Harris on hold

9-3-01, 6:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Punter Daniel Pope didn't go out throwing out bombs. But he did some kicking after the Bengals released him in favor of rookie Nick Harris even though Harris had been on the club less than a week after being claimed off waivers from the Broncos.

Pope said his sudden ex-teammates weren't happy with the decision.

It was a move the Bengals' top brass and personnel department pushed and club president Mike Brown had even speculated before Sunday that there was some unfairness to it after Pope had been the Bengals' punter all training camp until the final pre-season game.

"He has a good leg," Pope said of Harris. "I hope he and the Bengals have a good year this year. These guys have worked too hard to have a bad year."

Special teams coach Al Roberts tried to ward off any locker room suspicion trained at Harris, this year's highest drafted punter in the fourth round and the most prolific punter in Division I-A history.

"When he drops a few inside the 5," Roberts said, "they'll love him."

But Sunday's major question didn't even really revolve around punting, but holding. Pope is the only holder second-year kicker Neil Rackers has had and after his shaky rookie year, some wonder if that move will blow up like when Doug Pelfrey lost punter Lee Johnson late in the 1998 season.

"I hope this decision doesn't affect Neil Rackers," Pope said. "Neil is coming

off his first year struggling. Now there's a new holder with him. This is a kid who was struggling and he's having a good year. Now there's this monkey wrench into his whole deal. It doesn't just affect me, it affects this team. Some of the guys couldn't believe it. Guys aren't happy."

For his part, Rackers said all the right things. He said he's never had more than one holder in every year he's kicked and counts this one as such because, "it's before the season. . .I more confident this year than last year."

And Harris, an easy-going sort from the University of California, shrugged. He held his final three years at Cal and in Denver and when asked after Sunday's practice how long it would take to get in sync with Rackers, he said, "I think we already are in sync."

But Rackers admitted he's going to have to adjust because when Pope held, "Everything was so smooth. Once the ball hit his hand, it was down. He made it easy to look at, easy for me to approach the ball because I knew where it was sitting right away. Where as most of the other guys I've seen are a little slower, so they don't get to look at the ball quite as long. I have faith in the (other) guys. I think we'll be fine."

The Bengals liked Pope's 41-yard-four-second-hang-time-consistency, but they figured he was never going to kick them out of a hole. They think Harris' big leg offers a 10-year solution at a position that hasn't been as solid since Johnson left.

Harris knew the Bengals weren't going off his four punts for 40.5 yards on Thursday against the Colts, the only time he kicked in a Bengals' game or practice before the decision was made. Although he did drop two inside the 10 and impressed in pregame.

" It was more off my college career and what was going on in Denver," Harris said. "A lot of teams were paying attention to what Denver was doing, not just with punting. They're stacked everywhere. Whatever I was doing, (NFL scouts saw me) and (the Bengals) think I'm good."

They like how former Raiders great Ray Guy has mentored him and the 10 punts he punished inside Illinois' 20 last year, and how he has the most punts and yards in Division I history.

Isn't football funny? Rackers is out of Illinois and Jim Breech, the ex-Bengals kicker who is the club's all-time scorer, came out of Cal.

The Bengals also like the fact the 6-2, 220-pound Harris is as good athlete. He was a tight end and linebacker in high school. He doesn't think there's nearly as much pressure in Cincinnati as there was in Denver during a very public battle with long-time Broncos punter Tom Rouen. With the Bengals, there's no competition.

"I've been going through four months of really tough scrutiny in Denver," Harris said. "I think it's all about kicking the ball high and far."

The Bengals don't think the move with Harris holding will cause the same problems that didn't help Pelfrey because Pelfrey also had a new long snapper. Brad St. Louis is back for his second year, so they think it won't take long to get on the same page.

But if Harris gets dinged, it could be a problem. Quarterback Scott Mitchell, the backup holder, is out for the New England game with a bad knee. The third holder, wide receiver Danny Farmer, thinks he'll play, but he's coming off a hyperextended knee.

Roberts said the next guy in line is wide receiver Peter Warrick.

THIS AND THAT: WR Danny Farmer expects to play against New England after running gassers at the end of Sunday's practice on his hyperextended knee. . .

The Bengals could lose defensive linemen Tom Barndt (DUI) and Vaughn Booker (domestic violence) for some games if the NFL decides to suspend them after their recent arrests. But it might not be this season depending on the courts. . .

OLB Takeo Spikes didn't practice Sunday and Monday. He was back home in Sandersville, Ga., with his ailing father. . .

DL Kevin Henry, released Sunday, said he didn't want to let down Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, his old coach in Pittsburgh. "I'm thankful for the opportunity. I just didn't get in the practice time I needed in the scheme."

Henry missed the first three weeks of camp with arthroscopic surgery on his elbow, and he said he had trouble adjusting to the elephant end, which he didn't play in Pittsburgh: "I'm not used to dropping back into coverage. But I owe Coach LeBeau for giving me the chance." . . .

DE Jevon Langford also got released, but he's not looking to give up football yet and pursue the heavyweight championship. Look for Buffalo to make a run because Tom Donahoe, the Bills GM, has high regard for Langford's motor.

QUARTERBACKS UPDATE: After trading away backup Ty Detmer Sunday, Browns coach Butch Davis was to have said he was hoping he could lure his old quarterback at Miami of Florida up to Cleveland. But Scott Covington had re-signed with the Bengals and practiced Sunday after being cut six days before.

Covington didn't know if Davis was interested and how would he? He was lounging on the beach back in Laguna Beach, Calif., over the weekend when he heard he was back in the Bengals' plans because of Scott Mitchell's ankle injury.

"My bye week came early," Covington said.

After not playing in any pre-season games despite being impressive in training camp, Covington says, "I have no misconceptions about what may or may not happen. I just hope I stay

here the whole year because I think the team and myself included have a chance to accomplish a lot."

He's not sure if he's only around until Mitchell gets healthy, which is most likely the case because they need his roster spot. Mitchell is definitely out for the New England game, although after he walked on the treadmill for 25 minutes Sunday and was bouncing around practice in a walking boot, Mitchell said, "Don't count me out." But trainer Paul Sparling is still counting on at least four weeks.

Akili Smith threw for the first time since a hit on Aug. 10 inflamed his tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. He said he had no pain throwing 25 yards and less and plans to do the same routine Monday before trying the longer passes in individual drills with the receivers Wednesday. He expects to be the No. 2 quarterback in Sunday's opener.

All of which leaves Covington waiting. He said he's starting to find out it's all about timing in the NFL and while other teams were interested (such as Green Bay), they either didn't have room or he felt the best fit was in a place where he knew the offense and personnel.

He has drawn high marks for not bemoaning his fate publicly and observed Sunday, "Good things happen to good people. Most of the time."

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