Lean on me


Willie Anderson

Paul Alexander is working on a streak.

It is a streak longer then the rift between the POTUS and Speaker of the House, Bronson Arroyo's hair, an Adam Jones punt return and Dan Hoard's now classic Adriel Jeremiah Green touchdown call.

How long? It began in Morgantown, W. Va., 19 years ago, the one and only year Alexander served as the Bengals tight ends coach and the season before he took the job he still has as the team's offensive line coach. It was the last time he got knocked to the ground by an offensive line prospect as he tested his strength during one of his pro day wrestling matches, a must on his campus visit litmus test.

"Richie Braham," Alexander says now almost wistfully. "He was blocking me with a bag and the first time I said, 'C'mon, don't be nice to me because I'm a coach. Punch me.' And he punched me. Richie was the best puncher I've ever seen. He dropped me like a gum wrapper. When I got up I said, 'I've got to have this guy.' "

He eventually did. But Buddy Ryan out in Arizona got Braham first in the third round and when Ryan cut Braham in that November of 1994, the Bengals were all over him on the waiver wire and he stayed 12 years as one of the best centers the club ever had.

Alexander embarks this week on another series of visits and if he was keeping track, he may be leaning on the 500th offensive line prospect of his career during one of his 10 or so pro days he has on tap this spring. He hasn't counted them, but he can still feel them all and he's leaned on the great and not-so-great.

A Hall of Famer like Johnathan Ogden. Maybe Hall of Famers Tony Boselli and Walter Jones. The late, great Korey Stringer. The two-year bust he knocked over six times that he won't name. The greatest right tackle in Bengals history, Willie Aaron Anderson.

The strongest guy that Alexander ever leaned on?

"Willie," Alexander says of that 1996 workout at Auburn.

"I never pushed on anybody like that before or since. He had to put his arms straight out and I tried to push them to the ground. I could have done chinups on his extended arms if I were able to do chinups. It stunned me. It was one of the reasons we really wanted him. You could see he was a good player on film, but they had him doing some funky things, flipping between left and right tackle and being in backward stances and doing things hard to figure. But when you saw him, you could see he was a football player."

That's one of the three reasons Alexander likes to take the trips. The first is being able to take the players on at close range, even if he is 53 and they are now getting to be the same age as his oldest child.

"I can quantify them all in my mind and relate them," he says. "Are they as strong as Willie? That's good. Are they not as strong as me? That's not good."

But the other reasons are Alexander likes to coach them and then spend some time after the workout asking them questions. Before he makes the visit, he watches the tape of their techniques and then when he gets them on site Alexander teaches them a different way to see how quickly they catch on.

"Then you like to get them in the classroom for about an hour and get some answers on why they're doing some of the things you see on film," he says.

Once, Alexander had a prospect even set up the film for him. In fact, that trip to Madison, Wis., last year was so memorable because the prospect was so helpful. Offensive line coaches often travel in packs and this kid met Alexander, Andy Moeller of the Ravens, and Pat Flaherty of the Giants at their car, walked them to the gate of the facility and let them in.

"It was spring break and he went around and got everything unlocked," Alexander says. "He got us some bags, he set up the drills … he set up the film. … It was unbelievable. You're thinking, 'This guy loves football.' He did the things a mature person would do if they were interviewing for a job."

Sometimes it works out just right. The Bengals took Kevin Zeitler with their second pick in the first round at No. 26 and he took the keys and started every game at right guard for a playoff team.

Even the guys Alexander couldn't get, he can still feel the drills. The Bengals desperately needed a tackle in '96, but when he worked out Ogden at UCLA he knew the Bengals wouldn't have a shot to get him at No. 10. Ogden became the very first pick of the Ravens at No. 4 and the Bengals were very pleased Anderson was still on the board. Arguably they were the best left and right tackles of their time.

"Ogden felt like an unbelievable athlete," Alexander says. "He wasn't necessarily as powerful, but he was powerful in an athletic way. He and Willie would be similar in strength, but a different type of strength. Willie had quick-twitch explosiveness, drive you off the ball type of strength. Ogden had the massive, engulfing type of strength."

But the most impressive pro day Alexander ever saw came a year later at Florida State. While the Bengals defensive coaches were checking out the guy they'd take at No. 14, linebacker Reinard Wilson, the 6-5, 315-pound Jones ran 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash and went No. 6 to Seattle.

"He shocked the world," Alexander says.

Nine years later Alexander had an intriguing pro day in Baton Rouge. A lot of line coaches were there working out the massive Andrew Whitworth, LSU's 6-7, 340-pound national championship anchor. The Bengals ended up getting him in the second round, a valued locker room leader who has protected the blind side of two different playoff quarterbacks while helping pave the way for three postseason appearances in four years.

"Whit was more like Ogden. A massive engulfer. Strong hands," Alexander says. "That was a crazy workout. You either loved Whit or hated him and I obviously loved him.

"People wondered if he was quick enough to play left tackle. I thought he could if we taught him the techniques that were natural to what he does. Like blocking more with leverage than with choppy feet. He can do a lot of those things naturally."

Now that Alexander is a 19-year man among the league's offensive line coaches, he finds himself running more and more of the offensive line drills for the other coaches when he shows up at a pro day. He's using pretty much the same sequence of drills he learned when he was watching veteran coaches like Joe Bugel, Jim Hanifan, Alex Gibbs and Cincinnati's own Jim McNally.

Coincidence or not, the two best pro days Alexander ever saw when it came to the line drills were at campuses where he worked as a graduate assistant. Penn State guard Jeff Hartings put on a show in 1996 and five years later Michigan guard Steve Hutchinson did the same at Ann Arbor. Both went in the first round.

"They were flawless," Alexander says.

"New coaches get involved and they add their wrinkles and that's good. Years back, there was a basic set of drills and that was it. But now I make up a drill that he hasn't seen to see how he reacts quickly, or one that I think exposes a weakness. If he does OK, that tells me it was a technique thing and it wasn't an inherent skill."

Alexander has not only worked out the big names, but guys he won't name. Like the most athletic guys he's ever worked out.

"The most athletic guys weren't big and strong enough to make it," he says. "I remember them, but I won't name them. People see a guy move his feet, run quickly, and his acceleration is wonderful. But then the defensive guys run right down their middle of them and they fail."

OK, the best athlete in a workout who made it?

"Walter Jones," he says.

Then there are the trash talkers, the guys that look at the bags and coaches with curled-lip disdain. Alexander won't name them, either. But they're there.

"There was this one guy; it was kind of legendary around the league. He was really cocky and I knocked him on his butt six times. … Usually if a guy is a jerk, I might even try a little harder to dump him.

"That guy? (He lasted) a couple of years … bust. Any guy that a coach can push on his butt, you have to have serious questions about."

But if there's a guy that breaks the streak? Alexander is taking notes.

"I've gotten smarter," he says. "Stay low."

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