GEORGETOWN. Ky. - They were two of the stars of Hard Knocks last year and that could have easily described their rookie seasons.
But tight end Chase Coffman and fullback Fui Vakapuna began filming a sequel that could be titled Knocking Back Hard Saturday when they emerged from the first day in pads light years ahead of a year ago. Both were labeled finesse players struggling in the physical game, but they doled it out here at Georgetown College the first chance they could get after sitting on the bench all of 2009.
Vakapuna, the No. 1 fullback despite zilch game experience, staked his claim that he won't give away the job with two rousing efforts in the Oklahoma Drill against the defense's most noted banger, SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga. Coffman, the most prolific catching tight end at Missouri in NCAA history, mixed it up well in a college all-star showdown with linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy, Texas' all-time leading tackler. He also staved off another college tackling machine who is having a nice camp, Duke free-agent linebacker Vincent Rey.
Leave it to tight ends coach Jon Hayes to put that first day in pads in perspective. There is a long way to go here. But Hayes, who played 12 seasons in the NFL, likes the direction he's headed and he's getting plenty of work in the first five practices with first-round pick Jermaine Gresham in a holdout.
"It's not a determining factor because everyone is knocking off the rust," Hayes said of Day One. "You do things you might not have done the year before and that's good for him. It gives him confidence to build and grow. I'm anxious to see how he keeps going this summer."
Both Coffman and Vakapuna offered they are totally different players. Coffman is finally able to run around after last year's training camp he was hobbled by a rehabbing foot and Vakapuna understands better what is expected of him. In essence, it is like picking up an extra third-round pick and seventh-round pick, where the Bengals chose Coffman and Vakapuna, respectively.
Coffman knows he's improved since last year because Hayes isn't hardly screaming at him like last year, when it was so bad they were almost were like HBO's R-rated Abbott and Costello spiced by Hayes' salty language. But Hayes, still a very large man who can melt steel with his stare, says, "I didn't think it was very funny and I'm sure Chase didn't, either."
The 6-6, 250-pound Coffman's will to block has never been questioned. Hayes says it has always been about technique, mechanics and timing since he never got into a stance until he was drafted. Coffman feels much more confident now with his footwork and what he calls "hand placement and hat (helmet) placement." And, "knowing what I'm supposed to be doing. Just going out there full speed. Another big thing is I'm healthy," he said.
Which he never was last year after coming off a broken foot in his last college snap. After spending all season inactive, Coffman was finally put on injured reserve in December for surgery to remove bone spurs that had complicated his rehab. Now that he's pain-free, the coaches like the way Coffman is moving around and proof that he even likes contact came not on a block but on a pass route late Saturday morning.
Running a go route against rookie cornerback Brandon Ghee, Coffman outmuscled him and Ghee fell to the ground as Coffman gathered in the pass over the middle form quarterback Jordan Palmer.
"I'm just trying to stay outside the numbers and get open and it happened that the safeties rolled the right way and Jordan came to me," Coffman said. "There was a little bit of contact there and I think that's something that helps me get open is a little bit of contact. For me, especially because I'm not as fast as receivers, being a little bit bigger and little bit physical in and out of routes, that can help you with a little bit of contact as long as you're not doing anything illegal. He was trying to jam me and I just got around him."
If Coffman is more comfortable from a physical standpoint, what about the 6-0, 257-pound Vakapuna? He says he was more of a halfback at BYU and he never learned to adjust last camp, which is why he believes he was cut, and he says he learned the lesson. Count him as another willing blocker whose technique has to catch up with the enthusiasm. If Coffman's foot is cleaned out, so is Vakapuna's mind.
"That was a wakeup call; a big-time wakeup call," Vakapuna said. "I couldn't get to sleep the night before. I was optimistic. I've never been cut from football … I've been playing since I was seven."
His pain was exposed to the HBO audience in the final episode of Hard Knocks as he waited all Cutdown day with his wife. What he didn't see is that he was basically the club's last cut and while the other rookie fullback, Chris Pressley, was signed to the practice squad, Vakapuna had to go to Arizona to hook on with a squad. He ended up back here midway through the season when Pressley bolted to Tampa Bay, but when he returned he wasn't thinking about how TV had permanently chronicled his most disappointing moment in football.
"Watching Hard Knocks and hearing the coaches say, 'Dang, you're not physical,' that got into my head," Vakapuna said. "I think it was technique … it was more technique, mental toughness, and I didn't adjust fast enough. This time around I was hungry."
When he re-signed with the Bengals in November, running backs coach Jim Anderson let Vakapuna know that he had to throw his weight around more and in his first two practices back he was bringing it downhill. But he says those were the last two practices in shoulder pads and he had to wait, until, well, Saturday. Maualuga was also waiting.
"Rey's a banger," Vakapuna said. "I treat it the same as anybody. I'll bang with anybody. It doesn't matter to me. Just as long as I get the job done. The effort and physicality are there. It's more technique than anything. That's what the coaches want me to work on."
The mantra for Vakapuna is really the same for Coffman. They want to do it but they have to do it.
"Get up under him, don't get pushed back, and move the feet."
So far, so good.