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Rotation and redemption

7-25-01, 3:25 p.m.



A look at the defensive line roster fight, which will no doubt change with Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage still three days away. The Bengals usually keep eight:

LOCKS: T Oliver Gibson, T Tony Williams, T Tom Barndt, E Justin Smith, E Vaughn Booker, E John Copeland.

NOT SOLID YET, BUT SHOULD BE: E-T Bernard Whittington.

ON THE BUBBLE: E Reinard Wilson, E-T Glen Steele, E Jevon Langford, E-T Kevin Henry.


GRINDING: Calvin Lewis.

Reinard Wilson and the rest of the what-have-you-done-for-me lately? Bengals defensive line is very much alive and well and jamming up the numbers game on the roster with high grades.

"If they're going to cut me, I don't want to go out being the worst of the bunch," said Wilson of his revival. "When (Justin Smith) signs, I'll be fourth team. I want to at least show I belong."

Defensive line coach Tim Krumrie's rotation has been so close and competitive that veterans like Bernard Whittington, Kevin Henry and Glen Steele look to be pushed to the bubble.

Tackle Tony Williams is winning over his linemates in showing why the Bengals gave a low-profile, high-motor lineman $4 million to sign. Tackle Tom Barndt is playing like he did for the

Chiefs two years ago. And Wilson, the erstwhile first-round linebacker now a fourth-string end, has strung together the best practices of his career in the fifth and final year of that disastrous long-ago deal that pays him $880,000

"Man, I'm sick of 99 in my face all day. He's a Pro Bowl player," said running back Corey Dillon, a Pro Bowler himself, after seeing too much of nose tackle Oliver Gibson in a recent practice. "And I'll tell you what, 91 is all over the place, too."

That would be Williams, the Bengals' first free-agent pickup of this past off-season who seems to have taken offense to the Tony Who? Reaction when he signed.

"Tony takes a lot of pressure off me because he penetrates so much," Gibson said. "I'm getting singled up a lot because we're getting that penetration, we're getting off blocks.

"One thing about Tony," Gibson said. "I thought I go all the time. I get tired and I turn and watch Tony keep flying to the quarterback. He's always going like that."

That's how first-round pick Justin Smith is supposed to play right end when he signs: An All-Out All-American.

"I like that kid a lot," Barndt said. "I'll be surprised if he's not a good player."

Barndt is surprising everybody but himself by his play in his first week of practice since they rebuilt his shoulder back in January. It was about a year ago this week that Barndt tore a muscle that plagued him all last season, and the injury wasn't solved until a late-season exam revealed much more damage. He was limited to seven tackles in five starts after signing a five-year, $11 million deal in free agency.

What was supposed to be a two-hour surgery by Dr. Tim Kremchek lasted five when Kremchek had
to reach under Barndt's skin and pull his dangling pectoral muscle out of his chest and attached it back to his shoulder.

"The doctor must have done a good job," Barndt said. "I've got all kinds of screws in there and I haven't felt a thing since I've been down here."

Gibson: "With two healthy pecs, Tom is a force in there."

Barndt, Gibson, Williams and someone else (Steele, Henry, Whittington?) will be rotating at tackle. Who ever it is, Jim Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel, likes the makeup of a line that will have just one player (Smith) with less than four years experience.

"There's nothing wrong with that knowledge and we're stronger, too," Lippincott said. "Oliver and Williams and Barndt change the line of scrimmage with their strength. They've been outstanding."

Ends Vaughn Booker and John Copeland, with 17 years between them, have looked good. But the big question on them is if they can stay healthier than last year. Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner says it's too early to call how many linemen will make it, but Dick LeBeau's traditional number has been eight.

They also like Whittington's motor after playing against him every one of his previous seven pre-seasons with the Colts. But they want to take some time to look at him as an end, where he doesn't have as many snaps as he does at tackle.

"He's played end before and done well there," Krumrie said of the equally high-motor Whittington. "Plus, he's smart, and you always take a look at that."

The Bengals are light at end because of Smith's holdout and Henry's elbow injury that could force him to miss the first two pre-season games. Henry has a long climb back because although he can play both tackle and end, he's going against two guys in Whittington and Steele who have decent track records doing both.

But the surprise of camp has been Wilson, the 14th pick in the 1997 NFL Draft who was supposed to be a sackmaster linebacker. But after 35.5 career sacks as an end at Florida State, he couldn't make the switch in the pros and has 15 career sacks.

Which isn't bad, considering his playing time usually doesn't exceed 10 snaps a game. If he makes it, that's about what it would be again in the pass-rush package.

"But he could be the kind of pass rusher on the other side of the No. 1 guy," Lippincott said. "You always need that guy who won't let teams slide their protection to the main guy."

The coaches have thrown their hands up with Wilson in the past, but this camp's film isn't lying.

Lippincott says his hand placement has been excellent as Wilson consistently gets the separation from the blocker he never has before. And he's holding up despite dropping about 10 pounds to 260.

"Reinard's playing well. He knows what this year means, Gibson said. "He knows they've brought in guys and some people don't want him around."

Also playing well is rookie free-agent Jeff Boyle out of Wyoming. The 6-1, 290-pound Boyle has compensated for short arms with strength and excellent balance. His best hope, along with Lewis, is the practice squad.

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