Home on the range?

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Off the field, Reinard Wilson has what he always wanted. Five hundred acres of dreams. Horses. Goats. Those 500-pound calves he'll sometimes throw to the ground like a burlap bag on the ranch he runs with his father.

Now, after three frustrating years as everyone's bust from the '97 draft, Wilson finally has what he wants on the field. Three points of possibilities. He'll line up as a left end on passing downs, just like he did at Florida State when he was an All-American for ringing up 33.5 sacks in his last three seasons.

And, since he has played some linebacker, the Bengals have devised a package in which Wilson is the "Rover," either rushing the quarterback or dropping into pass coverage ever so occasionally.

"I've heard it," Wilson says of those 'bust' whispers. "It should be like that if you're not out there. I had one year, my second year, where I played a lot and I led the team in sacks (with six). I thought I was coming on, but last year my plays were cut in half. That was a setback. I'm trying to get on the field. You can't make plays on the sidelines."

Wilson and the Bengals realize he was out of position for his first two-and-a-half seasons in Cincinnati. The Bengals took him with the draft's 14th pick and projected him as a weak-side linebacker in the Steelers-type 3-4 defense, in the mold of sack artists Kevin Greene and Chad Brown. But when Wilson couldn't drop into pass coverage or change direction as smoothly as coaches hoped, they tried to find ways to use him as a pure pass rusher.

Now that the Bengals have gone to a 4-3 defense with four down linemen, Wilson has jacked his weight from 255 to 270 pounds as a full-time lineman and hopes to get more time as "the elephant," the end playing opposite the tight end. But veteran John Copeland has that spot secured in the base defense.

Wilson's best shot is on third down in the Bengals' nickel package, where he can put his hand on the ground in a three-point stance and rush the passer. That highlights his quickness, which still looks to be in the 4.6-4.7-second range in the 40-yard dash.

"Reinard's very happy there, now to finally be at end," said David Levine, Wilson's agent. "He had never played linebacker. It handicapped him totally. He was unfamiliar with the position. Now he's playing where his talents are warranted. If he gets to play 100 percent of the snaps on third down, I'd be surprised if he didn't get 10 sacks."

But first Wilson has to outplay Adrian Ross, a college free agent who has made the team the last two seasons mainly because of his ability to rush the passer. Wilson split time last season with the more athletic Ross at the $1.4 million position of right outside linebacker before the Bengals went to the 4-3. Of course, Wilson made $1.2 million of that, but he thinks he can earn his keep if he gets consistent snaps and gets a little help from the scoreboard.

"I think everyone thinks Reinard is going to be more comfortable with his hand down," said Dave Lapham, the Bengals' radio analyst. "He's not real fluid in space, but now he doesn't have to worry about covering people. He doesn't have to think about much, he can just go after the passer."

Bengals President Mike Brown has long thought Wilson would have more than 12 career sacks if he played on teams that were ahead more often than not. He can see Wilson with 10 sacks in a season if the Bengals are winning.

"Look at guys like Tony Brackens in Jacksonville and Jevon Kearse in Tennessee," Wilson said. "Most of the time their teams are ahead. You've got to have a little help. When you're losing by 20 points and it's third-and-15, (the offense) can do whatever they want. They're probably going to run it to kill the clock. You get more rushes if you're winning."

The Bengals think Wilson can use finesse well, but they would like him to use some of that power he uses to tie down a cow. If anybody can get a player to be more physical, it's defensive line coach Tim Krumrie.

"He's trying to get me to use my hips more," Wilson said. "More knee bends. We've been working on that, and trying to run my feet quicker. He knows what he wants. We're doing a lot of technique things, stuff like reading the tackle's hands."

He sounds happier, but Levine says you should see him on the ranch,45 miles west of Jacksonville, Fla. The BAR W&W. For Bernard Wilson and Reinard Wilson.

"He rides his horses, he's got the four wheelers. He's relaxed and at home," Levine said.

The Bengals hope he'll feel the same way about his other new home on the line.

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