CINCINNATI -- It was one of the more intriguing position battles of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp last year.
This year, it seems the H-back/fullback/hybrid tight end spot has already been decided.
If you were to read between the lines of statements coaches Marvin Lewis and Hue Jackson have provided involving incumbent H-back Orson Charles, it seems clear that his challenger, undrafted rookie free-agent Ryan Hewitt, has a leg up on the starting job for now.
"It's just not been too big for him," Lewis said of Hewitt's time playing the position so far. "As he grows and [if] he's fortunate enough to stay around here, I think by next year we'll have real, real, real big, physical man. He's going to be a big person."
He's also going to be a big piece to a Bengals offense that will try to use the H-back much more effectively than it did last season. Charles only appeared on 62 offensive plays last season, with nearly all of those coming at the position. At times, true tight end Tyler Eifert took his place, occasionally coming out of the backfield blocking like a hybrid fullback, or going in motion out of it to run a passing route. The Bengals weren't convinced last year that Charles could do that regularly. They also weren't quite as convinced about utilizing the position as often as they are now.
"It's a position that I really hold valuable to our offensive football team because you have to have a guy that can do that," Jackson, the offensive coordinator said.
What specifically does the position's duties entail?
"We want a little combination of both [fullback and tight end]," Lewis said. "So I guess we probably want more of that guy that can add pressure on the defense that way: to be an effective blocker, but also add pressure in matchups vs. the defense. Ryan can provide a little bit of that. He's an excellent receiver of the ball."
The pressure is on Hewitt to provide pressure for the Bengals.
He wouldn't have it any other way.
"It absolutely is a surprise," Hewitt said of the reps he's gotten so far, "but it's something that I'm very thankful for. I'm working to keep that job."
He figures to have a number of chances to keep the first-unit reps he's gotten when the Bengals host the Jets on Saturday night.
This is the first time the Stanford graduate has played such a versatile role in an offense. In high school, the Colorado native was a true tight end. When he arrived to college, the Cardinal had so many tight ends that he was thrust into the backfield as a fullback. He got put into motion regularly as fullback at Stanford, and did some of what he'll be called upon to do with the Bengals, including catching passes. He caught nine passes for 46 yards last season, including one 11-yard grab in last year's Rose Bowl.
Hewitt had two catches for 15 yards on his 28 snaps last week at Kansas City. Charles didn't play a single offensive down.
"I'm just trying to learn it all," Hewitt said. "That can be a hard approach."
How is he balancing simultaneously learning both his fullback and tight end responsibilities?
"You really got to focus on what you need to know," Hewitt said. "Once you can get one of them down you can kind of spend some time that night studying the other positions. That's where I'm at right now. I'm just trying to make sure that I've got a good grasp on everything. It's not going to be 100 percent perfect, I'm not going to know every single call, but that's what I'm working for. That's the ultimate goal."
When the Bengals held onto Charles last preseason, it was in part because they believed he had more overall versatility than John Conner, the fullback who wowed many in the 2013 camp. Conner was most specifically a fullback. Charles could play special teams and had a better background catching passes.
One reason the Bengals believe Hewitt can be a good H-back fit? He came to camp with special teams experience. He was on both the punt and kick return teams in college.
"He's handled it all well both physically and mentally," Lewis said of Hewitt's preseason. "I really think he's got a bright future."