Heath returns to punts

8-28-01, 8:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The last time Rodney Heath caught a punt in a game, four-year-old Autumn Heath wasn't born yet. But if she comes to Thursday night's game against the Colts, she'll get to see Daddy do it.

If she doesn't cover her eyes.

The 5-10, 175-pound Heath, who barged into the NFL from the minor-league indoor league on sheer guts and grit, has no qualms about catching his first pro punts this season. The Bengals are still trying to figure out what to do on returns, but Heath could very well end up in a game-by-game or situational rotation with Peter Warrick.

Running the punts back is another question for Heath, who also just happens to be the Bengals' starting left cornerback.

"I don't like to wear those hip pads, thigh pads, knee pads," Heath joked Tuesday. "The receivers don't wear them. (The Colts') Marvin Harrison doesn't wear them. I have to be able to run with those cats."

The two guys the Bengals wouldn't mind seeing return punts are backup receivers Damon Griffin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they are on the roster bubble and might not even be active on Game Day given the circumstances.

With the release of Craig Yeast and the possibility Griffin and Houshmandzadeh aren't available, that leaves Warrick and his end-of-year highlight moves. And Heath, the University of Minnesota's all-time punt returner with 52 when he left Minneapolis.

He hasn't caught any in a game since joining the Bengals in 1999. And, no, he didn't catch any for the Minnesota Monsters of the Professional Indoor Football League.

"No punts (in that league)," Heath said. "The ceiling is too low."

So is the tolerance for watching the 5-11, 195-pound Warrick, one of the

club's offensive centerpieces, get pounded up to 40 times in a season on returns.

Which is why special teams coach Al Roberts wouldn't mind rotating Heath with Warrick on occasion. And that's one of the reasons that Warrick, who averaged 13 yards on 72 career returns at Florida State, only did it seven times last year as a rookie.

Of course, Warrick took one 82 yards for the touchdown that turned the tide in the Jacksonville win.

Which is why Roberts wants to give him more than seven this season.

"I don't want to wear out Peter Warrick," Roberts said, "but at the same time, he's our diamond back there and we have to put the ball in his hands. Rodney Heath has some neat return ability, but at the same time we want to protect him also. If we don't have some other guys, we're going into the season with the thought of rotating (Warrick and Heath), maybe game-by-game or situational."

Heath, the local product from Western Hills High School, is at home catching punts. Since he's been with the Bengals, he has caught punts in practice so he's certain he can do that Thursday night.

"I'm going to concentrate on catching it, fair catching it, and giving it back to the offense," Heath said.

Heath defied the odds in going from street free agent to solid NFL cornerback with fearlessness and courage. But he'll be careful throwing his body around knowing the Bengals need him in the secondary.

Roberts figures a regular punt returner takes about five shots during the season that can put him out anywhere from a series to a game and the club can't afford that with either player, another reason to rotate.

"I remember when I got here Al told me, 'If you've come here to return punts or kicks, you've come to the wrong team,'" Heath recalled with a laugh.

But Heath is used to bucking the odds, so maybe it will work for about 15 punts this year while Warrick gets a breather and Autumn Heath holds her breath.

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