- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- A week of training camp had barely passed, but Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach Hue Jackson was already becoming convinced his rookie running back had the internal mettle to compete in the NFL.
Of course, this time of year there is a natural expectation that coaches and executives will be honing in on players with such potential before they even get drafted. That's a large part of the reason events like the combine and the Senior Bowl exist. But until a first-year player actually puts on the pads with his new professional teammates and gets tested by them, no one can really tell just how said rookie will get along with the personalities previously assembled.
That was the case early in Bengals training camp last July and August when Jackson, the current offensive coordinator who at that time was Cincinnati's running backs coach, witnessed Giovani Bernard getting pounded in practices by his defense. As bad as that pounding was, though, it showed Jackson that Bernard was ready for the next level, and that he needed to be a big part of the Bengals' offensive attack.
"He wanted more of it," Jackson said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis this weekend. "It was me who was trying to get those guys to pull up because we didn't want to get anybody hurt. But that's the beautiful part of it, in my mind. That was like them saying, 'OK, you're here and you're supposed to help us win? Let's find out.'
"And he passed the test."
The physical abuse of Bernard by linebackers like Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison did cause Jackson and other offensive assistants to beg the defenders to pull up when the young running back came their way in practices. After all, he was the Bengals' second-round pick and the first running back taken in the 2013 draft. The franchise needed to keep him as healthy as possible.
Cameras from the HBO "Hark Knocks" film crew caught coaches in one practice admonishing the defenders for the tackles, particularly one hard hit that Burfict delivered. Bernard didn't take kindly to it and started to retaliate. Burfict ended up getting warned and Bernard was cautioned by then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to avoid scuffling with him.
"Don't get in a fight with Burfict, he'll kick your [butt]," Gruden said to Bernard on the first episode of the television show last summer.
Bernard responded: "That's OK, it's only going to make me tough."
Toughness is exactly what Jackson saw from Bernard all of training camp. He wasn't the only one who did, either.
"I remember those guys on defense coming up to me one day in stretch," Jackson began. "There was Rey Maualuga, we're talking about Vontaze Burfict, and even some of the defensive linemen. They were all saying, 'Hey, Coach. That guy can play.'"
Aside from the near-fight with Burfict, Bernard didn't seem to show that he was upset with the physical abuse the defenders put him through. He didn't show that he felt singled out, Jackson said. As Bernard's position coach, that understanding of his surroundings showed Jackson that his rookie was even more mature than he previously believed.
"To me, that did more for me because you still don't know those things when you first get to play," Jackson said. "You think you know those things, but until you see it? You don't know it."
With nearly a third of the 335 prospects at this year's combine having left college early, "maturity" will end up being a big buzzword between now and the end of the draft May 10. Teams are looking for underclassmen -- like Bernard, who was a redshirt sophomore at North Carolina when he declared last year -- who have a capacity for understanding the mental side of football.
Only if they let them, young players can allow the type of on-field hazing the Bengals' defenders put Bernard through to be a sort of mind game. When veterans see that the rookies aren't letting those actions affect them, they start showing them more respect. More respect leads to added urgency by teammates to help out and stand up for their rookie stars.
It all seemed to work out well for Bernard and the Bengals. He ranked third among all rookies in total yards in 2013, and drew consideration for the league's offensive rookie of the year award. While sharing carries with veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bernard rushed for 695 yards and caught 56 passes for another 512. He had eight total touchdowns and a series of highlight-reel runs that showcased his electrifying speed and knack for breaking and bouncing off tacklers.
He also had two fumbles during his first year, including one in the Bengals' wild-card round playoff loss to San Diego. The untimely turnover came after he caught a pass and had it stripped as he closed in on the goal line just before halftime. Even though the Bengals eventually kicked a field goal to take a three-point lead into halftime, without Bernard's fumble, they had a chance to go up by seven, instead.
Still, a little bad has a tough time outshining most of the good. Even after sustaining a rib injury Week 9 in Miami, he appeared in all 16 games.
"Here's a young man who played last year -- and I'm not trying to brag on him -- but he played hurt," Jackson said. "The guy didn't shy away from me. There were times when I said, 'Is this guy going to play?' And he didn't blink. He played as hard and as well as any young player I've been around with as much as we asked him to do."
Jackson wouldn't give any indication as to how Bernard's role might change in 2014, but he did say that he would have his share of carries in an offense that the new coordinator says will be better committed to running the ball.
"He's going to have a lot," Jackson said, smiling. "I can promise you."