(First of a two-part behind-the-scenes look at the Bengals coaching the North defensive backs at this Saturday's Senior Bowl.)
MOBILE, Ala. - Kevin Coyle, the Bengals secondary coach blessed with the one of the NFL's deepest fleet of cornerbacks back home in Cincinnati, started his week at the Under Armour Senior Bowl reminiscing about one of his guys.
Tucked away in a conference room at the Mobile Convention Center on Sunday night, Coyle talked to the North defensive backs about a prospect sitting in the same place two years ago and how Michigan cornerback Morgan Trent got the call late in the week, put his time into the playbook, and left a good enough impression that when it looked like no one would draft him the Bengals called on their Mobile experience with him and took him in the sixth round. Less than a year later, he was the third corner in a playoff game.
"Then I talked to them about the first year we coached down here," Coyle says of the 2004 game. "And how we were supposed to have some top DBs and I don't remember them sticking around very long in the league. You never know."
The North doesn't have a lot of highly-ranked DBs, but you never know. Coyle has no idea where these guys are going to be drafted. It's just so early. He hasn't watched any game tape, yet, and he has yet to be able to stack them up against the other guys in the draft.
Now it is mid-week and it is about two hours after practice and Coyle has a busy hour session planned. The coaches will go over the practice tape. Then, in preparation for the next day's red-zone work they'll watch some cutups from last year's Bengals training camp. They'll finish by watching some of the South's offense from the day before.
"You better be writing this down; it will be on the test," says Coyle, who has the classroom presence to strike fear into any former middle school math student.
It is the only way to get a former ACC centerfielder in North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney on the same page with a Pac 10 triple jumper and long jumper in Stanford cornerback Richard Sherman in five brief days before Saturday's 4 p.m. game on the NFL Network.
The dress code is T–shirts, shorts and socks shoved into either shower shoes or their Under Armour running shoes. It looks like the start of a college class with back packs and bottles of water leaning up against chairs. The room is lit by Coyle's projector and the texting cell phones before Coyle shuts them down with, "Let's go, we're burning sunlight."
"You guys look a little logy," says Louie Cioffi, Coyle's assistant and Sherman looks at him like he's got three eyes.
"Never heard of that," Sherman says.
"It's a word we use with our guys," Coyle says. "C'mon Stanford. You ought to know that. Look it up."
Sherman is the kind of guy that will. He went through Dominguez High School in rough-and-tumble Compton, Calif., with a 4.1 grade point average and is now sitting in a chair with a highlighter and pen.
There's not enough time to make this nuclear fission and you don't have to because of the all-star rules. The defense can play only two defenses Saturday, a three-man zone (Cover 3) and man-to-man, or (Single High) where the free safety is in the middle. And no blitzing.
"Got to be a two-pen guy," Sherman says. "You take down everything, but you highlight the important stuff. Yeah, he's talking English. It's football. It's basic stuff I already know. But every coach has different technique. (Back)pedaling is always different. Some coaches start at eight yards, some start at seven, and some five."
The offense is just as restrained. It can't shift or go in motion or put three receivers on the same side. It can go two backs, but has to balance the receivers with two on each side if they go more than three wides.
"The idea is to get them playing against each other as equally as you can for evaluation purposes," a scout says. "You don't want them to have the advantage because of a scheme. You're judging players, not systems. So you're looking for who thinks on his feet, who reacts quickly, who makes plays when things break down."
And, really, the scout says, while the Bengals coaches can get a feel for how well a prospect digests concepts, the stuff is so simple down here that the only way to truly know if a guy has the required football IQ is to talk to the people that were around him in college.
But this is still a big teaching and learning week. Take for example Coyle giving the 5-9, 181-pound Burney some advice on a massive sweep that overpowered the secondary on this day. They must do what they call "crack and replace."
"You've got to put some weights in your pants or you're going to end up in the nickel seats there," says Coyle as the tape shows Burney fighting with the behemoths. "Big son of a gun, isn't he? We may lose you. You're going to end up in Section 10. You have to get that little butt down and be ready to cover if you have to."
Then to North Carolina safety Da'Norris Searcy he asks, "How did that helmet come off so easy?" and when the answer is "The crack call came late," he says, "Let me tell you something. When the (receiver) is split three, four yards, it's going to come quick, so whether there's a crack call or not, you better be ready for the crack."
"Da' Norris, you stayed with the play and made the tackle. That's a good thing to get on tape, you understand?" Coyle says. "You could have been looking for your helmet, been putting it back on, then chased the play. I've seen that before."
Coyle has seen a guy like Burney before. There was a guy from Staten Island about 35 years ago who was a slight safety at the University of Massachusetts. Coyle played with a lot of heart and so does Burney.
"Coach calls me 'Shorty,' and that's OK because he's short, too," Burney tells the media after the next practice. "It's great when you can relate to coaches like that."
Burney says he doesn't mind the restricted rules.
"There are people that think that I'm only a Cover 2 corner," Burney says. "Now I get to show them I can play man."
(NEXT: Burney gets his shot in the red zone at the next practice.)