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Baby, what a comeback

Johnson, now sporting No. 23, has moved to the top of the depth chart at the FB spot. (AP photo)

Updated: 5:30 a.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - This used to be "Camp ChRock," where the only people that saw Bengals fullback Jeremi Johnson were strength and conditioning coaches Chip Morton and Rock Oliver as they put him through three grueling workouts per day in order to get him ready for the season.

Now it is the "Jai Jubilee," which had a landmark occasion Monday morning when head coach Marvin Lewis announced his depth chart shuffle in which Johnson had gone from No. 3 to No. 1 to reclaim the job he had from 2003-2007.

It was a sad story last Thanksgiving Week when the Bengals let him go. Here's a guy who earned the league's richest contract for a fullback in April 2006 and responded with a Pro Bowl alternate season. But he then had trouble staying in shape and it led to his release off injured reserve (knee).

But this week he figures to be one of the big storylines in the documentary on the Bengals camp when the first episode of Hard Knocks airs on HBO Wednesday at 10 p.m.

And Morton and Oliver are happy bystanders.

"We're doing less with him; he's playing football now," Morton said Monday night as the Bengals waited under the stands during a raging thunderstorm that ended up canceling practice. "It was him taking ownership of the other 22 hours of the day. These five weeks between training camp, the lion's share was him because he took ownership of it."

Between the June 20 end of minicamp and the July 30 report date, the Bengals wondered if they would have a new fullback or if they would just give up Camp ChRock if Johnson came in overweight like the past couple of camps. After all, they had three and they had just drafted one.

But when Johnson laid it all out in his conditioning test to pass, they had their answer. "Ask Chip Morton," Johnson said of how he did it. Northern Kentucky strength guru Dr. Ted Lambridines also operated.

"Teddy kicked my butt," Johnson admitted.

"He had a sensible weight loss between minicamp and training camp, not a huge difference," Morton said. "It was pretty much on his own initiative."

For Johnson, who has battled weight issues the last several years, it probably comes down to a package that weighed less than 10 pounds.

The birth of daughter Jai in October. She has been a very cute wide-eyed presence down here a few times when she's come to visit her father.

"It helped a lot. A whole lot. I'm not going to lie," Johnson said. "Big time. It makes you grow up. Even if you don't want to."

Morton and Oliver have to agree.

"He lost his job," said Oliver when asked about Johnson's mindframe and Morton saw a new intensity.

"He has to provide for his family; that intensified," he said. "He's smiling more now. He's smiling a lot more now. His attitude is positive. He feels good about himself."

The Bengals felt good enough to cut J.D. Runnels Jr., move Johnson, and put seventh-round pick Fui Vakapuna second in a camp that looks like the Bengals may keep two fullbacks. Rookie free agent Chris Pressley is the remaining fullback with the preseason to begin in New Orleans Friday night.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who cautions the Bengals are in fullback flux and the chart could change next week, still wants to see improvement in Johnson's conditioning. He tends to make mistakes in technique when he gets tired, Bratkowski said.

And Johnson says he needs to drop about five more pounds to get to the weight of about 265 to 275 that he feels he needs to be an effective blocker.

"I'm close," he said after the morning workout. "Five, six, seven pounds. I want to take time with it so I don't lose strength."

Johnson is careful to get his weight just right. He felt when he was 250 back in '05 it was just too light to deliver the blows he feels must be made at fullback. For the first time in his life, he was feeling them hit back.

"The 60-pound weight loss was too much; a phenomenal change," Morton said. "His goals are more moderate. He still wants to come down and he'll feel better."

Johnson has always been a quiet guy that guards his privacy. But he's approachable and had to smile when the media asked him about the new depth chart.

"I'm no coach," he said. "That's your job."

Watching Johnson pop linebacker Keith Rivers in one-on-one blitz pickup drills Monday morning shows why Lewis made the move. Remember how the Bengals gave up 51 sacks last season and one of the reasons was how Dan Coats struggled moving from tight end to fullback?

Watching Johnson make a 17-yard catch out of the backfield in the scrimmage Friday night shows why the Bengals made the move. Coats had just two catches for 19 yards all last year.

Watching Johnson line up ahead of Vakapuna in a goal line "heavy-I" backfield shows why they made the move. The Bengals had their fewest rushing touchdowns (six) since 1994.

"When I'm playing my best," Johnson said, "I'm bringing a lot to the table in the passing game, the blocking game, the pass-blocking game and short yardage. That's what I'm aiming for right now. It's going to come back."

The decision to cut him made Johnson realize something, too.

"For the first time since I was five years old I missed football," he said.

But he says the Bengals never went away even after they cut him. Morton said there were phone calls and texting.

"I knew I still had a love for it and they still needed me," he said. "They called the whole time; I wasn't going anywhere. You all just thought I was gone. I was never gone."

Morton and Oliver worked their magic one Johnson re-signed just before the draft in April, keeping him off the field but in the weight room. Yet they got some help this time. "To make the changes he made," Morton said, "he had to make a decision. In the end, he's the one that did it."

Johnson says he needs all four preseason games to get ready. "My second week in a year," he said, and Lewis has been a booster there.

"Anybody feels good when the head man feels good about you," Johnson said. "Coach Lewis sat me down the first day (of camp) and spoke with me and made me feel comfortable. He told me to take it one day at a time. That's all I can do."

That, and take care of Jai. With an i. Like Jeremi.

"She's like a junior," Johnson said with a smile. "But she's not a junior."

It's OK. Her dad has made a name this month.

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