a fifth-round draft pick who never bit off more than he could chew at tiny Mars Hill College. In Division II anonymity, he sparkled with Division I athleticism by doing things like setting the school record with 49 tackles for a loss while also returning three interceptions for touchdowns. He flashed like bits and pieces of raw diamonds last year in becoming one of the team's top special teams players.

"I was so busy last year trying to learn my playbook that I would grab anything to eat," Abdullah said. "I might just drink juice and maybe just have a sandwich, maybe a cup of milk if I got hungry, and I'd be lying in bed with my stomach making noises and wonder why I didn't eat more."

SNACK: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The idea is caloric intake. Morton and his assistant, Ray Oliver, take care of the lifting and running in the weight room, and Abdullah has been doing that longer than most this offseason. He came back early in March to rehab the shoulder surgery he had after the season.

"He stays in here a long time, He does extra. He comes in on Fridays," Morton said. "He's still learning, still maturing."

Abdullah is still a young guy, but some times that is good, too. He's young enough to remember how tough it was growing up in Jacksonville Beach. Tough enough that every summer he plans to bring his teen-aged nephews to his home. They are here now, and he puts them through pushups and situps and other sources of fun. Two are 14, the other is 12.

"I just want to show them there's more to life than the old neighborhood," Abdullah said. "Show them what the world is like outside where they're growing up. I try to do some creative things with them, like working them out."

Last year if he got fast food for the kids, he probably ate it too. Now, after he brings it back, he cooks something up for himself.

"I cook all my own stuff," Abdullah said. "You have to."

Morton figured it out. On May 2, 2003, he arrived at 220 pounds with four percent body fat. Today, he is 232 pounds at five percent body fat.

"That's six pounds of muscle," Morton said. "That's good, that's average for a first year. He's all muscle and bone. Go to the grocery store and look at six pounds of meat. That's a lot." **

DINNER: Rump roast and the fixings.**

Abdullah knows it's quite a battle at linebacker. There are the three starters. There are Miller and Johnson, two third-round picks who aren't going anywhere. Ross and Levels say they'll be back for the first practice of training camp. Do they keep six or seven? Abdullah is working the weak side behind mainstay Brian Simmons.

He seems to understand that his fate is going to be decided on how quickly he picks up the scheme and the nuances of the game. The physical talent is already there, brewing in the vat.

"You can never tell. However it plays out. If they give me the opportunity, I'm pretty sure I could," said Abdullah of being a factor on defense. "I'm still making the minor mistakes. It's not really mental mistakes. I know what I'm supposed to do, but when I line up, sometimes my mind goes blank." **

SNACK: Macaroni and Cheese and potatoes.**

But Abdullah senses, like the coaches, that he is improving. He actually felt like he got faster over this offseason after he worked out with some guys in a gym back home. They showed him how he had a lot of dead movement when he ran, so even though he's bigger, he feels like he's running livelier.

"I know I can sit in the hole a little better than what I used to do," Abdullah said. "I know I can take on blocks better. I'm a lot faster. A lot stronger."

He, Morton, and Oliver have no fear that the muscle has swallowed his speed.

"At some point there are diminishing returns," Morton said. "But when you gain lean muscle mass, it's just like putting a bigger engine in a car. You're going to get more power, more speed, and all that." **

SNACK: "Just before bed. Sometimes all it is is a big old spoon of peanut butter."**

**

SLANTS AND SCREENS:** Left guard Eric Steinbach had what he called "Tommy John," surgery on his left elbow during the offseason and it's the best he's felt since he injured the ligament during his junior year at Iowa. In fact, it feels so good that he says he's going to pick up a baseball and start throwing it 90 miles per hour

and see what the scouts have to say. Of course, he was kidding, and Tommy John couldn't throw 90. But John was still effective enough in his comebacks with the Dodgers and Yankees to be one of the best pitchers of the '70s, and Steinbach feels like he's getting a boost he didn't have last year.

"It is so much stronger than last year. About a month ago I really came to a big turning point in my lifting and I can do about the same weight with both elbows," Steinbach said. "And there's no pain for the first time in two years when I reach out." . . .

It looks like the Bengals are only going to add one player after June 1 and probably not cut anyone. But it will be big news if the Bengals do what has been reported they will do and sign Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener. He comes from a troubled season in Denver, but he's just two years removed from a monster season under Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in Washington. . .

Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon is one of the leading post-June 1 pickups out there, and Lewis did draft him in the third round in 1994 when he was the linebackers coach in Pittsburgh. But 10 years later, Lewis took two linebackers in the third round and it's doubtful he would want a 3-4 linebacker that turns 32 the day training camp opens. . .

Packers cornerback Mike McKenzie wants out of Green Bay, but even if the Bengals cut someone after June 1 in order to take on McKenzie's bulky salary, it's doubtful they would match Green Bay's price of a first- and fifth-round draft pick. . .Jaguars DE Tony Brackens gets closer every day to a deal in Jacksonville. . .

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