7-21-01, 2:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ It's been 31 games, 578 days, one benching and a cascade of boos since Artrell Hawkins intercepted a pass.
But head coach Dick LeBeau, who has the sixth most interceptions in NFL history, stepped in front of convention on the first day of training camp and installed Hawkins as the starting right cornerback.
Yet before Bengaldom recoils in angst, LeBeau had some points to make.
"This depth chart means nothing. It's going to keep changing," LeBeau said. "But in the May camps, Artrell got the most done and we felt he did enough to earn where he is today."
New cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle says to check with him two weeks from today, when the depth chart actually means something.
But the move means something to Hawkins, now 25 and no longer the green kid who came here out of the University of Cincinnati in the second round in 1998. Speaking into a forest of microphones Sunday after bad Sunday will take the green quickly out of you and color your outlook.
After an offseason he pledged to purge his life of distractions, Hawkins recently re-dedicated himself to Christ.
"I've become an old man here," Hawkins said, shaking his head.
This could be a good thing for a man who got benched in LeBeau's first major move as head coach four games into last season.
"I re-dedicated myself last month," Hawkins said. "It's basically where you come from a state of backslipping into a stage of newness. It's re-adjusting my personal life. The biggest thing it does is help me focus. It creates focus and work ethic. The focus might not always have been there, but I think I've always worked hard."
After a strong close of the season in which he caught LeBeau's eye on special teams, Hawkins ditched his cell phone and pager. Too many people wanted too much from him too many times. Maybe the harder he is to find off the field, the easier time he'll have finding the ball on the field.
"That's really what I have to work on," Hawkins said. "I really want to make plays. I'm hungry to make plays. It's been three years."
No one can really explain Hawkins' problem with playing the ball. He's fast. He's got great size. He plays the run fearlessly. But like one Bengals' insider said, "When the ball is in the air, bad things happen."
Coyle says it comes down to technique, timing, and awareness. Maybe the biggest thing is the most unspoken.
"That's important as any other skill in sport," Coyle said.
Hawkins had little positive reinforcement until LeBeau noted late last year how he impressed he had been that Hawkins didn't go in the tank after the benching. As the defensive coordinator who drafted him, LeBeau has stuck through a lot with Hawkins. His relationship with Coyle could also be a boost.
Coyle, a disciple of defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, arrived in January from Fresno State after 24 years in the college ranks. The old college try has been noticed.
"I like Kevin a lot. He's passionate," Hawkins said. "Coming from college, he's used to being more interactive with players. So he's not your typical pro coach yet. All he knows is how he's done it in college and I think his approach will help this group because we're not very, very old."
Hawkins liked Coyle's off-season lab assignment. When Coyle was off scouting or on vacation, he left tapes for each cornerback.
"Kevin did the voice-overs, so it was like he was coaching you not being there," Hawkins said. "He went over technique and alignment assignments. He's a teacher like Mark Duffner."
Coyle is coming into this thing as open-minded as possible. The starting left cornerback is Rodney Heath, who is in front of Robert Bean after Bean started four games as a rookie before getting hurt.
"You have to see what happens when the bullets are flying," Coyle said. "And we're going to try guys who have been on the left side on the right, and the other way around. We're just starting."