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O-line youth to be served in finale


Tanner Hawkinson

With one starting tackle not playing at all in the offseason or any preseason games (Andrew Whitworth) and the other nicked up and getting ready for the Sept. 8 opener (Clint Boling), get ready to see plenty of the two tackles the Bengals drafted this year in Thursday's 7 p.m. preseason finale against the Colts (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium.

Fifth-rounder Tanner Hawkinson out of Kansas, who figures to be with the club on the final 53-man roster, returns after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. Seventh-rounder Reid Fragel out of Ohio State, who missed the first two games with a knee injury, isn't on such firm ground.

The status of the starting knees puts the Bengals in an intriguing spot on the offensive line. Do they have to go heavy at the spot and keep 10 linemen instead of nine and go light elsewhere? Or do they keep nine and go heavy at backup tackle instead of backup center-guard?

One of the reasons the Bengals covet the 6-5, 300-pound Hawkinson is they think at some point he'll be able to play all five spots. He's already played left tackle, left guard and right guard, and has already racked up 47 snaps even though he has only played in the Aug. 8 opener in which he sprained his ankle.

"At first he seemed to be more of a guard in the NFL," says offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "But he's really surprised me at how well he's played tackle. We knew he had good feet coming in here, but he's really showed some athleticism."

Hawkinson is just glad to be showing something after nearly three weeks on the shelf.

"I had nicks and bumps in college," he says, "but I was never out for any length of time. So I'm really anxious to get back out there."

With Whitworth rarely practicing since his February knee surgery to ease the pain of scar tissue, Hawkinson has been watching six-year veteran backup left tackle Anthony Collins. They've got a lot in common. Both were staples at Kansas, where Hawkinson set the school record with 48 straight starts and where Collins was an All-American left tackle before leaving Lawrence early. Hawkinson played three years at left tackle and one on the right while Collins has started 12 games for the Bengals at right tackle and six at left. Both can also play guard and that's where Hawkinson went the minute he arrived in May.

"He left the year before I got there so I never knew him at KU, but I heard about him," Hawkinson says of Collins. "Coming up here, it's something to talk about every once in a while, the old days back at KU.

"I don't know too much about the personnel through the league, but I think he could probably start for quite a few teams. He's athletic, he's smart, he knows the playbook inside out."

Another guy watching Collins has been head coach Marvin Lewis. Collins hasn't always had the easiest relationship with the staff, but Lewis has been extremely praiseworthy of his maturity and value this season. There'd be a lot of places that would be melting down if the Pro Bowl left tackle hadn't taken a snap four weeks into August, but Collins has been steady and calm.

"Anthony has really done a good job. During the offseason with Andre Smith's absence, he was over at the right tackle position most of the offseason," Lewis said this week. "He's been back and forth, right-left, left-right. Anthony has really earned the respect of his teammates as a player each and every day with the way he carries himself around here all the time.

"He was a young guy when he was picked, and he didn't get an opportunity to play a whole lot early on. He was just always that eighth or ninth lineman that would sometimes be suited up and sometimes not, and that wore on him a little bit. These last couple of years he's been great. Every time he goes out there and gets a chance to play he responds and does well."

Hawkinson also has something in common with Fragel. He was recruited as a tight end, but Fragel played it until his final year at Ohio State. When Hawkinson got to Kansas he also worked at defensive line before he was moved to the offensive line when he was a redshirt freshman.

"I think the versatility has helped me," Hawkinson says of what has been a pretty seamless transition. "Being able to play inside and outside and just use my athleticism to my advantage. (The speed of the game) was a surprise at first. Once you get a few practices under your belt you feel little bit better about yourself and obviously that first game."

Versatility and athleticism have made the KU Kids the first two players off the bench at Nos. 6 and 7. The next two players—Nos. 8 and 9—depend on what the Bengals think of the knees situation. Do they need two backup center-guards? Or do they need another right tackle, say a veteran such as Dennis Roland, a guy that hasn't missed a game in four years? Is Fragel a guy with a lot of upside, but needs time to develop?

About all we know is the young tackles are going to get enough snaps for a month of Thursdays against the Colts.

"You've made decisions, but you haven't made the final decisions because you don't have to yet," Lewis says. "You have to continue to time and time again get close to what you're thinking."

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