11-15-01, 7:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Things are moving quickly for Nick Williams as the Bengals' 265-pound fullback barges into a role as tight end.
In his second day of practice since returning from the most serious of knee injuries, Williams continued to work in the backfield as well as spend time with the tight ends in an experiment that could yield the Bengals' H-Back of the future. Or maybe even a new tight end.
"It's kind of wild," said Williams before Thursday's practice. "It's not like I'm learning two positions because I know the fullback stuff. But it's still a new offense, so it's been kind of like double duty."
Williams, a fifth-round pick out of Miami of Florida in 1999, has been spending time in both the meetings of backs coach Jim Anderson and tight ends coach Frank Verducci. At some point in the next three weeks he'll be activated off the physically unable to perform list (PUP), which allows the Bengals to find out if he can be an effective "move," player who can catch and block out of the backfield, in motion, or on the line of scrimmage.
With tight end Marco Battaglia in the final year of his contract, tight end Sean Brewer spending his rookie year on injured reserve, and 240-pound Lorenzo Neal a staple of the running game who is the club's only active fullback, the Bengals want to explore the versatility Williams brings with soft hands and solid blocking.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's system has a big role for the "Move," or "H-Back,' or "F-Back," which Battaglia has filled occasionally. But the 6-2 Williams is a more natural fit because he has a big man's body combined with running back pedigree.
"In many ways, the positions are similar with the routes and protections in the passing game and the blocking assignments on runs," Bratkowski said of fullback and tight end. "I think he'd be very successful at it."
Butch Davis, his college coach, very nearly put Williams at tight end when he recruited him out of Farmington Hills, Mich., where he rushed for 1,358 yards as a senior before becoming Edgerrin James' blocking back at Miami. So Williams' evolution from running back to fullback to H-Back also gives him an edge and enthusiasm for the role.
"It's a position I'm familiar with," Williams said. "I understand that position. A lot of concepts are really
the same. It's football concepts. If there's an outside play, we work to get outside the helmet on the block. Inside, get the helmet on the inside. If you've got a lead play, you get momentum. It's the same thing at tight end and at fullback. The only thing is the tight ends have different calls. I still have to learn those."
The two biggest challenges will running pass routes against safeties and blocking on the line of scrimmage.
"He's hasn't done closed space blocking. Having a guy right up in there," Verducci said. "He's more used to approaching a block from a distance and being able to gather himself. At tight end, he has to explode out of a stance.
"It's not that much of a reach," Verducci said. "It's a realistic project. He's done a lot of these things as a fullback. The thing with him is the size and speed ratio. He's such a big man and if he moves as well as we think, you want to look for ways to keep him on the field."
It's not a way to keep tight end Tony McGee off the field. McGee is coming off a four-drop game, but Bengals President Mike Brown defended McGee Thursday.
"Tony did an excellent job blocking in that game," Brown said. "He's very valuable there for us and those would have been tough catches. I just think it's a bit unfair to criticize him so harshly."
McGee, who has a year left on his contract, isn't talking about last Sunday ("I want to leave it there because it won't help us this Sunday"), but he does think Williams would be a good fit.
"The biggest transition will be learning how to block down linemen," McGee said. "If you're doing H-Back, there' s a lot of move blocking and what you do at the fullback position. He's a good athlete. Marco isn't signed for next year, you got Brewer, so that would be logical I guess."
Neal has been as good as advertised. But when the Bengals fall behind, his limits in the passing game keep him off the field. For instance, he played just 17 percent of the snaps last week in Jacksonville. Williams' speed and hands can be a factor on third down.
Williams doesn't have to be sold on the experiment. After ripping up the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee May 6 back in minicamp, he just wants to get on the field. He thinks he can handle the safeties with his size on the pass routes.
"Catching is even easier because I'm a few yards closer than coming out of the backfield," Williams said. "I'm right there and that makes it a lot faster, so the passing a game is a lot easier. A lot of times, I'll be able to work on a small safety. The next few days and weeks, you'll be seeing me do a lot of both."
If he isn't a H-Back, is he a pure tight end?
"I think," said Williams,
who has nearly as many career catches (17) as runs (20), "I could do it."