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As Bengals training room fills with tight ends, C.J. Uzomah emerges

Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah is having a strong training camp, and has made a positive impression on QB Andy Dalton. Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP

CINCINNATI -- Tucked behind a pair of frost-tinted doors inside the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room is the team's training room. Lately, it's been packed.

Of positions, the tight end spot has been perhaps most disproportionately affected by the injury bug that has suddenly swept through the Bengals' training camp.

Standout Tyler Eifert already was expected to miss about all of the preseason as he rehabs from an ankle injury suffered in the Pro Bowl. Then, last Tuesday, his backup, second-year tight end Tyler Kroft, was lost for a couple of weeks with a knee injury that has put him into a brace and on crutches. Complicating matters, backup Matt Lengel has been out the past week with an undisclosed injury, and H-back Ryan Hewitt didn't participate in the final two practices of last week.

That means that at tight end, the Bengals are down to just C.J. Uzomah and John Peters. Uzomah in particular is taking full advantage of his unexpected extra opportunities.

"Can't ask him to do any more or any less. He's getting a ton of running," said tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes, who himself played tight end for 12 seasons. "If I could put pads on just to relieve him I would, but I can't. He's working hard. He's paying attention closely to the details, and he understands that I'm a very detail-oriented person."

Uzomah's notable progress was highlighted Saturday when he had a pair of timely catches in the Bengals' simulated game inside Paul Brown Stadium. On just the second drive by the Andy Dalton-led first-team offense, Uzomah broke open and caught a 31-yard pass in the middle of the field that helped set up his 12-yard touchdown reception in the post two plays later. The touchdown capped a six-play, 98-yard drive.

"He understands where we're trying to attack on certain plays and where he needs to be to get open, and that's been really good to see," Dalton said. "Obviously I've had the chemistry with Tyler Eifert, he's so athletic and can make so many plays, but there's some similarities with C.J. -- and Tyler Kroft, but C.J's the one out there right now. It's good to see him keep getting better."

Even if Eifert hadn't been injured, Uzomah was already going to have a busy camp. As he and Kroft entered their second seasons, added emphasis was going to be placed on fine-tuning the types of details that could help them bolster the depth at tight end. That learning curve has only steepened for the backups with Eifert and now Kroft out for much of the preseason.

Still, coaches aren't seeing much drop-off at the position. Uzomah, who didn't get the type of pro style tight-end specific guidance in college that he's getting now because he was used differently in Auburn's fast-paced spread scheme, finally feels comfortable at all the tight end and backfield blocking positions. A year ago this time, the new concepts and terminology had his head swimming.

"This year you can see, because he is a smart kid, it's clicking for him," Hayes said. "He understands timing, he's seeing it. As we talk about it on tape, he goes, 'Hey coach, is this how you want me to do that?' Now he's feeling it, and before, it's like the old saying I was telling these guys, you can't paint by the numbers. The music's going to play and you've got to be able to express yourself once it comes on. So I hope they continue to grow that way."