When Dan Wilkinson became the first player selected in the 1994 NFL draft, he was long on potential and expectations and short on experience.
A 6-foot-5, 310-pound defensive lineman, he had just turned 21 and had played only two years at Ohio State when the Cincinnati Bengals made the player nicknamed "Big Daddy" a big part of their future.
Not surprisingly, Wilkinson, now just 24 as he enters his fourth season, struggled at times as he made the adjustment to the NFL.
Wilkinson, though, says youth and inexperience were not his only obstacles.
"If I would have come into the pros with the coaches I have now, I think my progress would have been greatly speeded up," he said.
The Bengals started out 0-8 in Wilkinson's rookie season and he saw few positives in the situation.
"It wasn't that I wasn't ready," he said. "Under the conditions, I was working under, it made it harder. I didn't really respect or like the coaches. It was a tough situation."
Wilkinson said the first step in the right direction came a year ago when former Bengal Tim Krumrie was named defensive line coach.
The biggest step in Wilkinson's eyes, though, came when Bruce Coslet replaced Dave Shula as head coach with the team at 1-6 last year. Wilkinson doesn't think it was a coincidence that the team finished 7-2 under Coslet.
"That made a big difference in team morale," he said. "We had a team full of guys who couldn't stand Coach Shula. I didn't really respect him too much. Now we've got a coach you like and respect and knows what he's talking about. You can't have a guy in there running whatever because of his last name."
That was an obvious reference to the fact that Shula is the son of Hall of Fame coach Don Shula.
The Wilkinson-Shula relationship got worse in minicamp a year ago when Shula publicly criticized Wilkinson for being overweight.
Wilkinson said he was 320 at the time in May, just 10 pounds over his playing weight, and he didn't think it was a problem because camp was two months away.
A different tone
"That type of stuff really didn't bother me at all," he said. "That was his way to get negative attention off of himself and spread it to other people. He seemed to do that with several of our players. He always liked to stir up conflict some way. It wasn't just me. It was several other guys. Thankfully, he's not here anyway."
Wilkinson insists there's a different tone to training camp this year.
"The whole atmosphere is completely different," he said. "We're one big family striving for the same goals. We're pushing each other. The coaches are liked by the players and vice versa. It's a much better situation. Everything is positive."
The other big difference is that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who returned to Cincinnati (he was an assistant there from 1980 to 1991 and left when Shula got the job) from Pittsburgh, is installing a 3-4 defense featuring the zone blitz that the Steelers use.
It means that Wilkinson, used to playing a tackle slot in the 4-3 defense, will now play right end in the 3-4.
Wilkinson acknowledges that he was wary when LeBeau first proposed the change to him.
"I guess I was surprised and somewhat skeptical about it," he said. "I'd never played in a three-man front. But going through camp, I've felt very comfortable with it and I think it's going to work out great.
Coslet and LeBeau say it's going to work well.
"He's a big guy, but he's very quick. When he can get an edge on any player, he's going to win those battles, regardless of who the player is. We're going to slant him and stunt him a little more than we did in the past," Coslet said.
"He has unusual strength and quickness for a man of his size," LeBeau said. "He's just a wonderful athlete."
Coslet concedes that Wilkinson, who had eight sacks in 1995 and 6 1/2 last year at tackle, will get a lot double-teaming once the regular season begins.
"He'll be double-teamed because teams have to take account of him because he's playing the same position as Bruce Smith plays for Buffalo," Coslet said. "You try to double-team him, but if you do that it creates one-on-one matchups everywhere."
Although it may take the Bengals time to make the transition to the 3-4, Coslet expects immediate results after the team was 25th in yards allowed last year and 29th in passing yardage allowed.
"We're not going to be 29th in pass defense. I don't care if we play the 1-12 or whatever," he said jokingly.
Besides problems on the field, Wilkinson has endured problems off the field. The second youngest of 11 children, he had to cope with the death of his mother in February 1996. His father died when he was in high school.
"It's been very tough," he said. "I still go through the pain of it. I just have to be a bigger man and grow up. No matter how hard the situation may be, the Lord wouldn't put you in a situation if you couldn't handle it."
Pro Bowl in future?
Wilkinson now is looking to the future. He says he can make the Pro Bowl and the Bengals can make the playoffs.
"I thought I should have made it last year," he said. "How many times do you see the Bengals on national TV? Actually, I don't worry about it. A lot of it is bogus. Every year, you see guys go who don't deserve to go."
Wilkinson's main goal is the playoffs and he thinks the Bengals are ready to take that step. He thinks the two games they won against the Ravens last year were signs of how the team is improving.
At first glance, the games appeared to be similar, as the Ravens blew second-half leads, 21-10 in the first one and 14-13 in the second. The final scores were 24-21 and 21-14.
Wilkinson, though, says the games had a different feel.
"In the first one [the Bengals' second game under Coslet], we got our butts kicked everywhere except on the scoreboard. But we got them pretty good at home," he said.
The Bengals play host to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday before coming to Baltimore for their second game, and Wilkinson can't wait to play in his new role.
"I'm going to like it," he said. "I'm going to like it a lot."
Bengals in brief
Offense: Jeff Blake and Carl Pickens, who have combined for 37 touchdowns the past three years (10 more than Steve Young and Jerry Rice) give the Bengals a potent passing combination, but the running game remains a question mark. They haven't had a 100-yard rusher in 65 games and lost Garrison Hearst in free agency. They have to count on a combination of Ki-Jana Carter and Corey Dillon, and an offensive line that has three second-year players.
Defense: With Dan Wilkinson switching from tackle to end and rookie Reinard Wilson being groomed for the Greg Lloyd-Chad Brown outside rusher role by new defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Bengals are switching to the 3-4 defense that has been so successful in Pittsburgh and Carolina. The Bengals, who don't have the Steelers' or Panthers' players, will have to adjust to the new alignment, but should upgrade a unit that ranked 30th and 25th the last two years.
Special teams: Doug Pelfrey, currently ranked as the most accurate field-goal kicker of all time, and punter Lee Johnson, who had the best average of his career (45.4) last year, provide a dependable kicking game.
Outlook: If the Bengals can pick up where they left off last year when they finished 7-2 under Bruce Coslet, they could contend for a playoff spot this year.
About the series
Today, The sun begins a four-part series looking at the Ravens' opponents in the AFC Central
Inside: Bengals in brief
! Thursday: Jaguars
Pub Date: 8/25/97