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Taking a position

Rey Maualuga gets a tattoo every spring break and a few weeks ago he got one of a stingray because "I'm Rey. Sting Rey, hopefully."

While Maualuga swam in the unchartered waters of SAM linebacker, the big fish returned to his feeding ground when Andre Smith made like sonar Friday and showed the basics of why he was the top left tackle in college football this past year during the Bengals first two practices of rookie camp.

"I kind of left today breathing easy," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander as he exited the morning practice. "I think he's going to be pretty good."

Yes, but they won't say where.

Or how long he's going to be the left tackle or if he'll be the right tackle when the veterans join them on the field May 19. Alexander says we're only on Day A and the call won't come until Day B. Whenever that is.

"We're going to go through this weekend and make an evaluation and see how things should play out," said head coach Marvin Lewis after the workouts. "We're not going to get too much caught up in that right now."

One of the easiest ways to irk Lewis is to ask about starting lineups before Mother's Day. But let it be known that he has no doubt Maualuga can play on the outside at SAM linebacker even though he only played the middle at USC.

"I don't have any reservations how good he can be," said Lewis of Maualuga on the outside. "The way I look at the NFL draft we draft a player and project him into our positions. Those are the things I'm looking at when I'm watching a guy on tape and I'm watching where he's going to play for us.

"I'm not really worried about what he did in college. I can't tell what they were coaching him to do in college. Nor do I care. But I'm interested what he's going to do for us and where he's going to fit for us and to me that's the big thing."

Lewis says the SAM backer is very similar to how the SAM backer lined up at USC. And the old USC WILL backer who once played next to Maualuga thinks he can do it. Keith Rivers stopped by his hotel room Thursday night to take him to a Mexican dinner (Nada's) as well as feast on the playbook to show him some of the stuff the outside backer has to learn in this scheme.

"Shouldn't be too bad; he's a smart guy," Rivers said after watching the morning workout. "He picked up the middle backer at SC, which is not easy so I'm sure he can pick up the SAM easy.

"On the outside you have to do a little more in coverage but it's not all that different. You have to run a little more."

Which is the question.

In their effort to keep their smartest defensive player and most experienced linebacker in the middle in Dhani Jones, would the Bengals be daring opposing teams to throw on Maualuga
and take him away from his strength at the line of scrimmage?

Maualuga, who did play in the middle on passing downs Friday, has no trepidations about the unknown.

"Not really," he said between practices. "I've played Mike my whole life, but SAM is a position I know I can get done. I know I can get adjusted to it and I'm pretty sure I'll be fine."

The biggest change, he says, is dropping into coverage but he says every first day on the field "is a little shaky here and there, but you correct your mistakes and come out the next practice and everything will be OK."

If you think Maualuga is as aggressive, intimidating, and downright frightening off the field as he is on the field, think again. His voice is softer than Muzak and much more polite.

"I'm all yours," he told Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan as the day's media requests were outlined.

After Friday's first practice, he made his group Cincinnati media debut on the field in a sprawling eight-minute interview. It ranged from an apology to Bengals fans for being mad at going in the second round, to the pride he has in his Polynesian heritage that is reflected in his bushy hair and bountiful tattoos, to the vow, "I'm definitely going to bring an attitude to the defense and bring in the whole package everyone expects and make sure the Cincinnati Bengals and the franchise didn't make a mistake in picking me."

Despite his fall out of the first round last Saturday with vague whispers, it is clear the Bengals have a passionate player burning with football, pride, leadership and a legacy that has made him a member of what is being called the greatest set of linebackers in college history. He loves Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, but Maualuga won't forget they got drafted ahead of him, either.

"It's always been a competition between us," he said. "It's a friendship but at the same time, who is going to play first, who's going to get the most reps, who's going to be named All-American first, who's going to get the most notoriety, who's going to get drafted first. Now I'm sure it's going to be who plays more, who is going to make the impact on the team. But that's not going to change who we are. We're great friends and brothers for life."

He has been heartened by the support of fellow alums like Frostee Rucker and Carson Palmer and fellow Samoans Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene on the defense. They texted early and often.

"Once a Trojan, always a Trojan," Maualuga said. "Everyone stuck up for me. It's an extended family."

If Maualuga is as comfortable at SAM as he is here, you have to figure he'll be OK. And at some point, you have to figure Maualuga is going to end up in the middle. Whether it's the opener, after the bye, next year, who knows?

The case of Smith at left tackle seems a little more complicated. After lining him up there Friday, Alexander said it's what they do every rookie camp. Line him up at his college position, get a baseline, evaluate him, and move on.

"I'd rather build on success with a guy rather than put people someplace else," Alexander said.

Alexander thought Smith's roommate, Jonathan Luigs, the fourth-round center from Arkansas, held up well ("All the snaps were up," and "There weren't as many mental mistakes as I thought there would be today"),  but he admitted, "My eyes were always going someplace else."

They were, of course, locked on Smith easily setting up in pass pro and firing off into pads held by defenders. Quick enough for left tackle?

"I don't pay attention to what they say," Smith said of the people who think he's more suited for right tackle.

But it could have nothing to do with Smith. It could be how the club views right tackle. If the Bengals decide to put Smith at left and leave Andrew Whitworth at left guard to continue his pursuit of the Pro Bowl, is Anthony Collins enough of a mauler for the right side? Or is Collins, a good athlete, better suited for left tackle and so Smith goes to right?

Don't ask Lewis or Alexander if you want to irk them. Ask Smith and he's just having fun picking up the Bengals technique and some fine-tuning, like moving his feet instead of pausing before punching.

"It's a little different than what I was doing at Alabama," he said, "but I'm learning new things to help make my game easier on Sunday. I'm just absorbing it in like a sponge."

The Sponge met The Broom in one-on-ones when 6-7 defensive end Michael Johnson, the third-rounder, from Georgia Tech, lined up against him a couple of times. For the most part, Smith's strength won out, but Johnson's ample athleticism had a few moments.

"It was just nice to watch," said a Bengals coach, "two good players go at it. They should be doing it for the next 10 years."

If Smith and Maualuga figure to end up at some point in their careers at their college positions, no one knows what is going to happen with Johnson. The answers on him won't come until the pads come on, so they're going to celebrate his incredible gifts until then and tinker with his door frame frame at SAM.

Talk to the coaches and they were fantasizing about moving him all over the place long before the draft.

"We spent a lot of time with him on his campus," said Lewis of a guy the Bengals also visited with at the Senior Bowl and at the scouting combine. "We feel like he can do that. He's such a great athlete. He's so doggone big and strong and fast. I'm not sure where he'll end up. He gives us a versatility in what we're doing on defense. We'll fight over which spot to go with."

For now, enjoy the versatility until the pads come on.

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