Harris back in formation

12-11-02, 8:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau told Nick Harris last week he has no problems with his punting. And now that Harris is again the punter, he believes him.

"I don't know the purpose of it. I just know that Dick told me it had nothing to do with the way I was punting," Harris said Wednesday of the move to punt Travis Dorsch in his first NFL game last Sunday.

"He said they've been happy with what I've been doing. They think I've progressed well and he just wanted to make sure that I was solid with that."

Harris, 10th in AFC punting, has had one punt returned for a touchdown and another blocked for a touchdown, but neither were his fault. He did kick the return about six yards longer than he wanted, but he also kicked it in a corner inside the 10. The Bengals are last in the NFL in net punt return average, but Dorsch's 1.8

yard net last Sunday certainly didn't help matters.

"That same thing has happened to everyone. We've all had first games where we struggle. A lot of us. I know I did," said Harris, who got cut by the Broncos in the preseason of 2001 despite being a fourth-round pick.

"It was like that in Denver for me. I wasn't that, great either," Harris said. "College is different. You've got a nicer ball to kick, usually it's broken in. Now you've got brand-new balls. The game's a lot faster. When it comes down to it, it takes time to adjust to the NFL. He's never had any game experience."

Dorsch only tried field goals in the preseason, but he perked up his game when the Bengals let him practice both kicking and punting. But Dorsch admitted Wednesday that after being on the sidelines for 14 weeks, he probably needed more than two days of practice to get ready.

"And that's no excuse," Dorsch said. "Physically I was ready, but I guess mentally I wasn't. If I watch any tape, it will probably be of my holds."

Dorsch shook his head at the irony. He wasn't so much worried about his punting against the Panthers as he was taking Harris' place as the holder. Dorsch put in some extra time practicing holding for extra points and field goals and was flawless in the game.

BUBBLETOP TALK: A straw poll of Bengals would like to like to see the club build a "bubble," where they could practice indoors on an icy day like Wednesday at Paul Brown Stadium. Although it didn't turn out to be too bad of a day on the Astroturf in the mid-30s, the players think it would be a nice addition.

"We need one. You need to get in good work during the week," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "The offense needs to handle the ball. Throwing the ball like you want to, handoffs, instead of trying to work around the weather. The game is the game. You can play in that. But in my opinion, practice should be ideal conditions."

The Bengals wanted to build a bubble over the Astroturf when PBS was in the planning stages, but they won't get an answer if they can do it for three more years because of

a question of space on the west side of the facility.

"One of the most obvious sites to do it is where the artificial field is located and currently that's an area designated for overpass rights for future light rail and other development," said Troy Blackburn, the club's director of business development.

"When we have a better answer to what is going to develop, and if space allows us to do it, then it has to be a football decision," Blackburn said. "Then it's up to the coaches and you have to look at how many days it would be used."

Teams with similar climates Indianapolis and Tennessee have bubbles. Division rival Pittsburgh has a building with a 100-yard field that the Steelers used Wednesday and twice last week.

"You want as many guys as you can get to be active in your off-season program and I would imagine that would help," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "Anything like that would be good because it just gives you another kind of edge. It gives you more time."

Punter Nick Harris is out of the old school ("I think it's good to practice in what you're going to play in,") , but he also sees the off-season benefit because "I guess it would be a great place where guys could get in their running and whatever else they have to do and they can stay here over the winter."

BENNETT PLAYING: Told he is leading the AFC in kick returns (even if it is by percentage points), the Bengals' Brandon Bennett said Wednesday he doesn't plan to sit on his lead.

"That's great news. I had no idea because I've been out," said Bennett, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury. "It's an honor. You can always say you led something. I'm playing this week, so we'll see what happens and how I feel. I've got a shot at it."

While Bennett sat out with a 26.14-yard average (1,098 yards on 42 returns), the Jets' Chad Morton slipped from 26.4 to 26.12 on 1,280 yards with 49 returns.

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AKILI ADAMANT:** LeBeau has declared no more Dorsch-like experiments the rest of the way, indicating Jon Kitna is the quarterback the rest of the way, and that's just fine with No. 3 quarterback Akili Smith as he reiterated Wednesday his desire to get out of town after the season.

"Like I said, if Jon keeps playing this way there's no need for me to be back next year," Smith said. "If I was the backup last year instead of Scott Mitchell, or this year instead of Gus (Frerotte), my attitude would be totally different. But sticking me at No. 3, and I know it's the coaches. I know Mike (Brown) wants me No. 2 or No. 1."

But at 1-12, there's a chance he may not be dealing with the same coaches next year. Asked what he would do if a new staff made him No. 2 to Kitna, Smith said, "I'd have to sit down with my people and see what they think because if they bring in a whole new coaching staff, the job should be up for grabs. How do we know Jon's going to execute the offense better than me and we both have to learn it?"

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