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Improving Jackson Carman Has The Bengals Humming

Jackson Carman is on the rise.
Jackson Carman is on the rise.

Jackson Carman, the fast-tracking homegrown rookie right guard and man for all seasons who can also play tackle, sing country and play classical, may have to multi-task again if he gets his first NFL start against the Steelers Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in the Bengals' annual jam session at Heinz Field.

That's only if one of his mentors, Xavier Su'a-Filo (knee), can't play. Carman's growing mastery of the Xs and Os has expedited his development, but he's also learned his 'Xs' (Su-a-Filo) and "Qs" (left guard Quinton Spain) in the dizzying transition from second-round national championship left tackle to AFC North guard.   

"He's very cerebral. He's smart. He asks good questions. He asks the vets, Q and X, which is good. Picking their brains," says Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who was a rookie guard himself some 30 years ago. "Which is good. I had a mentor tell me it's what you learn after you know it all that counts. He's understanding he doesn't have all the answers. He needs to learn a lot of football and who better to learn from than the vets?"

Pollack, a big calloused bear of a man who is candid and canny, is one of the more respected O-line coaches round. He's not easily impressed. But Carman is doing it on all fronts.

"I think he can pick up any damn thing he wants to pick up," Pollack says. "He's one of these guys that's got that kind of innate talent. That's just him."

Like during last month's rookie show at the end of training camp. Pollack, an encyclopedic music enthusiast who can expound on George Jones, Tom Jones and Norah Jones, took note when Carman picked out one of the half dozen or so instruments he can play and tweaked "Tennessee Whiskey," on his guitar while signing the George Jones country classic.

"I'm a big fan of George Jones' version, but he did Chris Stapleton's version and I love that one because he brings a lot of soul to it," Pollack says. "(Carman) is a talented guy. Very impressive. He's legit. He might be the next Mike Reid."

Pollack also knows his Bengals history. Reid is the Bengals legendary defensive tackle from the '70s who went to two Pro Bowls before he retired after five seasons to make more hits in Nashville.

Carman's performance inspired Pollack to give his guys a crash history course.

"I asked them if they knew the Bengals player who won a Grammy and is great songwriter and singer," Pollack says. "They wanted to know. Of course they didn't know, but they wanted to know."

You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey

You're as sweet as strawberry wine

You're as warm as a glass of brandy

And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time

The word is that the 6-5, 325-pound Carman has smoothed out his game and is starting to breathe, which has been good advice from another vet, center Trey Hopkins.

"Just grinding every day. Just blocking out the noise," Carman says. "Just listening to my coach and what my vets are telling me. Just taking the criticism and working every day."

Start with those 325 pounds. He's svelte and so much trimmer than when he showed up for camp with about 10 to 12 pounds too much.

"He's moving really good," Pollack says.

The noise wondered if the Bengals had swung and missed when they took Carman with the 46th pick in the second round because Pollack didn't start him in training camp and he didn't make a move to be an Opening Day starter.

Never mind that he had hardly ever played guard. Or that he was making the switch while also making the transition to the highest level while learning a new scheme and the nuances of the manically meticulous Pollack.

"They don't come ready-made," Pollack says. "They don't come in ready-made physically and they sure as hell don't come in ready-made mentally. Understanding what it's like to be a professional in every sense of the word."

Carman, the big man prodigy groomed on the outskirts of Paul Brown Stadium in Butler County's Fairfield, Ohio, says he's been dialed in since he arrived and he can't pick out anything that's been tougher than anything else in this rookie year.

"A lot of different things come with it," Carman says. "It's such a great transition, I just try to take it in stride. Between tackle and guard, probably the biggest difference for me is just having people on both sides of you. At tackle, you're used to being on an island. You have a lot of space. At guard, you have to be more conscientious being in the right position to help other people instead of just being on your own at one position."

Pollack compares the rookie lineman process to building a house. There is the foundation. There is the framing. There is the roof. Then there are the nuances. Like the trusses on the roof.

"You learn A and then you learn B and then you say, hey, this comes off B and you get B1, B2, B3 and you make the adjustments and now you go to C," Pollack says. "For the guys who can retain that, they keep building. The guys who struggle have to go back to A and it slows their development."

Carman is clearly on C and heading down the rest of the alphabet.

"He's fast. His balance has improved. His demeanor running the protections," Pollack says. "He's playing with length. His body is more under control. He's not lunging. He was on the ground too much early in training camp. He's got way better body control because the game has slowed down. His footwork is cleaner, which allows all that to happen."

Carman says, you're right. If it looks like he and Pollack are always standing together, they are. It may be on the field, it may be lingering in the hallway after a meeting, it may be anywhere. After one recent practice, they were still working it with the other young linemen.

"Working on pass pro. Set angles. Hand strike areas," Carman says.

Carman has made another transition that we all do. Remember when you first moved out of the house and got a place of your own? He's been doing that, too, with all the football. Now he's downtown and says he rather enjoys being close to home when asked the inevitable distraction question.

"Anywhere you're at you're going to have distractions," Carman says. "There are pros and cons no matter where you live. I've honestly been grateful for the blessings that come with being in the city that you're from. Having support. Knowing where everything is. Having good rapport with everyone. It's definitely been great."

There are plans to record. He's already written songs and put them on his phone and the studio beckons. But not now. Now it's maybe 15 to 20 minutes a day to relax. "Nothing grandiose," he says.

His mother, a noted gospel singer, once listed all the instruments he plays and many of them are self-taught: Guitar (lead and acoustic), ukulele, piano, drums, cello. He says he's going to pick up the harmonica this season and learn another one.

"Why not?" he asks.

It's the same question Pollack is asking as Carman tries to pick up the gift of NFL football.

"I think he can," Pollack says. "That's why we drafted him."