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BACKUP SPOT MUSIC TO TUAOLO'S EARS

When Ted Washington and Esera Tuaolo stand side-by-side, one would never guess they play the same position for the Buffalo Bills.

The 6-foot-4, 325-pound Washington is every bit the immovable human jukebox that a nose tackle is supposed to be.

"When they thought of nose tackle," coach Marv Levy said, "Ted's was the body type they were thinking about."

By contrast, the 6-2, 278-pound Tuaolo (pronounced too-Ah-oh-low) is more of a human boom box -- and not just because he happens to also be a professional singer. He just doesn't look like he belongs in the middle of a three-man defensive line. In fact, he could almost pass for a linebacker.

However, there is a very good chance Tuaolo will be the first man the Bills turn to should anything happen to Washington this season.

Shawn Price, who was Washington's understudy last year, is out of action at least until October with the broken bone near his elbow suffered in an offseason motorcycle accident.

Tuaolo signed with the Bills as a free agent in June, five months after he was released by Minnesota Vikings. He spent the past four seasons as a tackle on Minnesota's four-man defensive line, and two years before that in the same capacity with the Green Bay Packers, who made him a second-round draft pick from Oregon State in 1991.

The only other healthy nose tackle at the Bills' Fredonia State College training camp is rookie free agent Pat Williams, who has a distinct disadvantage in experience and doesn't offer any more size at 6-3 and 270 pounds.

"We're not looking for a facsimile of Ted Washington," Levy said. "I think that would be a futile type of search."

What the Bills are seeking is someone to at least adequately play nose tackle if they were to be without Washington for any extended period.

Tuaolo, who was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, can't duplicate Washington's ability to occupy the center and perhaps a guard or two so that the ends and linebackers can make plays. But he can penetrate gaps and make plays of his own.

"There are different ways of playing the position according to your abilities," Levy said. "Quickness and penetration are Esera's better qualities. It's not necessarily that our calls are going to be different, or anything of that nature, with him in there. But we do quite a bit of stunting and looping of our nose tackle, which are things he does well."

After seven seasons as a tackle on a four-man line, Tuaolo is going through a considerable learning process with the Bills.

"We played nose at Minnesota, but it was more of that shoot-the-gap type of approach where you try to get upfield and play the run on the way to the quarterback," he explained. "Here, it's more of a control-your-gap attack, trying to tie the center up and letting the 'backers run free. It's a give-or-take thing. If the center slips me and goes to the linebacker, then I should make the play. If he doesn't, then the 'backer should make the play.

"It's different. It's nothing that I can't handle, but it'll take time to make the switch. That's why we have training camp and that's why we go through these preseason games."

Tuaolo had a solid performance in last Saturday night's preseason-opener at Denver. He was credited with three solo tackles, including one of the Bills' five sacks. Tuaolo dumped reserve quarterback Jeff Lewis for a 2-yard loss in the third quarter.

"I think he's doing a good job," Levy said. "He's working hard. He shows some quickness in what he's doing.

"His experience is valuable and it's reflected in how he's able to work. He's not awed by it all, he's able to concentrate on the task at hand."

Tuaolo clearly isn't lacking confidence, as evidenced by his willingness to sing in front of large audiences. He has performed the national anthem before football games while at Oregon State and with the Packers and Vikings, and NBA games in Portland and Minnesota. He has his own recording label, Tavai (named after his late brother) and sings all types of music -- opera, gospel, country and rhythm & blues.

Had he still been with the Vikings, Tuaolo would have performed the anthem before last Saturday's Hall of Fame preseason game between Minnesota and Seattle. Now he is slated to sing it before the Aug. 16 American Bowl clash with the Packers in Toronto.

"As a player coming into the National Football League, you need to have the confidence to get the job done," Tuaolo said. "If you don't have the confidence, then you won't be in this league. I want to be the guy who goes in for Ted if I have to."