- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- Russell Bodine has yet to send back a snap in an NFL game, but the Cincinnati Bengals rookie center has already learned an important lesson about playing his position: Avoid drawing too much attention.
"If they don't even know my name, that's all right," Bodine said. "Don't mess anything up. That's about the only way they figure out who you are."
Bodine has nonetheless drawn his share of attention in the month that he's spent in Cincinnati. A fourth-round draft pick out of North Carolina, the young center had his share of eyeballs during this spring's organized team activities and minicamp practices. With veteran Mike Pollak nursing a knee injury, Bodine made an early push to win the team's starting center position battle.
Since the Bengals concluded their on-field practices Tuesday, Bodine and other possible starting centers have to wait until sometime in August before they figure out exactly where they stand in the coaches' minds. For now, we at least know that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson believes Bodine is a good prospect who has all the potential in the world to factor into the Bengals' offensive future.
"He has the characteristics we are looking for in a center," Jackson said.
Among the areas that Bodine struggled at times with this spring was his ability to snap the ball cleanly to quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Jason Campbell, the two signal callers he spent the most time snapping to during OTAs and minicamp. During Monday's open OTA, Bodine sailed one snap over Dalton's head and sent another to the quarterback's feet. After talking through the miscues with Dalton and offensive line coach Paul Alexander, Bodine finished the practice much cleaner.
"He's got to get the ball to the quarterback right," Jackson said. "He can't play center if you don't snap the ball correctly. He's working at it and he's done a good job. But he's got to become a little more consistent on an everyday basis."
Bodine, a member of NFL Draft Report's All-American Sleeper Team earlier this year, agreed with Jackson's assessment. Part of the problem, Bodine said, has been the fact that he's still learning the audible calls and line checks that will be unique to the Bengals' new offense under Jackson. As an offense that wants to get plays called quickly and to the line of scrimmage early in the play call, the Bengals' scheme will rely on a bevy of pre-check reads and the quarterback and center's ability to make sure the play is perfectly set up before it gets run.
That's a little different than what Bodine is used to. In college, Bodine's Tar Heels liked to get to the line quickly, too, but they often snapped the ball right away and ran a play. There weren't as many pre-check assignment reads and changes as he's been dealing with since getting drafted.
"In the offense I ran in college, we didn't change plays. We'd call a play, we'd get up there and our goal was to run a play every 12 seconds," Bodine said. "So there wasn't a whole lot of checking and audibiling at the line of scrimmage or anything like that. Handling those checks is big for me. It's definitely the most difficult aspect right now. When that play changes, all my calls change and I've got to get everybody on the same page, and that's been the most difficult thing."
When Jay Gruden was still the Bengals' offensive coordinator, he used to regularly say that one of the more underrated aspects of longtime Bengals center Kyle Cook's game was his ability to see the field and to make the proper pre-snap calls. Cook may not have been the best center physically speaking -- which led to his release earlier this offseason -- but from a cerebral standpoint, he was considered a star among his peers.
The Bengals are hoping that Bodine, who has been praised for his brute strength and savage physicality, will become even sharper at the mental aspects of the position.
"I don't think anything's jarring to him. He's doing well," said right guard Kevin Zeitler, who lined up next to Bodine often this spring. "He's got the basics down. A lot of offenses are very similar from college to the NFL, it's just different terminology. Sometimes it's just making the right call, or if there isn't the right call to make, it's just communicating."
For Zeitler, a lineman not known for being verbal at the line, having the rookie next to him had an unintended positive impact. Zeitler was forced to open his mouth and talk more.
"It was Whit who was saying it's given Zeitler a chance to come out of his shell because he was having to make some calls," Pollak said. "The last couple of years he's had Cook to rely on. Now he has to make sure Bodine is doing the right thing, which is good for Zeit."
Pollak expects to be at full health late next month when training camp starts, but he knows he'll have a real position battle if coaches put him at center. For now, the recently re-signed lineman isn't sure whether he'll be called upon to play center or guard. He has experience at both positions, although he's never made a starting snap from center. With Clint Boling possibly out for most if not all of training camp, Pollak could find himself at left guard when the Bengals return to Paul Brown Stadium.
"I'm just ready to come wherever they need me to go," Pollak said. "They brought in Bodine and he's doing a great job, and if they want to go with him at center, great. But I'm going to be ready to go at center or guard, wherever they need me."
When Bodine practices next month, he doesn't want to be coddled like a first-year player.
"My goal is not to be a good rookie," Bodine said. "My goal is to be a good player. The rookie thing doesn't really mean anything to me. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to try and make strides in the right direction. I'm going to learn everything there is to learn as quickly as I can learn it."
3dOhm Youngmisuk and Rich Cimini