7-14-03, 3:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Brandon Bennett, who has backed up Corey Dillon for so long and so well, knows he's always been on the bubble when the Bengals convene at training camp.
In 2000, it was because he had missed the previous season with reconstructive knee surgery. In 2001, it was because they drafted Auburn record-holder Rudi Johnson in the fourth round. In 2002, it was because Johnson and Curtis Keaton spent most of the preseason leading the NFL in rushing.
But Bennett's versatility and professionalism has always carried the day and he got another boost recently when the club cleared him to participate in the first camp workout on July 28 at Georgetown College after more than two months of virtual inactivity because of a back problem.
"I've been working out all day, every day since they cleared me," said Bennett, the fifth-year running back, from South Carolina Monday. "I think I can catch up because I've got some time before camp and it's just going to be a matter of getting into football shape."
Bennett said he came to Cincinnati about 10 days ago to go through some drills and came out of it looking well enough to get the nod. He didn't work in the club's minicamps in May and June as he tried to
quell a nerve problem in his back.
"The big thing was just resting it. I couldn't do much of anything," Bennett said. "It's not only the running you lose, but the lifting (weights). It takes a lot to try and keep doing reps without getting tired and I'm trying to get back to that point now. I think I'll get there because I'm just doubling what I usually did when I was able to spread it out over the whole offseason."
The Bengals know Bennett is going to be in the best shape possible, befitting one of the team's hardest workers. What they don't know is how the competition to back up Dillon is going to come down with Bennett, Johnson, and free agent newcomer Ray Jackson in a spot where they figure to keep three running backs. Head coach Marvin Lewis has readily praised Jackson in the camps, but it's nothing new for Bennett.
"Every year it's always something," Bennett said. "Whether it's a guy they bring in, or whatever. The bottom line is you can't worry about what they do, you have to worry about what you're going to do and the most important thing is to show up to be ready to play. And I'm just going to be me. Make plays and be positive around the team."
That's how Bennett, 30, has earned his living. When his versatility allowed them to trade Keaton to New Orleans for a fourth-rounder just before last season, it left them looking for a kick returner. Bennett responded with three returns of at least 50 yards despite just making five NFL returns before last season. He had the AFC lead with two games left before bruised ribs knocked him out of the finale.
He finished fourth in the AFC with 25.1 yards per his 49 returns to go on top of his 4.7 yards per carry backing up Dillon. The one downside is he took some shots returning kicks, and his 33 carries were a career-low after missing four games with various nicks.
But since Bennett broke a 19-yard touchdown run during Dillon's NFL record-setting day on Oct. 22, 2000 against the Broncos, he has averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 285 attempts.
"You never know what is going to happen. That's why you keep battling," Bennett said. "Right now I feel pretty good and I feel relieved. Let's see what happens."