What's in a name?


Geno Atkins

Georgia defensive tackle Geno Atkins has been a Bengal just 10 days and to show you how much the club has been taken with him, he just may very well lead the draft in nicknames.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and line coach Jay Hayes doled out "Taz" (for Tasmanian Devil) and "Sonic The Hedgehog" during this past weekend's rookie camp in honor of his quickness and tenacity off the ball, and relatively short frame.

How quick?

"As a hiccup," Hayes says.

 "I'm really intrigued with him," Hayes admits. "He's short, but he's got the same height as John Randle and if he's half the player John Randle was, then we'll have something special."

While Randle is getting fitted for a Hall of Fame jacket for this August, Atkins is getting fitted for nicknames for training camp. In fact, "Geno" is one that also came out of an NFL locker room hung on him by a coach. But that was 20 years ago.

It was back when he could barely walk and he was bouncing around the Saints locker room with his dad's helmet. He's got the same name as his father, the old Saints and Dolphins safety Gene Atkins, so Saints head coach Jim Mora, with the help of general manager Jim Finks, called the little kid, "Geno."

"You know how sometimes nicknames just stick? For some reason this one did and I don't know why," Gene Atkins says. "But it's been used this whole time."

Geno's exact dimensions are 6-1, 293 pounds, and he knows how he got here in the fourth round and what the Bengals hope he can do: Provide an inside pass rush.

"My speed is my one attribute," Geno Atkins says. "Before I came up here for camp I emphasized my get-off. I know they say I'm short when you look at me, but I think I'm deceptively strong. I try to use that to my advantage."

It didn't fool Hayes when he worked out Atkins at the NFL scouting combine. He knew Atkins had flung up the 225-pound bar 36 times and when he ripped off a 4.8-second 40-yard dash, he said something under his breath like "Holy smokes."

All of which would please Gene Atkins, who stopped playing when Geno was eight. But the father made sure the son didn't play too early. He would wait until Geno asked and that happened in ninth grade.

"A lot of times players try to get their kids into it early and they don't like it, or lose interest," Gene Atkins says. "I knew there was time. I wanted him to play other sports to work on the other things. He played soccer and some basketball and that helped with speed and agility. He played some baseball and that was hand-eye coordination."

As Hayes says, "It worked," and even Gene Atkins says not without certain pride, "He's doing things the father couldn't do. Run a 4.7 at 290 pounds?"

Geno knew he would play even in fifth grade. That's when he says he realized he wouldn't be a DB like his dad "because these big calves started growing out."

It will be recalled that Gene Atkins was no slouch. From his own rookie year in New Orleans (1987), until 1993 he was the hard-hitting safety for one of the hardest hitting defenses in NFL history before he played his last three seasons in Miami.

(Footnote: In 1994, Atkins signed with a Dolphins team that let go safety Louis Oliver and Oliver ended up being the Bengals' first major free-agent signing.)

When Gene Atkins discusses the impact of Geno having the sickle cell trait, he points to his own career of nine seasons in which he played at least 13 games. In his 10th and final year he was cut by the Dolphins after five games.

"I have the trait and it didn't bother me," says Atkins, who played in 143 games. "I think you just have to look at my career and know that it's something that you don't have to make a big deal."

The sickle cell trait isn't full-blown sickle cell anemia, but the abnormalities in the hemoglobin force Geno to take precautions.

"It was diagnosed in high school, but I haven't really had it affect me," he says. "The time I have to be careful is when it gets really hot, like 90 degrees, and if I get dehydrated. I have to have somebody watching me and making sure I'm OK. I just have to make sure I'm hydrated."

A guy that played high school ball in South Florida and college ball in Georgia is used to all kinds of heat. Take last Saturday morning's 65-70 or so degrees humidity at Paul Brown Stadium and he says, "Not way hot enough."

The condition has been no secret. Hayes has discussed it with him.

"It sounds like he has it under control because he knows what he has to do," Hayes says. "He knows he has to be in top physical condition and, believe me, he would put you to shame on the stairmaster. He's in shape."

That's another reason the Bengals like him. "Great kid," Hayes says. He's into the playbook, he plays hard, he's in shape. The NFL pedigree starts to show through. Gene Atkins lives in Texas now, but Geno says they talk at least three times a week and Gene knew all about "The Taz" nickname and seemed to approve.

Hayes sees the same sort of calm in his seven-year left end, Robert Geathers, another NFL son.

"With Geno you have the feeling it's not going to be too big for him," Hayes says.

Hayes realized that "Taz" was more the cartoon era for him and Zimmer, so he went more for his own kids' Sonic The Hedgehog. Atkins' face lit up.

"He could relate to that," Hayes says. "Ricochet rabbitish quick."

The Bengals hope he keeps drawing it up when the pads come on.

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