BY GEOFF HOBSON, GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Vaughn Booker and Tom Barndt. Or Tom Barndt and Vaughn Booker. They have been lumped together since the defensive linemen and good friends signed as free agents in Cincinnati 48 hours apart last February. Now they are appearing in a buddy movie they say has no stars.
"Look at Jacksonville's defensive line," said Barndt after today's practice at Georgetown College. "That's all you need. A bunch of guys you never heard of who play hard. Player personnel people and to some extent the media, they want to bring big names to their team. People that they've all heard of. But when it gets down to it, a lot of guys in this league can get the job done. A lot of times those players are prima donnas. I don't think we have any prima donnas here."
There aren't because Bengals defensive line coach Tim Krumrie wouldn't allow it after years of dealing with lack of intensity from high-round draft picks (Dan Wilkinson), players grappling with weight problems (Keith Rucker) and players slipping after signing big deals (Kimo von Oelhoffen).
Krumrie, revered in Bengal lore because of intensity, tenacity and his self-made Pro Bowl berths, finally has a bunch of blue-collar guys like himself. He doesn't hesitate. It's the club's best defensive line since he was drafted in the 10th round 17 years ago.
"For pure depth, it is, Krumrie said.
Behind Booker, Barndt, nose tackle Oliver Gibson and end John Copeland are a guy who has started 82 NFL games in Michael Bankston, a college All-American end in Reinard Wilson playing end for the first time in the pros, and a third-round pick in Glen Steele. All guys who logged many minutes for a defense that improved from 30th in the league against the rush to 16th last season.
Booker, 32, has been around enough good teams to have played in four playoff games and started at times for a Packers' defense that finished fourth in the NFL in 1998. And he thinks his current linemates, "are right there with the guys I've played with.
"If we play together and aggressively, we can play against anybody," Booker said. "We've got a lot of different talent on our line. Reinard Wilson is a smaller, quicker guy who reminds me of Keith McKenzie in Green Bay. We've got some big guys that can move. As far as his strength and quickness, (nose tackle) Oliver Gibson is a younger guy like the guys we had in Kansas City. We don't have a Derrick Thomas, but we've got some of the top linebackers in the league coming up and with guys on the line who go 110 percent every play, that gets it done. That's the way I see myself. I'm just a guy who goes 110 percent every play."
Krumrie is playing the part of blue-collar leader this training camp with his close-cropped-corner-barber-shop haircut. Krumrie is the reason Barndt, a self-made player himself who went from left guard in the World League in 1996 to an $11 million defensive tackle, chose the Bengals. Booker, the Taft High School product, came here pretty much because it's home. But, "I wanted to know if they were serious about turning it around and everything I've seen since February tells me they are."
Barndt and Booker played on the Chiefs together for three years before Booker got traded to Green Bay after the 1997 season. They hung out on and off the field, with Barndt making the weekly Monday night trips to a country bar for Booker's radio show.
"He's a funny guy. He can keep you laughing. He can bring guys together," said Barndt, who played more than half the snaps for the '97 playoff Chiefs. "I think this is just as good (as any line he's played on). Across the board, yeah. Chester McGlockton can do a lot of things a lot of guys can't do, but he had problems staying healthy. We had Dan Williams and he would go 100 miles an hour, but he had injury problems, too. If we have these guys we have now, we can be as good as anybody."
With Booker slightly long in the tooth, he'll need breathers. Krumrie read his mind. He plans to rotate heavily with guys who can play both end and tackle like Bankston and Steele _ as well as Wilson at end_ like he's never rotated before.
"People are just so much stronger and faster now that you've got to play with more people," Krumrie said.
"That will help keep the intensity fresh," Booker said. "If you're playing with just four, five guys, you break down at some point and it can come at crucial times."
Although Barndt values Krumrie's straight-shooting style, Booker's tightly-wound temperament is closer to Krumrie's. As Barndt and Booker walked out of the locker room after today's practice, a group of small but vocal fans chanted for attention behind them. Booker raised his fist a few times and smiled at the impassive Barndt.
"I'm not looking to be a hero in my hometown. That's not why I'm doing this," Booker said. "I'm doing this because this is how I take care of my family."
Welcome to the blue-collar side of the ball.