Learning still main focus for Bengals' Hunt

The Bengals expect more out of second-year defensive linemen Margus Hunt this season. AP Photo/Joe Robbins

CINCINNATI -- Until January, Margus Hunt had only a working knowledge of what a jab, hook, cross and uppercut were.

He didn't know much about his nickname, Ivan Drago, either. He still doesn't, even after months of boxing lessons and in-ring endurance training.

Drago, for those uninitiated to the American cult classic that is the "Rocky" movie franchise, is a fictional boxer whose athletic prowess was honed in Russian labs in 1985's "Rocky IV". The 6-foot-8, 280-pound Hunt reminds many of Drago.

Hunt isn't completely sure about the comparison, but he also hasn't watched much of the movie. Learning more about Drago is on the native Estonian's to-do list.

That pop-culture lesson isn't the only schooling Hunt still needs. He believes he needs to learn how to play the defensive end position well enough to help fill the shoes of Michael Johnson, who departed via free agency. Learning remains Hunt's primary focus.

With Johnson out of the mix, the Bengals are looking to establish their right defensive end rotation. They have Hunt and veterans Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers at the position. Gilberry, playing largely as a reserve, had 7.5 sacks last season. That tied him with left end Carlos Dunlap for the team lead. Geathers missed all but two games after suffering an early-season elbow injury. It might not be until late in training camp before a decision is made about who will start and predominantly play at right end.

"We'll see how it works out," Hunt said. "Wallace had an unbelievable year last year. He was playing his heart out. It will be fun. They're my teammates and we're a family, so whatever happens, happens. The main thing is we want to win, and we want to win bad."

Hunt had a hand, if ever so small, in the Bengals' 11 wins and division championship last year. The rookie backed up Johnson and occasionally played on the line's interior in certain pass-rush and nickel situations. He appeared in 10 games, picking up three tackles and getting credited with half a sack. Like defensive tackle Domata Peko said, Hunt was mere inches from having more backfield stops.

"He had a lot of pressures where he was like one step away," Peko said. "That all takes practice, and that's why we're here right now. If he just keeps practicing hard, I can't wait to see the stats for big Margus."

Before returning last week for the start of the Bengals' offseason workout program, Hunt had been spending his time in Houston, where he was mostly working on endurance training. To help enhance his stamina, the former track and field star took up a new sport: boxing. At times, he sparred up to 11 or 12 rounds.

It was all part of learning about what his body could and couldn't do. Now, it's back to learning about what his body should and shouldn't do in various situations and on certain plays to turn those one-step gaps Peko talked about into big-game sacks.

Hunt got a crash course in playing defensive end last spring and summer that left his mind spinning. In college at SMU, he relied on his size and instincts to maul typically smaller offensive tackles and tight ends to generate sacks and knock down passes. He had displayed a knack for blocking field goals. Barely one month into his senior season, he set the NCAA record in career blocked field goals with nine.

One of the areas the Bengals could end up missing Johnson the most is in batted passes. Johnson, who signed with Tampa Bay in March for about $8.75 million per year, tied for the league lead last season with eight batted passes at the line of scrimmage. Part of Hunt's learning curve has been to include his old knack of getting his hands up as part of his repertoire on defense.

Hunt's lessons started not long after his arrival, but they hit their stride when he was placed on the scout team early in the season, and eventually shifted to occasional defensive tackle duties following Geno Atkins' midseason injury.

"I was just about to start getting what I needed to do as a defensive end, and then it all kind of collapsed on itself because I had to be sure I knew what to do inside and how to play the inside position," Hunt said.

At times, it was all almost a little much.

"It seemed like that," Hunt said. "But a lot of time in the playbook really got me on track. Now I don't feel it's a lot to put on me. I've had a year behind me. Last year, the whole 4-3 system was new and what the defensive end had to do with some of the drops and some of the reads. It was just a lot of information."

As he continues to digest that information and other info he has learned along the way, Hunt believes he will have an even clearer mind this season and a better understanding of what can make him a good defensive end.

"I just need to learn the defense a lot better," he said. "I had to learn during the season, as well. But it was good. I felt like I got caught up pretty fast."

The good news for the Bengals is that with Gilberry and Geathers around, Hunt doesn't have to be in a rush to pick up concepts this offseason. Still, in the words of Drago, the former second-round pick must eventually "break" his learning curve. The faster he can, the better.