In the middle of it

1-23-04, 8:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

MOBILE, Ala. _ The Bengals come to this Senior Bowl literally straddling the middle. They would like to get younger at center as well as figure out what do on the other side of the ball at middle linebacker.

As he said right after the season, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said this week that moving Kevin Hardy out of the middle to left outside linebacker is an option that has yet to be decided upon. But he knows what the Bengals need in the middle of a defense that finished tied for 25th in the NFL against the run.

"We want a guy that can knock you back," Frazier said. "You always want speed, but we need a guy that knocks you back."

After watching Thursday's practice, ESPN draftnick Mel Kiper Jr., said the Bengals won't find a true middle linebacker until "down the line," which may end up meaning not until the second day of the April 24-25 draft. A guy he thinks they would have to get in the second or third round if they wanted him is Kansas State center Nick Leckey.

Frazier thinks a guy like Oklahoma 240-pounder Teddy Lehman, voted the best linebacker in the nation, and 6-0 Demerit Williams, the speedy 212-pounder from Nebraska, are guys that maybe could play in the middle "if it was in the right scheme. It would depend on your tackles and you would have to cover them up a little bit and let them run." But Kiper sees them as true weak-side players.

"I'm not so much worried about position and size, but we're looking for guys that make plays and I think the guys playing here for us this week could help us at some point," Frazier said. "I like Teddy. He's fast and gets around. Demerit is a quick guy, but he has the ability to strike you."

Head coach Marvin Lewis says this group has the most depth of any backers in the past two or three years, but a guy like Lehman simply may be off limits in the first round. With the Bengals also looking for help at cornerback and on the defensive line (Kiper has the Bengals taking a junior defensive lineman first), the first round is usually the only place you can fill that need with a bona fide starter.

"Whatever we do, we need depth at backer," Frazier said, referring to season-ending injuries to starting left outside linebacker Adrian Ross and backup utility man Dwayne Levels.

Ross has said he'd like to move back to the middle, but he's coming off reconstructive knee surgery: "You can't put Adrian down for anything. He's coming back from a traumatic injury and you don't know if he can. It's a coin flip."

Any questions that teams might have had about the 6-3 Lackey's size seem to be dwindling. He's not overwhelming at 305 pounds, but he looks to be smart and technically sound.

"I'd be very happy," said Leckey of possibly going in the second round. "I know I'm not like a lot of these guys. I'm not as massive, so I feel like I have to make up for it in other ways, like being physical and stronger than my size. I have to work extra hard than other guys and that's OK."

How big are these guys? Scouts have been impressed by the hugeness of Ohio State guard Adrian Clarke, another "down-the-line," guy who has caught a few eyes at 6-5, and most likely bigger than the listed 330 pounds.

Mike Goff, the Bengals starting right guard, is a free agent and offensive line coach Paul Alexander wants him back. But if he doesn't return, he says he has confidence in young backups like Victor Leyva and Scott Kooistra.

The Bengals love how center Rich Braham stabilized things in the middle, but he turns 34 in the middle of next season. If Leckey is an option in the second or third round, it won't be known until the club does a more extensive film study.

But he thinks it would be a good fit.

"I like Coach Alexander and Coach (Bob) Surace," Leckey said. "Coach Alexander is a real practical guy. He reminds me of my college coach. He's not going to scream and cuss at you. He's just going to tell you what you need to do and how to get better."

Leckey likes the pragmatism of the scheme, which is angle blocking and is based on the idea of shoving defenders in the direction that they are leaning.

"It's not like college, where they tell you to take a guy and push him 20 yards straight back," Leckey said. "I think everybody knows you can't do that in the NFL. I've never done it before, so it's been a little bit of an adjustment. But I like it. It's the best way to do it."

WHERE THERE'S A WILL : There's a way. Lewis needed a cornerback and safety when USC corner Will Poole and Iowa safety Bob Sanders went down with injuries earlier in the week and just the right guy was sitting at home.

Lewis needs a guy to play both and Ohio State's Will Allen did a little bit of everything at Columbus before starting for the first time this past year at free safety.

"I've done a little bit of everything," said the 6-1, 190-pound Allen, who practiced just 12 hours after his arrival Wednesday night. "A little nickel corner. Safety. I don't know where (the pros) are looking at me, but I feel like I can play both."

Allen knows the Bengals well as a Dayton, Ohio

product, and that is a group of people that knows
not starting at Ohio State for three seasons isn't an indictment. He doesn't think just starting for one season is going to hurt him with the scouts, and he actually thinks he benefited from watching Mike Doss before Doss left Ohio State in the second round last year for a starting NFL spot and helped the Colts into the AFC title game.

"Mike was a three-time All-American, so I was learning from one of the best," Allen said. "Just his tenacity, how quickly he reads plays, how he attacks. Just seeing how he reacts to certain things helped me doing it when I got out there."

Allen wasn't all that far away when the call came. He was working out at a gym in Houston (home of agents Carl and Kevin Poston) when the Senior Bowl committee informed him they needed him. He didn't think twice.

"Just another opportunity. Just another game to show what I can do and prove I can play," Allen said. "I'm blessed to be able to get the chance. I think people have watched me play and seen me on tape, but I don't think they see the determination and heart I bring."

He arrived Wednesday night at 9 and was immediately greeted with a meeting from Bengals secondary coaches Kevin Coyle and Louie Cioffi. Then it was up early to put on pads for the first time since this month's Fiesta Bowl three weeks ago. Then he spent Thursday afternoon getting fitted for a uniform knowing he had only one practice of semi-contact because Friday is a walk-through only.

But because of the rules, Cioffi is certain he'll be fine.

"We've only got three coverages," he said with a laugh. "That's pretty much all they let you do."

Allen gets to come off the bench again, because it looks like Michigan's Jeremy LeSueur is going to start at safety, but that may change.

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