Bengals need fullback

5-6-01, 2:50 p.m.

Updated: 5-6-01, 3:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals find themselves without a fullback after Nick Williams tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee Sunday morning and is out at least through November and most likely for the rest of the season.

Trainer Paul Sparling said only the ACL is injured, meaning he'll have a shorter rehab and faster recovery than Charles Fisher, the cornerback the Bengals released Saturday a year and a half after he tore three ligaments.

Sparling compared the Williams' injury to the one suffered by running back Brandon Bennett in May of 1999, a player who returned last season to carry the ball 90 times.

With Clif Groce, the Bengals' other fullback unavailable for at least several weeks because of a sprained medial collateral knee ligament, the Bengals have to find one in free agency.

The Bengals know three of the fullbacks on the market since they come from the AFC Central in Baltimore's Sam Gash, Jacksonville's

Daimon Shelton and Tennessee's Lorenzo Neal. Also available is Carolina's William Floyd.

The Bengals might have an in with Neal, 30, since he played at Fresno State when Bengals receivers coach Steve Mooshagian worked there.

Williams went down in Sunday morning's practice during a one-on-one session in which the linebackers covered the running backs on pass routes.

"I was coming out of a break and I don't know if I stepped on his foot or what happened," Williams said. "Al I know is something wasn't right and I just heard a pop. We made contact, but I think it was only for a second."

Sparling believes Williams had his foot planted and it got twisted around, making it another of the common non-contact knee injuries.

"It proves once again that turf is not the big green monster," Sparling said. "It happens on grass, too."

The injury is a severe blow because Williams, 24, a third-year player taken in the fifth round of the '99 NFL Draft, was supposed to emerge this year as the starting fullback. His ability to be the back in a one-back set and catch the ball coming out of the backfield figured to be a premium in new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's steady diet of three-receiver sets.

But Williams ended up cheering up the teammates who came to offer condolences.

"I was comfortable with the offense and I knew all the spots," Williams said. "It's a good fit. But God has his reasons. I'm optimistic. I'm not in the dumps. I just don't like surgery and all the drugs you have to take."

Williams could have the procedure as soon as this week.

As luck would have it, fullback was also the only one thin position where the Bengals lined up for this weekend's minicamp. Second-year fullback Ricky Brown is playing in NFL Europe and BYU rookie free-agent Kalani Sitake failed Saturday's physical.

The Bengals could also make another run at re-signing tight end Steve Bush, a tight end who has filled in at fullback because of injuries.

There's a chance quarterback Akili Smith could sit out Sunday afternoon's practice to rest his tired right arm. He said he fought through the morning session after a heavy week of throwing in the days leading up to the minicamp.

The camp ends with a Monday morning workout, but the veterans begin four weeks of three-day workouts on Tuesday.

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