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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bengals counting on tackle Peko to be a force in the middle

Like teammates T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Jonathan Fanene who arrived before him, Domata Peko first was noticed by Bengals fans because of his hair.

Peko, starting his second season with the Bengals, has a long, thick mane - which he colors with lighter streaks - flowing out of his helmet and down the back of his jersey.

News flash: The guy is not a novelty act. He can play. At least he had better be able to play.

The Bengals are counting on Peko to be a force as a tackle in the middle of the defensive line. Coaches are so confident in his talent that they terminated Sam Adams' contract in the offseason and promoted Peko to starter.

"I'm just making the best of my opportunity," Peko told reporters during training camp at Georgetown College. "Everyone has a role, and I'm going to do my role on this team. All you can do is your best, and God will take care of the rest."

Despite starting just one season of major college football at Michigan State, Peko made a quick transition to the NFL. He played in all 16 games last year, and his role increased as the season wore on. He finished with 49 total tackles, including 23 solo, and had 2½ sacks.

Bengals players and coaches alike have nothing but good things to say about Peko. He made the leap to the pros because of a vicious work ethic that contradicts his gentle personality off the field.

"He asks a lot of questions, which is good. I like that in a young player," said ninth-year lineman John Thornton, who will start beside Peko at tackle. "He's confident, but he's still trying to learn. He'll always ask me what I see."

At 6 feet 3, 319 pounds, Peko is a physical force in the middle. Still just 22 years old, he moves well for a large man.

"He's flexible. He can get out of blocks," Thornton said. "If he is double-teamed, he can get between the block. He makes a lot of tackles."

Peko is easy to coach, too, said Jay Hayes, the Bengals' defensive line coach.

"He's really hungry and wants to be considered a great player," Hayes said. "He has that desire and is very intelligent."

Peko is a fast learner. He did not start playing football in American Samoa until he was in high school. His first two seasons of college ball were spent at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif. He was a backup at Michigan State in 2004.

He is one of three Samoans vying for a spot on the Bengals' defensive line. Fanene, an end and a lifelong friend of Peko's, is having a strong preseason and staying healthy for the first time in three years. Rookie tackle Matt Toeaina, who played at Oregon and was the Bengals' sixth-round pick this year, could start the season on the team's practice squad. He is 6-2, 311 pounds. Fanene is 6-4, 295.

"The guys from Samoa are real nice," Thornton said. "They're real big and strong but wouldn't hurt a soul. Those guys are really good to be around. We like Domata a lot."

It's in their nature as Samoans, Peko said during camp.

"I guess we're built for that," he said of playing defensive line in the NFL. "One of my teammates (asked), 'Are there any small Samoans?'

"It's in our genes. We're just known as being really big guys, warriors. That's what we're known to be - savages and stuff like that. That's how it is on the field for us. Samoans are relentless out there. That's how I like to be: every play give it my best."

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