Glenn Holt, looking to wedge into the coaching ranks, made the short drive up from Lexington, Ky., last week and found out just how far the Bengals have come since he last touched a kickoff for them four years ago.
Holt put in three seasons as primarily a special-teamer, but he was also a wide receiver on the staff that had the most prolific receiving seasons in Bengals history from 2006-2008. Now an assistant coach for receivers and special teams at his alma mater at the University of Kentucky, Holt has an interesting view of the new generation of hands while working last week's mandatory minicamp as part of the NFL's Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship program.
Holt, 27, was doing windows during both the zenith and curtain call of the Chad Ochocinco-T.J. Houshmandzadeh-Chris Henry regime when The Ocho led the AFC in receiving yards in '06 and '07, Houshmandzadeh tied Wes Welker for the NFL's receptions title in 2007, and Henry scored 13 touchdowns on just 76 catches from '06-'08.
Now four years later the Bengals are hoping they've finally put together a young corps that can produce, anchored by rookie Pro Bowler A.J. Green.
"This is a great group of guys; I was with a great group," Holt says. "But I'm talking about how these guys are for each other. When I was here I had Chad, T.J, Chris Henry, but it was different the way the group was. We were all talented, but it was just different as far as the goals we wanted to do. This is a young group."
The punch line, of course, is that the Bengals didn't make the playoffs in '06 and '07 because the NFL doesn't live on just talent alone.
How young are these new guys? In 2006, Green was the only high school junior named to the* USA Today* team. Houshmandzadeh and The Ocho caught 205 balls in '07. The four leading wide receivers on this club, Green (65), Jordan Shipley (56), Brandon Tate (24) and Andrew Hawkins (23) have 168 NFL career catches.
Holt could see the hunger last week in an overhauled group.
"I wouldn't say they were more individual guys," Holt says of his old crew. "I don't know if we had visions. We never talked about Super Bowls or things like that. These guys, they get upset if they drop the ball. They talk to each other. It's a great group. It's just different."
The one guy who has lived the difference is Holt's own special teams coach from back in '07 when Holt had the second-longest kick return in team history (100 yards in Buffalo) on the way to the second-best return season by a Bengal. Five years ago Darrin Simmons had to put out a search party for willing guys. Now they're signing up en masse.
"The pool is bigger, no question about it," Simmons says. "I was dying to get guys. Totally different now. I think these guys know how good the competition level is now and the importance of what they have to do in the kicking game. The more you can do. It shows you how far we've come as a team."
Holt is a nice teaching tool himself for Simmons. He came out of his rookie minicamp in '06 on a tryout and ended up making the roster of the defending AFC North champs. The Bengals were reeling in the kick return department, faced with what turned out to be Tab Perry's career-ending hip injury early in Holt's rookie season.
Eventually his lack of ball security led to his departure in '08, but Holt's 122 returns in three years got the Bengals through a rough stretch.
"He earned his way; he was productive," Simmons says. "It's what Marvin (Lewis) is always saying: It doesn't matter how you get here, it's what you do when you get here. Glenn just goes to show you (that) players can come from all walks of (football) life."
A self-made career is a breeding ground for coaches. After Holt didn't hook on with another team, he has studied coaching and spent time last season while at Kentucky on the phone with Simmons and receivers coach James Urban.
Simmons isn't surprised that Holt has become intrigued with both return games, since that's what he did in the league.
"I picked up some stuff this week in kick and punt return that I like what they do," Holt says. "Darrin is very smart. He's one of the best special teams coaches in the league. Last season I asked him to send me some film and this isn't the first time we've talked. This is obviously a different level. It's grown men. In college with young people it's really basic."
Simmons is helping Holt through the jump.
"One of the big things is taking a scouting report and applying it to a scheme," Simmons says. "The biggest thing to me is preparing for your opponent, knowing strengths and weaknesses and that's what Glenn is going through now. I think he's done well with what he's picked up."
Holt has to smile now. Yes, he wonders if he knew then what he knows now.
"When I first got here, I was just doing it," Holt says of the return game. "The mental part of this game is much more, that's what I've learned. I think most football players let athletic talent take over most of the time, instead of just doing what the coaches say and studying film. It's just not about coaching a person or motivating a person. There are a lot of details; especially in the NFL."
Holt's detailed look at those details is just one of the reasons the Bengals hope the big picture ends up looking better than what the big stats gave them five years ago.