BY GEOFF HOBSON
With Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage rapidly looking like the first snap of the post-Corey Dillon era, the Bengals finally get to sift through the bodies at running back when play starts at about 1:50 p.m. here at Georgetown College.
Except for Dillon's Pro Bowl berth and 3,459 career yards, there is something for everyone. Brandon Bennett's receiving, Michael Basnight's power, Sedrick Shaw's elusiveness and Curtis Keaton's speed.
And that's the order of the depth chart now, "until the scrimmage because nothing's happened yet," said running backs coach Jim Anderson. "Of course this is a good indicator. It's about making plays and guys will make plays. The competitors will show up. A lot of guys come in trying to do a lot of things when you have to relax and just play."
As Basnight said when asked who has the edge, "The coaches."
And if you think first impressions are important, you're right. The good ones always seem to stick out right away.
Bengals President Mike Brown can recall such franchise players as tight end Bob Trumpy, Isaac Curtis and Ken Anderson shining right away in the season's opening 45 minutes.
Think back to Dillon's rookie scrimmage in 1997 and how he clearly broke from the pack on his way to winning the starting job in midseason. Even last year, Basnight, then a rookie free agent out of North Carolina A&T, staked his claim to the backup job with a seven-yard carry and a 14-yard catch. Here's what Anderson will be looking at Saturday:
_How Bennett, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, physically attacks the defense.
_If the 6-2, 235-pound Basnight can continue his improvement as a punishing runner in coming back from a sore knee stemming from a Janaury car accident.
_If Shaw, in his third training camp in four years, can show down-field toughness and ability to pass block.
_If Keaton can adapt his acceleration at the line of scrimmage into the Bengals' scheme. A fourth-round pick out of Division 1-AA James Madison, Keaton ripped off the fastest first 10 yards in Bengals camp since Warren McVea ran his 40-yard dash 30 years ago. But Anderson wants to see Keaton take it up field more and bouncing it outside less.
Keaton looks to be the most intriguing story. The Columbus, Ohio product kept the fans guessing at Thursday night's practice. On one play he shot up the middle for a 15-yard touchdown run when the tackling was live, but he also fumbled later in the series. "If he does what we do offensively, he can make some plays," Anderson said. "He'll make plays in spite of things at times, but he'll make more plays if he does it our way. Which is execution and then at some point get it up the field. A small man has to like the loud noises going on inside."
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The 5-10, 212-pound Keaton isn't cocky, but he doesn't lack confidence, either, when he says, "I'm like a fine wine. I'm looking to get better. It's just a matter of me following the things they do here."
Keaton wasn't always blessed with the best of offensive lines. In his two seasons at Madison, he created much of his 2,000 yards by not waiting around for the play to develop.
"What I need to do here is slow down," Keaton said. "I've got an exceptional line. In times past, I always tried to use my eyes and improvise. Here it's up the field first boom, boom then go one way or the other. I just have to be a little more patient. I'm getting a feel for things. I don't think my forte is the outside. If you watch film, I got one up in there last night."
Bennett and Basnight also have interesting stories to tell. Each has one monster game in his only NFL start. In racking up 182 scrimmage yards against the Steelers on Dec. 20, 1998, Bennett set a Bengals record for most receiving yards by a running back with 119 on just three catches. One year and 13 days later, Basnight registed 144 yards on 13 touches that included 10 carries for 86 yards.
"I had five yards per carry last year, so I'm trying to build off that," Basnight said. "There's nothing flashy about me. I don't have a whole bunch of moves. I'm just trying to be consistent with an ugly four (yards) or sloppy six."
Whatever happens Saturday should make it a cleaner picture.