Gray Matters

University of Cincinnati wide receiver Devin Gray, recently named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list, enters his senior season as one of the Bearcats top on-field threats.

Devin Gray vs BYU

When wide receivers coach Joker Phillips describes Gray, it sounds like he’s describing the Energizer Bunny.

“He goes and he goes and he goes,” said Phillips. “That’s probably one of the biggest strengths that he has. When you go and you go and you go, you get opportunities.”

Gray took advantage of those opportunities in his first season with the Bearcats after spending two years at Sierra College in California. Devin was named UC’s Newcomer of the Year as he hauled in a team-high 58 receptions for 860 yards and five touchdowns.

devin gray

“It was my first year and I was getting acclimated from the change from JUCO to Division I football,” said Gray. “It took me a while to get used to it, but I think it was a great learning experience.”

Devin made a strong impression on new head coach Luke Fickell and his staff during spring practice when he battled back from a knee injury.

“He got hurt in practice two and during spring break he stayed here and did everything he could possibly do to be ready when we got back,” said Phillips. “That tells you the character that he has and the desire that he has to play this game.”

“We don’t want injuries to happen and try to prevent them as much as possible with some of the things that we do to take care of their bodies,” said Fickell. “But when it happens, you see what their attitude is for trying to get back. Some guys have the attitude that they love this game and want to get back in any way possible.”

“It’s a blessing to be here playing Division I football,” said Gray. “It’s my last year here, so missing anything is like missing a lifetime. I don’t have the time to miss anything.”

When the Bearcats begin fall practices at Camp Higher Ground, the receiving corps will be led by Gray and junior Kahlil Lewis who had 48 receptions for 605 yards and five touchdowns last year.

“We have to find somebody that can make some plays on the outside,” said Fickell. “The game has become so much more about one-on-one matchups now. The guys are challenged all of the time and you have to have somebody feel confident that they can make a play.”

“Devin and Kahlil have to be the leaders in our room,” said Phillips. “If you’re a leader in that room, than you’ve got to be one of the guys that we try to get the ball to. You’ve got to design stuff to try to get the ball into their hands and he and Khalil will be two of those guys.”

True freshman Thomas Geddis and Jerron Rollins also gained valuable experience last year, and Gray says that he and his fellow receivers are eager to show what they can do in 2017.

“We’re a really tight group,” he said. “We all like each other, we all want each other to do good, and we all need each other to do good. Coach Phillips expects me as an older guy to lead by example and be vocal.”

“He’s an unbelievable kid,” said Phillips. “That’s what you want in your room – a leader who is the first one in there and the last to leave.”

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Ogbuehi Gaining Confidence

Cedric Ogbuehi is convinced that the month he spent doing Mixed Martial Arts at Jay Glazer’s Unbreakable Performance Center in Los Angeles is going to pay big dividends on the football field.

“I think it’s helped with leverage, sinking my hips, and my overall strength,” Ogbuehi told me. “MMA is all about leverage and I think that helps a ton with my position.

“We did a little boxing for stamina and shoulders and wrestling-type movements. It was good work.”

Does Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander agree that MMA-style training will help his young left tackle?

“I have no idea,” said Alexander. “I haven’t really followed it to tell you the truth.”

But don’t mistake Alexander’s disinterest in MMA for doubt about Ogbuehi’s improvement.

Cedric Ogbuehi

For the first time in his three NFL seasons, Cedric has been healthy this offseason allowing him to take part in the Bengals OTAs and minicamps.

“OTAs are the time where you really start from the beginning and break down the core fundamentals of blocking,” said Alexander. “He hasn’t been able to do that. He’s been hurt and was just kind of thrown in there to run plays. He’s been playing from behind a little bit. Now he’s playing from ahead.”

“It’s the first time that I got to slow it down and learn my techniques,” said Ogbuehi. “I’ve noticed the difference. I’m a different player, and I’m a more confident player.”

Alexander is in his 23rd season as the Bengals offensive line coach and helped develop Pro Bowl tackles Willie Anderson and Andrew Whitworth. He says that an offensive lineman’s confidence is built on the practice field.

“The best way to get confident is blocking your guy over and over again,” said Alexander. “You only get that through competitive execution of consistent fundamentals.

“(Cedric’s) never really been comfortable enough where he could execute the techniques the same way twice. That’s what he’s doing now. You’re building habits, you’re getting lots of repetitions going at slower speeds and then faster speeds and you’re developing those habits of good fundamentals.”

“Every day I’m getting better,” said Ogbuehi. “I’m learning something every day and the game is slowing down.”

When the Bengals concluded their final minicamp on June 15th, Ogbuehi said his plan was to go home to Dallas and continue training. When training camp opens at Paul Brown Stadium on July 28th, the 25-year-old will look to pick up where he left off on the practice field.

“I have to do what I did in OTAs and do it in camp,” he said. “Stack the practices, keep getting better, and be the same guy in camp that I was during OTAs.

“It’s exciting and going to be fun. Playing left tackle is the place I love to be and I’m excited to go out there and play.”

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Elliott Looks To Kick Start NFL Career

The Bengals had 11 draft picks this year. Their first round selection, wide receiver John Ross, ran the fastest 40-yard dash in the history of the NFL Scouting Combine. Their second round pick, running back Joe Mixon, looks like he has Jeremy Hill’s body with Giovani Bernard’s feet. Both of them should be able to help the offense immediately.

But another rookie could wind up having the biggest impact on this year’s team – fifth round selection Jake Elliott out of Memphis who was the first kicker selected in this year’s draft. He’ll go to training camp in a three-way battle for the job with veteran Randy Bullock and first-year kicker Jonathan Brown.

jake elliott bengals

“I’m looking forward to competing,” said Elliott. “Nothing in this league is given and everything has to be earned. I look forward to competing and hopefully winning the job.”

Last year Mike Nugent missed six field goal attempts and six extra points. His replacement, Bullock, only missed one kick in three games but it was a 43-yard field goal try that would have beaten Houston at the gun on Christmas Eve.

With four extra picks in this year’s draft, the Bengals were able to target a kicker and it was largely up to special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons to rank the college prospects.

“I like to think that it’s a total team effort, but I think they rely a lot on my opinion,” said Simmons. “I’m the one that gets to see each guy individually kick. I’m not a big pro day guy. I like to work them out individually because I like to do the things that I want to do with them and not necessarily have that on display for everyone else. I spend a lot of time with each of the top guys and I feel comfortable with the guy we got.

“I like to go in there individually so that I can work at my own pace. Sometimes I think on these pro days it’s a rush for everybody. The scouts and coaches have flights to catch or whatever it may be, and this way it’s a little more laid-back and I get a better feel. When you’re making a decision like that you don’t want to be rushed. I try to gather all the facts that I can.”

Elliott obviously made a strong impression on Simmons, but the reverse was also true.

“I got to know Coach Simmons a little bit during the Senior Bowl and during the Combine,” said Elliott. “Then he came up and worked me out individually in Memphis. He put me through a lot of stuff – field goal charts and kickoff charts and certain situational stuff as well. Then he coached a little technique stuff at the end and no other coach really did that.”

“I think he’s very coachable,” said Simmons. “That was easy to see right away with a couple of adjustments that we tried to make right after the workout was over. When I made suggestions, he picked up on them right away.

“He has a very calm demeanor. It was a tough day in Memphis that day that I worked him out. The wind was probably blowing 15 to 20 miles per hour and he never flinched. Some specialists have a tendency to be, ‘Woe is me,’ because of the weather. We were supposed to start kicking around two o’clock and there was a torrential downpour. We just stayed inside and watched video for a little bit and went out when the weather was nice. He never flinched with any of that and it was good to see that he’s got some composure.”

Jake Elliott memphis

As the radio broadcaster for UC, I saw Elliott kick in four games against the Bearcats and he made 5 of 7 field goal attempts and all 18 of his extra points. In his college career, Jake made 78% of his field goal tries at Memphis and all 202 of his extra point attempts.

“I take pride in that, but at the end of the day it’s still a competition coming in here,” he said. “I look forward to competing and hopefully earning a job.”

Most rookies that make an NFL team, even some of the high draft picks, begin their careers as backups.

But not kickers. There’s only one on the roster.

If Elliott wins the job, he’ll be under a white-hot spotlight from day one.

“It’s a lot different situation coming in as a specialist,” Jake told me. “That’s the pressure that comes with the job and that’s why I love what I do.”

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Bengals Look For Double Play With Malone

What do Cris Collinsworth, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Marvin Jones have in common?

Aside from being outstanding Bengals receivers of course.

None of them was the first wide receiver selected by Cincinnati in his draft class.

David Verser was selected before Collinsworth in 1981, Chad Johnson was picked before Houshmandzadeh in 2001, and Mohamed Sanu was taken before Jones in 2012.

The Bengals doubled down at wide receiver again in this year’s draft and while they’re counting on first round pick John Ross to have a big impact, they also have high hopes for fourth round selection Josh Malone out of Tennessee.

Josh malone bengals

“We went into the draft and felt like this was a guy that maybe was somewhat overlooked but had physical tools to play at a higher level,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “We’ve had good luck with a lot of guys like that who have similar body types and come in here as young players. They’ve continued to carve out opportunity and gain more reps and take advantage of it.”

Malone is 6’3”, 208 pounds and ran at 4.40 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. His size/speed ratio was evident on the practice field during the Bengals OTAs and minicamps.

Josh Malone

“He showed us what we thought he was,” said receivers coach James Urban. “He’s big and he’s fast and he has a good natural feel for the game. He’s learning how to run our routes and do things our way like any of them are – especially new guys. But he has some real ability.”

“To be his height and run as well as he does and catch the ball as well as he does – I think he’s got a bright future,” said Ross. “It’s going to be awesome to play side-by-side with him.”

Malone also displayed great hands in one of his first practices in a Bengals uniform. In a one-on-one receiving drill, Josh cut over the middle and the instant he turned his head to find the ball, an Andy Dalton bullet was zipping toward his facemask. Malone managed to make the catch and quickly learned that the Bengals starting quarterback delivers the ball on time and on target.

“That caught me so off guard when he did that,” said Malone. “I wasn’t expecting the ball to be right there on me. His timing and ability to place the ball is impressive.

“Andy is a vet and knows what he’s got to do. I was in a no-huddle offense at Tennessee, so seeing his command in the huddle is impressive. It’s the way he carries himself and the standard he holds himself to.”

Dalton is not the only veteran that Malone is paying close attention to. He’s says that Brandon LaFell is a great role model in the receivers room.

“It’s just his personality really,” Josh said. “He’s a great guy to be around and just listening to what he says and watching what he does is very impressive. It’s great to see how he goes about his business.

“He gives me a lot of advice and A.J. (Green) does too. I’m following both of them around and trying to get the most out of it.”

After the Bengals mandatory minicamp wrapped up on June 15th, Malone said he planned to go home and spend some time with his family before gearing up for training camp in late July.

“I feel like I did pretty well and put some good stuff on film,” he said. “Now I have to take what I learned in camp and get better, keep studying, and start developing professional habits.

“It’s what I expected. There’s new terminology and a lot of new wrinkles and words that you’ve never heard before. I’m just learning it the best that I can and going out there and executing on the field.”

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Another Season of Bengals Fun Facts

Every week during the season on the Bengals Radio Network pre-game show, I do a segment called “Fantastic Fun Facts” with a player, coach, or Bengals legend. It’s a brief life story of that week’s subject where we get away from the X’s and O’s of football and focus on their backgrounds, families, and interests off of the field.

Here are a few interesting nuggets that we learned from the segment last season.

Munoz finger

Anthony Munoz

You have a messed-up little finger that points sideways. Was there a specific incident or was it just the wear and tear of all those years on the offensive line?

“Every week over the years I would tape my fingers up. Then I retired and you kind of reassess your hands and fingers and I looked and said, ‘Oh my goodness. It’s not going the way it was when I started out in the NFL.’ But everything we did was with our hands. In run blocking you’re punching. When guys are coming at you in pass blocking you’re hitting facemasks and shoulder pads. It happened over all the years and a lot of people ask me, ‘Was it one specific play?’ With that pinkie, no. It was an accumulation.”

Jake Fisher

Jake Fisher

You blocked for the Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon – Marcus Mariota. What did it mean to you when he won the award?

“I guess that I can say I helped a little bit. I was a leader amongst my group, but that guy worked so hard and did such a great job. He puts his whole lifestyle into that. That’s what he’s about. And off the field he’s a high-character guy that’s probably the best person that I’ve ever met. So for me, nothing personal came from that. I was so happy for him to get that award – he should have had it two years in a row I think.”

Paul Alexander

Paul Alexander

You helped invent the Lev Sled for blocking. What does the Lev Sled do that previous blocking sleds didn’t?

“I’ve always had an interest in invention. I’ve invented a half dozen things really and the Lev Sled is the most famous of the group. In the past when blockers would hit sleds, it would either go straight out or straight up. Blocking is really a force of straight out to create leverage and then lift. So it’s really an arcing type of motion. No sleds did that. So I kind of invented the idea and worked with Rogers (Athletic) and hit 15 different prototypes until it was the right angle and the right arc. I really like creating and thinking and to me, that’s what NFL football is.”

That sounds to me like it could have been said by Paul Brown.

“You know, I never met Paul Brown. I’m fascinated by him and I’ve obviously read the book. I’ve heard so many things about him here and I wish I had known him. He was so creative and so ahead of the game and I think those thoughts came from inside his own mind. That’s inspirational and it’s the way pro football is. They say that the NFL is a copycat league. Somebody comes up with an idea and then everyone copies it. We haven’t done a lot of that. I really don’t like that. I’d rather come up with our own ideas. All of the crazy formation things that we’ve done that we’ve done the last few years – those are unique and are Bengals things. Remember how we used to send Dennis Roland in motion? We were really the first team to send a lineman in motion. When Corey Dillon was here we invented a play called the chase play and Dillon got most of his yards off of that. Now that’s a staple NFL play. So we’ve really enjoyed doing things that are unique and ours.”

deshawn Williams sack

DeShawn Williams

Despite a great career at Clemson and good workouts, you didn’t get drafted. Does it tick you off to this day?

“Yes. It still does. Because I know what I can do and a lot of people overlook me because of my height. They say things like, ‘He’s not the prototype NFL three technique’ and blah, blah, blah. But I have an All-Pro right next to me in Geno (Atkins). He’s not that tall but he shuts people up with his play and I feel like I’m going to do that down the road when I get more opportunities. So I live by ‘ball hard like a small guard.’ Don’t let anybody determine by your height what you can or cannot do.”

Alex Erickson kick return

Alex Erickson

Despite being a great high school quarterback, you were this close to playing college basketball correct?

“I committed to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point that has a great basketball program. They’ve won several national championships and had a lot of success. I was committed there and sent in my deposit and everything. I had my roommate all set up, told the coach I was coming there and then I got the acceptance to (the University of Wisconsin) Madison literally like a week later. It was tough at the time but I felt like it was the best opportunity. It was a goal of mine and it was too good to pass up. So I had to make some phone calls and de-commit which was hard because you form a relationship with all of those coaches. But in the long run I’m glad I made that decision.”

Bob Trumpy

Bob Trumpy

You were the greatest 12th round draft pick in NFL history. How did you learn that you were selected because I remember that it was something bizarre?

“I was working as a bill collector for Beneficial Finance. The address was 607 Hill Street and I don’t know why I remember that. It was in downtown Los Angeles and my wife called me and said, ‘You just got drafted.’ And I said, ‘That’s impossible. I just got out of the Navy.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no, by some team in Cincinnati. Is that in Ohio?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And she said, ‘The Cincinnati Beagles.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ And she said, ‘No, I’m not kidding.’ And I said, ‘How do you know that?’ She said, ‘There’s a telegram here from Paul Brown saying, “Congratulations, you’ve been drafted in the 12th round.” Aren’t you excited?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I walked into the boss of Beneficial Finance at 607 Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles and said, ‘I quit.’ I had no clue how they knew about me or what the connection was between the Cincinnati Bengals and a kid named Trumpy. But when I made the team, my wife and I moved into an apartment on Galbreath Road and another person living there was Al LoCasale. He was the Director of Player Personnel. So we’re sitting out on the front stoop one night having a beer and I said, ‘Al, who was responsible for me being drafted?’ He said, ‘Me.’ And I said, ‘What did you know about me?’ And he said, ‘I saw you twice. Once playing for Utah against the University of Houston and once playing catch on the beach in Daytona. I wrote your name down and kept track. In the 12th round Paul Brown said, “Offense. A receiver. Somebody with some speed.” So I flipped through my spiral notebook, got to the T’s and there’s your name.’ That was the sum total of the research they did on me.”

Nick Vigil

Nick Vigil

You posted an old photo of you and your brother Zach once in rodeo gear when you were young kids. Did you do some of that?

“We did when we were younger. We played football and rodeo and those were kind of the two things that we did. Then my brother got hurt and our parents actually made us quit. They didn’t give us a choice. They said, ‘You’re done. No more of that.’”

What event in rodeo?

“We rode miniature bulls.”

Any nasty spills?

“I never got hurt badly but my brother did. That’s why they made us stop.”

brandon lafell

Brandon LaFell

You’re from Houston – more specifically, the city’s fourth ward – and you said in an interview once that in the fourth ward you either played sports, sold drugs, or robbed people. Who helped you make the right choices?

“My three older brothers. I also have three older boy cousins and they’re the ones that kept me away from the streets. I also feel like the drug dealers in the neighborhood kept me off the corner because they saw that I was good in basketball and football. In every neighborhood like that, when you find a guy with special talent, you try to make sure that he can get out. So whenever I would try to hang out on the corners, my brothers would beat me up or the drug dealers would chase me off the corner and go tell my mom. So my neighborhood and my family are the ones that kept me from going that route and kept the football and the basketball in my hands and led me out of that neighborhood.”

Cody Core

Cody Core

Who was your favorite athlete growing up?

“I’ve got to say Chad Ochocinco. I loved his competitiveness and his swagger and I always looked up to him. I was number 18 in high school so I changed my name to ‘Uno Ocho.’ Everybody called me ‘Uno Ocho’ but I didn’t put it on the back of my uniform.

Ken Zampese

You are the son of one of the great offensive minds in football history. You dad Ernie was an offensive coordinator with the Chargers, Rams, Cowboys, and Patriots. Did you hang around his teams a lot when you were young?

“I did. I had the chance to be the ball boy for a lot of those years in San Diego so I had the chance to see Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joyner, Wes Chandler, John Jefferson, Pete Holohan – just some great, great players.”

You ran off some great names there. Was there a guy that you idolized the most?

“Well James Brooks was probably the toughest guy I saw. Pound for pound he was the toughest guy and got the most out of himself. It broke my heart when he got traded to Cincinnati.”

Will Jackson with jersey

Will Jackson

According to your bio you are an avid horse rider. Who had horses when you were young and how early did you start?

“My grandmother had them and I grew up with it. I was about three years old when I was on my first horse and I’ve stuck with it ever since?”

And it’s something that you still like to do?

“Of course. When I go home I ride and I’m trying to find a spot out here to do it.”

Any accidents on top of a horse?

“No, I’ve never had one. I don’t go crazy.”

Boyd TD vs Lions

Tyler Boyd

While you were in high school, you helped the Clairton Bears set a state record with 66 consecutive wins. Why is Clairton High School football so dominant?

“That’s the route to go if you want to succeed in that area. Me and my friends gave it all we had. We fed off of each other’s energy and it led us to where we are now.”

It’s a former steel mill town that’s had rough economic times. What does the success of the high school football team mean to the folks back home?

“Football is everything in Clairton, Pennsylvania. It’s a small town with a lot of poverty and crime and sports brings everybody together. Not only the players but families, friends, enemies – they all come into that stadium to see the Clairton Bears play.”

Josh shaw vs Pittsburgh

Josh Shaw

After two years at the University of Florida your grandfather got sick and your father had some health issues as well, so you transferred to USC, moved back to California, and helped to keep the family landscaping business afloat right?

“That would be true. I used to have long days when I first transferred over to USC because I might have an early class in the morning or early workouts and then I would have to make the hour-long trip to Palmdale to cut as many yards as I could and then get back to Los Angeles. I did that for a few months but you really don’t think about it too much when you’re doing it for your family. I knew what the cause was and I was ready for it. And I’d do it again.”

How did a yard look after you cut it?

“Not as good as when my dad did it. But it wasn’t bad at all. I don’t think any of our clients were disappointed so I tried to do the best job I could.”

cj uzomah

 

C.J. Uzomah

You separated your shoulder early in the Iron Bowl game against Alabama in your junior year at Auburn and kept playing. That games goes down in history as one of the best ever for the finish – the 109-yard ‘kick six’ return of a missed field goal on the final play of the game. Allow us to be flies on the wall or on the sideline. Takes us back to that moment and tell us what you remember.

“I knew that we had someone deep. I didn’t know that it was Chris (Davis), I thought it was just a safety because before the timeout we just had a normal safety back there. I saw the miss, I saw Chris catch it, and in my mind I’m already thinking overtime. So I turned around for a second, then I turned back around and he’s still running down the sideline. I was like, ‘There’s nobody really near him.’ So he starts running down the sideline, hits the corner, the kicker misses him and I just start hauling. I’m running down the field and looking to make sure there are no penalties and I just jumped on the dog pile. I immediately got off because my shoulder hurt. I look up and people are hitting me in the head and it’s not my teammates – it’s the fans who are storming the field. It’s like a wave coming at you and that was the most amazing, intense, memorable game ever.”

Bullock miss vs Houston

Randy Bullock

You’re from Houston, Texas but I’ve read that your dad was born in Ohio and went to Ohio State. Do you have any ties left to the Buckeye State?

“Growing up I always followed THE Ohio State University. It wasn’t just Ohio State – we were always corrected about that growing up. My dad was a big Buckeye and always pushed us. We actually went to watch Texas A & M vs. THE Ohio State University in the Sugar Bowl when they met in 1999. So we made that trip to New Orleans and it was a fun event for us as a family.”

Mike Brown with mic

Mike Brown

You don’t go on vacations do you?

“I don’t, but that’s a failing. I don’t tell anyone to follow that as an example. I just have never done much of that. It started because my dad went on vacations and somebody had to be left tending the store. In those days I would talk with him on the phone early morning every day. He would go to California and stay at his place out there and I would stay here. When I have had the opportunity to go on vacations – probably over the course of my life I’ve done that three or four times – it never worked so well. I would be looking up at the ceiling at 3:00 am wondering what the heck I was doing in Hawaii for example when I could have happily been at my desk back home. But you don’t want to do it that way. You should take vacations and take your family and go places and do things. I regret that I didn’t do my duty there with my family. It wasn’t the right thing to do.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Smith Ready To Learn New Position With Old Team

The last time that Andre Smith played guard, he was a 9th grader at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama.

“We had a pretty good lineman named Dominic Lee my freshman year of high school and he was the man so I played guard next to him,” said Smith.

Andre Smith

Fifteen years later, including eight as a starting right tackle in the NFL, Andre is preparing to play guard again. He’s the likely replacement in the Bengals starting lineup for Kevin Zeitler who signed as a free agent with Cleveland.

“I think Andre has a chance to be terrific at guard,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. “He’s getting to start from the beginning this year with the base techniques and then learn the offense as he goes. If we all of the sudden picked him up a week before the season and said, ‘Go play right guard,’ I don’t think he could do it. But going through this progression I think he’ll be fine.”

“Everything happens a lot faster at guard – that’s one thing that I’ve noticed – but it’s been a fun experience transitioning from tackle to guard,” said Smith. “Physically everything happens a little faster and mentally you have to think about a lot more than you do at tackle.”

Andre will be tested at training camp by trying to block five-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins.

“I’m fortunate to go up against Geno every day,” said Smith. “It helps me prepare for the other really good defensive lineman in the NFL. It forces me to work on my technique and make sure that I have everything down pat.”

Smith spent his first seven NFL seasons in Cincinnati after being the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft. The Minnesota Vikings signed Andre to a one-year free agent deal in 2016, but a triceps injury ended his season after four games.

After Andrew Whitworth and Zeitler left Cincinnati as free agents this spring, the Bengals brought Smith back on a one-year, $3.25 million deal.

“It didn’t surprise me that they were interested,” said Smith. “There was a need after Zeitler and Whit left and there was an opportunity for myself. I know the organization and they know me, I know the town, and I’m happy to be back.”

Alexander says that the Bengals coaching staff and front office were in agreement that Smith’s 6’4”, 325 pound frame make him an excellent candidate to transition to guard.

“I think we all kind of saw that,” said Alexander. “We’ve always had a big, strong, explosive right guard here with guys like Bobby Williams and Kevin Zeitler. Andre is a big, strong, powerful man.”

“I just love when Andre’s in our huddle,” said offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. “I’m not particularly concerned where he plays as long as he’s in our huddle. I really like him personally, I like his production, and I like that he’s done it before. And I like his 35-inch reach.”

Smith’s position on the offensive line is new, but his current team is anything but.

“It’s been great,” Andre told me. “Everybody has been very receptive and they appreciate having me back. And I’m happy to be back.

“It’s like I never left.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Uzomah Looks To Pick Up Where He Left Off

The Bengals’ 2017 season doesn’t begin until September 10th, but don’t tell that to tight end C.J. Uzomah.

On New Year’s Day, he got the calendar year off to a flying start when he caught his first career touchdown pass in a season-ending win over Baltimore.

Uzomah

“It was something that I was hoping to get out of the way earlier but I was elated to end the season with a touchdown catch and a victory,” said Uzomah. “I felt like that was an unbelievable way to start the year. We come back knowing that we won our first game of 2017.”

The 24-year-old played an increased role last year as he finished with 25 catches for 234 yards (9.4 ypc), despite missing five games with a calf injury.

“I have some things to work on – blocking assignments and being fundamentally sound in everything that I do – but I felt like I really came along in my second year,” said Uzomah. “In my first year I thought that I was timid and played a little slower not knowing where everybody was going to be. But last year I was able to unload and kind of relax, let loose, and have fun out there.”

Since an injured back limited Pro Bowler Tyler Eifert to eight games last season, it was largely up to Uzomah and fellow 2015 draft pick Tyler Kroft to carry the load at the tight end position.

“It was just next man up,” said Uzomah. “That’s the mentality that we have. We understand that when one person goes down, somebody else has to step up. Whoever is next in line has to know what to do.”

Uzomah, by his own admission, remains a work in progress after playing in a spread offense at Auburn that did not include a conventional tight end.

“I’m trying to work on my hands – whether it’s as a blocker or getting off the jam,” C.J. told me. “I’m working on my hips a little bit too. One thing that (tight ends) Coach (Jonathan) Hayes is emphasizing with me is hat placement for blocks. He says your hands and feet have improved tremendously but work on getting your hat where it’s supposed to be and everything else will come into place. Those are the main three things that I am working on.

“I’ve also been working with Ben (Creamer) from Ignition APG with the boxing and hand fighting and he does a great job with that. I did it a little bit last year but not as much as I will this upcoming year. I think that helps tremendously and translates to the field a lot.”

In addition to the hard work he’s put in this offseason, Uzomah has indulged his passion for travel.

“I ended up going to Dublin and Amsterdam,” he said. “My girlfriend is in the Master’s program at Auburn so she went to Dublin and I met her in Amsterdam after her program was over. Then we went back to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day which was absolutely insane. That was a nice thing to check off the bucket list for sure. I also went to Colorado a few times and Jackson Hole in Wyoming. I went to Boston for a little bit.  I kind of traveled all over to see my friends and explore the world.”

Having the time and resources to travel is one of the benefits of being an NFL player – a career that Uzomah wished for from an early age.

“I’ve been playing football since I was six,” he said. “So getting that phone call saying that you’ve been drafted was a dream come true. I’ve been watching the NFL my whole life thinking, ‘Oh man, I want to be the guy on that field having the whole city behind my back.’ I’m embracing it and it’s a great opportunity.”

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