Harris hangs punting question

8-6-02, 3:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _For the moment, the Bengals want Travis Dorsch to put a hold on his punting and that has the prized fourth-round draft pick a bit confused.

But there is no confusion over one of the reasons why the Bengals made the call. Nick Harris, their second-year punter and avid golfer, is going longer than Tiger Woods and higher than his TV ratings.

"He's had a fine camp and he's almost at the point of being special," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of football operations. "He's got Pro Bowl potential with the kind of height he gets on his kicks. He gets them high enough that he makes them coverable."

Harris, a non-flake kicker who was an All-Arizona linebacker in high school and reads the classics, has streamlined his regimen from the day he was the nation's top college punter at California. Instead of punting all day, he stretches, booms his 10 or so kicks during team (many have elicited an ooh or two from his mates), and then goes back to various drills. Such as picking up dropped snaps and catching balls shot from the jug machine and putting the ball to his foot.

"Everyone gets better and I think I'm better this year," Harris said. "I know the guys who are going to line up next to me and cover and I know the guys snapping to me. Sure, I'd love to go to the Pro Bowl. You want to be the best. But instead of focusing on that one thing, I'm just trying to get better."

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said Tuesday he's not sure if Dorsch splits the duties with Harris in Friday's pre-season opener in Buffalo. He has said he wants Dorsch to just concentrate on field goals and held him out of Monday night's drill after he struggled kicking last week. Harris, a fellow fourth-rounder from a year ago, thinks it's a good idea.

"I just think they drafted Travis to kick field goals," Harris said. "Physically, I think it takes away from him. I think he's starting to get a little tired from doing both. He's been going from punt drills to kicking drills to punting and kicking and it's one after the other all the time. I think he's better off concentrating on one thing instead of doing both."

Harris, the NCAA's all-time

punter, is angling to be in Cincinnati a Lee-Johnson-like 11 seasons. After the Bengals swiped Harris off the waiver wire from Denver a day before last year's pre-season finale, he had 21 punts inside the foes' 20-yard line to go along with just six touchbacks, the best differential since Johnson four years before. His net average of 34.1 was also the best since Johnson three years before.

"He's getting well over four seconds on his hang time," Lippincott said. "And he can also kick you out of trouble. What he's done has figured into the equation (in letting Dorsch concentrate on field goals)."

At Cal, Harris felt like he was more of a weapon because the Bears' field-goal woes forced them to punt from as close as the enemy's 31-yard line. If there was a good wind going, Harris was often asked to pin them back and he did it so well that in his senior year he figures he put half of his 72 or so punts inside the 20 in helping the defense come up with two or three safeties.

"LeBeau likes to go for it a lot of times if we get that close and I respect that," Harris said. "Hey, I'll do whatever they want me to do. In college, it was all about getting better. When I was a (freshman), I put eight inside the 20. The next year I wanted to get better with the inside-the-20 thing and I got 20. It's all about getting better, here, too. I'm more well-rounded this year."

Harris figures he's punting consistently from 45 to 55 yards at this camp and says he's improved in everything from the end of last year, to getting the punt off quicker to playing the wind. Plus, as a holder and a punter, he gives them a 6-2, 220-pound athlete who was not only an all-state linebacker, but also an all-state soccer player at Westview High School in Avondale, Ariz. He also found time to play some running back and receiver.

Which is maybe why he's not your stereotypical zany NFL kicker. He doesn't do the slightly off-beat Lee Johnsonian-like things, like check the stock market between drills with a ticker hidden in the ball bag.

"Maybe it's because I wasn't always a kicker," Harris said. "It was just something else I did. I kind of fit in with everybody else. I wasn't the lonely kicker.'"

During the huge dead time of training camp, Harris is checking the shelves instead of the stocks. He's been reading his Bible and just started a religious work that quarterback Jon Kitna gave him Monday called, "Every Man's Battle." He's also starting to get back into the classics and just finished "The Count of Monte Cristo."

But when it comes to the Broncos and last year's release, he doesn't talk about revenge.

"It's like college," Harris said. "I'm just trying to get better."

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