For Domata Peko, it all started with the draft. His draft. The 2006 draft. When he figured he didn't have to start paying attention until the sixth round.
But when then-Bengals defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan phoned in the fourth to tell him he was Cincinnati's kind of nose man, Peko knew who to thank.
Domata Peko Jr.
"I don't think I'd be in the league if I hadn't had my son my senior year in college," Peko recalls. "That was a big motivation to me. The coaches even told me that last season at Michigan State, 'what happened to you your senior year? You're a totally different person.' I said, 'I had my kid. I have to feed him.' "
That's a peek into the delivery process as the Bengals mull the kids up front in the draft. And it could be on display as early as next Thursday's first round when a board teeming with defensive line prospects goes live.
The biggest quality head coach Marvin Lewis eyes in a defensive lineman playing a position cloudy with the vagaries of age, growth and scheme, is the very tangible concept of playing with a high motor.
Oh, he needs plenty of other stuff, too. For instance, Peko had the requisite athleticism and quickness. But while other teams weren't so quick to jump on a junior college player with just two years of Division I experience and wouldn't turn 22 until late in his rookie year, the Bengals loved the motor and it has given them one of the league's most effective, reliable and durable nose tackles.
Peko is coming off a season in which only Cleveland's Ahtyba Rubin had more tackles among NFL interior players, according to NFL.com. And Rubin played nearly 300 more snaps (945-660), according to profootballfocus.com. Peko has only missed five games in his career with an arthroscopic knee surgery, but he came back about 30 days later to start the 2009 Wild Card game and begin his current streak of 34 straight starts.
And as another draft lurches close, the motor is running as high as ever. Straight off a six-week sojourn at the Ignition workout facility in Blue Ash, Ohio, Peko showed up this week at the Bengals voluntary conditioning program at Paul Brown Stadium poised to be in the best shape of his career.
The senior-year motor fueled his term as the de facto defensive coordinator during last season's lockout, when Peko had extra time in the weight room to set career highs. He's headed there again after his legs dead-lifted his personal-best 600 pounds last week for Ignition chief Clif Marshall.
Marshall, a disciple of Bengals strength coach Chip Morton who helps once a week during the club's conditioning program, says Peko is already lifting about 385 pounds above his head and says after he finishes Morton's program this spring he should be ready to break another personal best when he locks his elbows with more than 405 pounds over his head.
"Here's a young guy who came out of junior college and was real young when he came into the league and wasn't one of the strongest guys," Marshall says. "Now he's strong and getting stronger."
The motor is revved up about the season. Peko got in one of the early tweets about the schedule Tuesday night celebrating the three prime-time games and he thinks the Sept. 10 opener on Monday night in Baltimore is a great rallying point for a young team trying to go to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons with an emerging nucleus of players from the last three drafts sprinkled with veteran role players.
"I'm excited; finally we get some prime-time games around here," Peko says. "It gives other people a chance to see what we're really about. A lot of people on the West Coast don't get a chance to see our games. There's no other way to start. That's a big game. That's a huge game for us. We've got our eyes set to that date. We're going to be putting a big X on the calendar for that."
What Peko thinks the Bengals are about is what he calls a great mix of youth and experience.
"You need the older guys to keep things in order," he says. "I'm excited about where this team is going and the way ownership took charge of this offseason making some moves for us. We picked up two really good corners. Jason Allen is a big player and (Terence) Newman has gone to some Pro Bowls.
"We've got two good guards. Two good defensive ends that should help with the departure of (Jon) Fanene and (Frostee) Rucker (via free agency). They're going to be missed, but the show must go on."
Even though Fanene came into the NFL a year before Peko and Rucker came in a round before, they looked to Peko for mentoring and he says he'll miss them and the Bengals are going to have a big challenge matching the production of last year's eight-man line rotation. Former first-round picks Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey, just 26 and 25, respectively, are penciled in as the replacements.
"We just have to build our chemistry on the field with them," Peko said. "That's the one thing we had on the D-line last year was good chemistry with each other. We knew each other's strength and we were able to able to feed off each other. It's something we'll have to build with the new guys.
"The thing with Fanene is that when he came in, he played like a starter. He filled the gap and didn't miss a beat. It will be cool. The new guys aren't rookies or first-year guys. They have some years in the league. That's the one thing you can't teach young guys is experience. That's something they've got and we've got to use it to the fullest."
Another thing you can't teach: Mike Zimmer's defense without Mike Zimmer. Peko did admirably during the lockout's voluntary voluntaries when he ran the defensive looks and drills, but Tuesday's first classroom session reminded him what everybody was missing last spring.
"We're getting a little more time in the classroom with Coach Zimmer," Peko says. "Straight ahead. No welcome back. Nothing. Just right back to football. We were watching film of stuff we did last year and he was correcting us and that's what we didn't have last year. We didn't have coaches yelling at us because they couldn't but now you know we have Zimmer coaching us up in the classroom. That will help out a lot. We were missing all that. That's a big part of the football season."
No doubt Zimmer is going to delve into the autopsy of the last six games, when the run defense that had been so good earlier in the year imploded. Peko has yet to look at that stretch, but he remembers full well Zimmer upbraiding the defense late in the year for not tackling and getting off blocks too early in leaving the gaps for which they were responsible.
"It was a lot of things," Peko says.
The absence of one of the best run support corners in the NFL, Leon Hall, caught up to the Bengals. So did the gimpy knee of safety Chris Crocker and the mangled ankle of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. And the ankle that put run-stopping tackle Pat Sims on injured reserve Dec. 7 forced the Bengals to put Fanene and Rucker inside more on early downs and they wore down.
But it's a new year. Hall says he'll be back in time for camp. Allen and Newman like to play Zimmer's physical game. Sims and Maualuga say they're healthy and the Bengals will start out replacing the 197-pound Crocker with the 235-pound Taylor Mays.
And the defense is coming off a year the Bengals celebrated their first defensive lineman being named to the Pro Bowl since Tim Krumrie in 1988 when tackle Geno Atkins got the nod. Atkins is another fourth-round find with a flare ignited by a motor and, maybe not so coincidentally, has become close with Peko.
They bonded during the lockout at Ignition and kept it going his year when they showed up March 1 with Maualuga and about 10 others. If Peko finds out you're staying around Cincinnati during the offseason, he'll reach out and get you up to Ignition. That's what he did with wide receiver Brandon Tate.
But Peko says that it is the 24-year-old Atkins that has inspired him.
"I want to go to Hawaii one day. That's one of my goals before I'm done. I want to go to the Pro Bowl with Geno," Peko says. "We're motivating each other. I tell him, 'I want to go there with you.' He's a great guy. He's a professional. He works his tail off. It's good to have someone like that playing next to you on the line."
The other goal Peko has this year is five sacks. A big number for a guy with 7.5 in his career who rarely plays third down.
"I want to get better rushing the passer," he says. "I love playing the run. That's my thing. I have a niche for getting running backs down, playing the run tough. But I want to try and get to Hawaii one day."
It's nice to know six years later the motor is still purring. It may serve a prospect well next week who doesn't have much hope this week.
"I was super stoked when the Bengals called me," Peko says. "I only had two interviews at the combine. One with the Bengals and one with the Cowboys. People were telling me the sixth round."
The switch is on.