Jermaine Gresham may remain a mystery to the media, but not to his coaches and his teammates. Particularly Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and his offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Kevin Wilson.
Wilson, now the head coach at Indiana, received a text from Gresham inviting him to Paul Brown Stadium to watch him practice during training camp. Since it was Wilson's last weekend before the Hoosiers get underway, it turned out, quite fittingly, that Wilson was on hand Sunday to watch Gresham star in the Oklahoma Drill.
First, he took on big, bad James Harrison and shoved him enough for a stalemate. Then at the end of the procedure Gresham requested to take on two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and he overwhelmed him. Atkins cried "false start," and Lewis agreed.
(Atkins said Gresham, a friend of his, was looking to even up the score from last year "when I can't remember what happened to tell you the truth," but that Atkins won this one on disqualification.)
But even though Gresham started a little early, that didn't prevent Lewis from heaping a pile of praise on Gresham or from his teammates mobbing him as if he'd scored the Super Bowl winner in overtime. Despite two Pro Bowl appearances while becoming the first Bengals tight end ever to catch 50 passes in each of three straight seasons, Gresham has always carried himself with heavy expectations.
Last year he ripped himself for not keeping up with his tight ends class of 2010 that includes Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham. This year he has ripped himself for dropping two key balls in the first drive of last year's Wild Card loss in Houston. And there has always been the nagging scouting report of "needs to be more consistent."
But Lewis would have none of it Sunday.
"Jermaine has grown so much over the last two seasons. This offseason he continued to take another step. This camp he's taken another step," Lewis said. "I don't want him to keep the pressure on himself all the time … he's done a great job stepping up his leadership on this team, doing everything that's asked of him and trying to get better physically. He's got such a big heart, such a good kid and it's fun to watch him come out of it the more comfortable he's gotten."
Lewis believes the drops in Houston hit Gresham hard and now the challenge is to divert it into positive energy.
"I think it had a huge impact," Lewis said. "The positive of it is you keep working for those situations and opportunities, but we all lost that game. One play doesn't lose a game. We all lost."
As usual, Gresham had nothing to say to the media, although he allowed he thought "James blocked me" instead of the other way around. But that was it. He preferred to talk to Wilson after practice, instead.
"He shot me a text out of the blue," Wilson said. "It was like, 'I'm doing well. I want you to come see me.' This guy reaches back, he didn't need anything. Just show a little support. That makes you feel good as a coach. He's doing well and it looks like they've got a good team. He's a special guy. I had him every day for four years."
If Lewis likes Gresham's progress as the do-it-all tight end that can catch and block, then he has to love the work of transplanted tight end Orson Charles. Charles also had an eye-opening Oklahoma Drill while cleaning up three linebackers in Rey Maualuga, Vincent Rey and J.K. Schaffer.
The 250-pound Charles, who played a little more than 300 snaps last season while making eight catches as a rookie, didn't exactly develop a reputation as a killer blocker. But he's thrown his weight around in the last two practices when the pads came out. Lewis said after Sunday's practice that Charles is in a big-time competition with veteran John Conner (Chris Pressley is rehabbing a knee injury) but it looks like this is Charles's job to lose.
After he leveled linebacker Brandon Joiner in a run-game drill on Saturday during a shoulder pads practice, Charles's camp roommate, WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, came across from the other side and chest-bumped his congrats and later confided Charles has been falling asleep at camp reading his playbook.
In order to spice up their offense, the Bengals are looking for more from the traditional blocking-only fullback they've employed and Charles showed off his hands last season. But he has to do some key blocking in what amounts as a "move" tight end, and he was pretty happy after practice. He's a fourth-round pick and Lewis pointed out that next to starting right guard Kevin Zeitler, no rookie played more on offense last season.
"I want to show them I can block. We do that at the University of Georgia," Charles said.
He's also got the estimable endorsement of new Bengals running backs coach Hue Jackson. Lewis said Charles is "Hue's hand-picked" candidate for the spot after they studied the blueprint.
"He has the elements. He's big, he's physical and he's tough. I think he's a good player," Jackson said. "He's got to continue to grow and play the position. He'll show up, he just has to do it consistently. He wants to be good. He just has to learn the blocking. Play low and learn all the intricacies playing fullback. He will."