Rookie center Russell Bodine anchored the first group at Tuesday's first practice of mandatory minicamp.
All the practices of a mandatory minicamp leave you with are signs to get you through a long, hot Bengal-ess July. So when quarterback Andy Dalton and the first offense put the ball on the ground less than Billy Hamilton's center field during a brisk opening hour Tuesday on the Paul Brown Stadium field in the camp's first practice, that was a good sign for a Cincinnati Fourth.
Among Dalton's targets were three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and he led him from the left hash to the right sideline with a 15-yard crossing dart that beat veteran safety Danieal Manning. Before that, in one-on-one drills, Dalton lofted in-stride 50-yard plus bombs to his starting wide receivers, Green running past cornerback Adam Jones and Marvin Jones beating rookie corner Lavelle Westbrooks.
As the day grew more humid, the play slowed a bit. But practice fittingly ended on a play running back Giovani Bernard scalded coverage in the middle of the field on a pass over the middle.
The word in the voluntary camps the previous two weeks had been that Dalton's passes looked quicker and sharper and that was on display Tuesday as the off-season work on his mechanics seems to be paying off.
"I think he's throwing the ball fantastic. I really do. He's improved," said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. "I think he's improved all the way around. I think he's taken charge and the fact he's really running the huddle it's his offensive football team. He's done a great job thus far.
"I think he's more compact. The ball comes out quicker. There's more urgency in his body. I just think all the way around he's improved. But we've got to keep improving. Again, we have a lot more practices before we get ready to play a game. So I'm excited about what the upside is, but I know we've got to go get there. We've got to keep chasing it every day to get there."
It's hard to get a smile out of Jackson these days, the ugly moments when points and first downs are made from sausage.
"I'm a man of little words. We just got a lot of work to do. Put our heads down and keep working," Jackson said as he walked off the field looking to finish off Wednesday's practice plan.
Jackson has preferred talking about his offensive line in the early days of his transition to an up-tempo, physical style and he opened up some eyes when he put fourth-round pick Russell Bodine at center and left guard Tanner Hawkinson with the first group.
"(Bodine) has the characteristics we are looking for in a center. It's not that Trevor (Robinson) hasn't, we just put him in there for right now," Jackson said. "He's got to get the ball to the quarterback right. He needs to do a better job of snapping the ball. He can't play center if you don't snap the ball correctly. He's working at it and he's done a good job. But he's got to become a little more consistent on an everyday basis. "
Bodine is getting a thumbs-up from his right guard, Kevin Zeitler, as well as the man that was thought to be the starting center before the draft, six-year veteran Mike Pollak.
"He's picking stuff up quickly. For somebody who has only been live in the offense for two weeks, he's definitely improving every day," Zeitler said. "He knows the situation. He's not freaking out about it. He's taking it in stride and he's taking it to heart."
So is Zeitler. Pollak noted left tackle Andrew Whitworth's observation that Bodine's inexperience is forcing the reticent Zeitler to open up.
"I had to reiterate stuff with the tackles and that's good for me just because I should probably talk more when I'm out there," Zeitler said. "Whatever it takes. Anything to make sure everyone gets the call."
Pollak isn't out there because of a knee problem that cropped up in off-season training, but he indicated he'd be back for the start of training camp in late July. And he'll be ready to go at guard and center. He's getting pushed by starting left guard Clint Boling to get back because Boling feels like he'll be ready to start practicing the first day of camp, less than seven months after his ACL surgery.
"He's progressed so much. He's mostly getting ready to come back," Pollak said. "We're definitely hungry and chomping at the bit to get back out there. We're pushing each other because we hate standing around in practice. We feel old. We want to be out there young and running around."
Pollak says Bodine, all of 22 years old in three weeks, has looked good and strong. But he knows it's going to literally be a tough call for him if he starts as a rookie. A task, he says, just as daunting as what Dalton faced as a rookie three years ago.
"It's pretty similar," Pollak said. "Obviously, there is a lot more pressure on a young quarterback. But a young center, it's just the same. He's got to know what the responsibilities are for the guys next to him and he's got to make those calls on the fly."
Dalton looked far from a rookie Tuesday. As all the chatter buzzes around him about his contract, he has calmly gone about taking charge of Jackson's execution.
"Just the amount of support and the trust I get, and knowing that I'm his guy, that I'm going to be running everything, is great," Dalton said. "Everything with Hue is about the quarterback position, that he's the leader of this team."
Jackson had to admit. He did note the across-the-field throw to Green.
"Looked pretty, didn't it?" Jackson said, before he caught himself. "It's still a work in progress. We've got a ways to go. But you can see the potential. But we all know what potential means."
But this has been a two-way street with the receivers. Jackson, quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, and wide receivers coach James Urban have mounted an intense campaign to make sure Dalton and his receivers are on, as they always love to say, the same page.
They are stressing more decisive and more consistent routes and Green, for one, likes it.
"There's more detail this year, more detailed routes," Green said. "Before we had more freedom. Now it's, 'We have to do this,' because the ball is going to be there. That's the biggest thing (being on the same page)."
It may be a reason why Dalton looks a tad more relaxed. He's at his best in a rhythm that allows him to make quick reads and throws.
"Here, we're trying to make (running routes) consistent," Dalton said. "That just gets down to timing and guys being on the same page. I feel that one of the strengths of my game is the anticipation part of it. Now I can trust things little more."
But Jackson was thinking about Wednesday instead of Tuesday.
"I think they are working at it. That's all you can ask," he said. "There's a way to go. I think the quarterback is doing what he's supposed to do. I know we like to talk about our skill guys I think our linemen are really bought in and they are doing a good job. Are we perfect? No. But I think the guys understand what we are trying to accomplish."