Margus Hunt felt more at home this spring.
A year ago, Margus Hunt will tell you he was overwhelmed and unsure as a rookie. But as he went off into the NFL's hibernation period last week, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and defensive line coach Jay Hayes said good-bye to a very different left end.
"I can't wait to see him," Hayes says of training camp, "at (291) pounds and hunting guys."
That would be about 11 more pounds than Hunt worked with last season while keeping intact what people around Paul Brown Stadium call his "freakish," 6-8 athleticism. Couple it with a spring-long stint at only left end that has simplified matters and Hayes is confident enough to make some projections even before the pads go on in late July.
"I think it's going to be a very good improvement," Hayes says. "I think he's going to give us quite a few plays at the left end."
Hayes isn't prepared to anoint him the starter, of course, since how Hunt plays in the preseason with pad level so key to his development. But after watching him work in the weight room and then on the field in his second NFL spring, Hayes has a good feeling about the man they drafted in the second round a year ago.
"We're going to find out. I can't see it not working so far," Hayes says. "I think he was playing lower. When he gets the rest of his gear on, I think you'll see it even more."
Hunt is the kind of five-star athlete that makes even his own teammates stop and gape. That's a pretty short list that starts with three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, then to Giovani Bernard, then over to defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap before taking a turn at linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur and cornerback Adam Jones.
But Hunt, who turns 27, next month, is almost in his own category. When he was 18 he won Estonia's first two gold medals in the World Junior Track and Field Championships when he became the first athlete in history to win gold in the discus and shot put.
Hayes has coached so many different kinds of ends in his dozen years on the Bengals defensive line, ranging from quick, stout Justin Smith at 275 pounds to the gazellish 6-6ish Dunlap and Michal Johnson, to the 6-3 grinding versatility of Robert Geathers.
But then there is Hunt.
"I don't think we've really had a guy with that length and now starting to get the size and that freakish athletic ability," Hayes says. "He's not a big wiggle guy, but he's a burster. He's got some fast twitch to him, but more explosive."
The added weight and strength haven't sapped his moves over time. Bengals head strength coach Chip Morton watched him win a team strong man contest this spring in throwing three different sizes of medicine balls for distance.
"He's been outstanding," Morton says. "He's a very technically trained athlete."
Now they have to get him to be a technically trained left end and Hunt feels like he's on the right track because he's on one track.
"Last year I had to learn the end spot, inside, it was really overwhelming. I was really slow with my play," Hunt says. "(Playing one spot has helped) a lot. I'm comfortable where ever they can put me because I've been in the system for a year and I know the plays. Last year that was a big issue, the plays. Every day there was something new, something different and I was trying to memorize all that. I feel more comfortable with what I have to read."
Hunt doesn't say much to his coaches. Hayes goes as far to call him "the European version of Geno," Atkins, the Bengals' famously closed-mouth two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle.
But Hunt is good and funny and succinct with the media. And succinct is what Guenther tried to emphasize to him when Hunt sat down with him before the spring practices got going.
"It's a lot easier than last year," Hunt says. "I had the time and took the time to meet with Paul and go over what we did last year. My footwork is still kind of all over the place, but as far as knowing the system and the defense, it's a lot better. He said to keep working on the footwork and to just focus on one or two things on the pass rush."
It sounds like Hayes is confident that Hunt gets more than the 165 snaps he got last year. Focusing on one spot may help him now, but Hayes says he'll have to get better at the other spots if he wants to get a lot of snaps.
"That limits him to some extent. Unless he is just able to take over that spot," Hayes says. "I feel comfortable that he's going to get more plays, but (one spot) will limit him.
"It's going to come down to this," Hayes says. "What is the best mix of guys? That's who is going to be on the field."
Translation: in training camp, Hunt still has to play a good enough left end to make the move of Dunlap from left end to right end work. And he has to be good enough to keep another left end, Robert Geathers, moving into all kinds of spots. With Hunt getting the bulk of the snaps at left end and Dunlap at right, Geathers spent much of the spring lining up as tackle in the nickel. And so did right end Wallace Gilberry.
"You never have enough pass rushers regardless of how many you have,' Hayes says. "You always want one more."
Hunt is the intriguing one, but how frequent of one is going to be an answer found inside the pads.