Perhaps the best way to sum up the challenge facing rookie tight end C.J. Uzomah is to consider the following: Five years ago he was a high school quarterback. This year he could be asked to block the likes of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Von Miller.
The fifth round draft pick out of Auburn jokes that he "didn't even know what blocking was" as a high school quarterback. Now a big part of his job is trying to neutralize the best pass rushers on the planet.
"The main thing is just putting my hand down on the ground and getting out of my stance," said Uzomah. "Getting comfortable in my three-point stance and not having my base too wide so that I don't false step. That is something that I have to continue to work on. I wasn't really a tight end per se at Auburn and didn't have a traditional tight end coach. (H-back) Ryan Hewitt has really helped me with trying to block out of a three-point stance and getting off of press coverage and things of that nature. I think that's the biggest 'whoa, this is a lot harder than it looks' kind of thing."
Devon Still accepts Jimmy V. Perseverance Award on behalf of daughter Leah Still at the ESPYS Awards ceremony 07/15/2015
Playing in Gus Malzahn's spread offense at Auburn, Uzomah was not a conventional tight end. But at 6'5", 264 pounds with 4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash, the 22-year-old from Georgia has the prototypical size and speed to play the position in the NFL.
"We think his strength is his versatility," said tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes. "He can run, he can get downfield and stretch the seam. Those are the things that you're looking for at this position now and possibly creating mismatches with his body size, his catch radius, and just continuing to get him to grow into the position."
After electing not to re-sign Jermaine Gresham as a free agent, the Bengals selected two tight ends in this year's draft – Uzomah and third-round pick Tyler Kroft. Both rookies flashed NFL potential in OTAs and the team's mandatory minicamp.
"I think having a great coach like Coach Hayes and veteran guys like (Tyler) Eifert and Hewitt in front of us definitely helps the younger guys come along a heck of a lot quicker," said Uzomah. "I'm roommates with Tyler Kroft and we're in our playbooks like no other when we get back from practice. Obviously there are going to be occasional busts and looks that we're not familiar with, but for the most part we try to make sure that we go in there and know what our assignment is so that we can play fast."
"The point that I make to the coaches all the time is that we want to continually bring in people who are mentally and physically tough, have physical traits and upside, and are smart enough," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "Those things have to all fit together. Sometimes smarts need to be measured a little differently. It needs to be measured on the football side of it too – it can't be book-smart, it has to be football-smart. That's very, very important."
My broadcast partner Dave Lapham says that he was impressed by Uzomah's rapid improvement this spring – particularly how the rookie tight end consistently put himself in position to make blocks. But that was without pads. Now C.J. will have to prove he can finish blocks in training camp.
"I'm really anxious to show the coaches what I've got," said Uzomah. "They took a chance on me not being a traditional tight end. They said, 'You're going to have to prove yourself as a blocker and prove that you're physical enough to do this.' I'm getting chills right now just thinking about proving to them that the interest and the investment that they've given to me is going to be worth it."
I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net
If you're on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard
And I'm on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1