Learning curve for Hunt big; potential bigger

CINCINNATI – Margus Hunt got his welcome to the NFL moment early in training camp. The first day the Bengals put on shoulder pads for practice, Hunt met fullback John Conner and found out why Conner has been nicknamed “The Terminator”. Conner, leading the way through the line on a run play at 5-11, 245 pounds, rammed into the 6-8, 280-pound Hunt and sent the rookie defensive lineman backwards.

All players have some sort of learning curve. Rookies have larger curves than most players. Hunt is no ordinary rookie.

“Every now and then you’ll see him standing up at six-foot-eight and I want him down at six-foot-two and doing stuff,” said defensive line coach Jay Hayes. “Like Lou Holtz used to say, ‘You’re either in football position or you’re running…’ He needs to be a knee-bender all of the time and he’s not quite that.”

The Bengals and Hunt have no concerns that someday he will be bending his knees and breaking jaws (figuratively, not literally) of opponents. That’s why they drafted Hunt in the second round this year even though the native of Estonia has played just four years of football. There’s a lot Margus Hunt has to learn about the game. There’s a lot of natural God-given ability he possesses that once he learns the system and techniques, he should fit right into what has developed into one of the best defensive line units in the NFL.

Hunt in college at Southern Methodist University played in a 3-4 defense. He had matriculated to Dallas to continue training and competing in the shot put and discus, events he was the junior world champion in 2006, but when the athletic department at SMU dropped track and field Hunt was talked into joining the football team.

“Eventually when I got a hold of the defense and what my responsibilities and assignments were on the field I was able to play fast and I knew what was going on around me. I knew what to expect,” said Hunt.

He’s learning things all over now. In the Bengals’ 4-3 defensive scheme, Hunt is playing wider on the edges than he did in college and his responsibilities require more aggressiveness and attack-mode than he previously was asked to do.

“There’s a lot of technique work that goes into this type of defense,” said Hunt. “The defensive linemen are running here and it’s keeping up with it. My biggest thing is that I have to stop thinking too much about schemes and all of that stuff. It comes down to playing football.”

Against Atlanta in last Thursday’s preseason opener, Hunt was credited with two tackles and one quarterback pressure that instigated a turnover.

Hunt and fellow defensive end DeQuin Evans chased Atlanta quarterback Dominque Davis out of the pocket late in the second quarter, forcing Davis to scramble toward the sideline. Instead of running out of bounds or throwing the ball away, Davis attempted to throw to wide receiver Drew Davis. Cornerback Brandon Ghee read the throw, stepped in front of Drew Davis and came up with the interception.

The turnover led to a one-yard Giovani Bernard touchdown run with two seconds left in the half and a 17-3 lead.

“(Hunt) was in pretty good shape but just looking at that play, it was not a smart play by that quarterback, but he’s really athletic,” said Hayes. “That kid was a pretty good athlete that he was chasing. I thought he’d be able to finish him without him getting the ball off… Maybe by mid-year he’ll sack that guy because he’ll realize you can’t outrun me and I know the guy can’t outrun him. He’ll trust himself to know that he can’t be outrun.”

Monday’s practice was focused on Hunt finishing plays. Whether he got blocked or could get around his blocker, Hayes wanted Hunt to finish the play. Run to the ball. Play with his knees bent and keeping his shoulder pads lower than the blocker. Every day Hunt is drilled on technique, snap after snap after snap.

He’s got a lot of catching up to do, but Hunt is gaining.

“We were talking about that the other day. He hasn’t played a whole lot of football compared to us,” said Robert Geathers, a 10-year vet. “We’ve been playing since we were little kids. He’s still learning. When it clicks he can really turn loose and use all of the raw power and tools that he has, but until then he’s going to be a little hesitant. He’s definitely getting better each week of camp.”