Hundon thinks of '97

BY GEOFF HOBSON - GEORGETOWN, Ky.

Darnay Scott may be gone, but the Bengals' three-receiver package is still on the blackboard. And with those 68 catches and 1,022 yards erased, Scott's injury may even accelerate the package to get defenders off rookie Peter Warrick and those ESPN moves that will now get CNN coverage from secondaries.

James Hundon and his 4.4-second 40-yard dash times like the sound of that. When Carl Pickens missed the last five games of the 1997 season with a groin problem, Hundon stepped in as a third receiver with two touchdown catches and 118 yards against the Eagles, wriggled for a six-yard gain and a key first down to secure a victory against Jacksonville, and caught what would have been a 61-yard touchdown pass against the Cowboys if he didn't fumble into the end zone.

Former quarterback Boomer Esiason, who threw Hundon those passes, said today there's no reason he can't duplicate those feats.

"He can't get nervous, he's got to stay confident," Esiason said. "I liked James Hundon. He's fast and he made some big plays and he was very conscientious. I never got the idea that he was just throwing his helmet on the field and just showing up. He cared about it and felt bad when he didn't do well. I thought they were in great shape the next year when they had him coming back. What happened to him?"

Coach Bruce Coslet can tell you why Hundon has had just 11 catches since '97, and one all last year.

"He's been hurt every year," Coslet said. "His two biggest problems have been consistency catching the ball and staying healthy. The last one leads to the first one. You have to catch and you can't do it with a machine or standing still. You have to be running routes. . .Last year he was catching everything because he had a great offseason, then he came into camp and got hurt. There's a lot of talent there if we can keep it on the field."

With Scott gone, the 6-1, 173-pound Hundon, 29, is now the most seasoned (four years) and most proven (28 career catches) receiver the Bengals have. Jerry Rice's former workout partner is best known for his speed and asked if he ever raced Scott, Hundon shook his head: "I think we're both pretty equal."

Now the Bengals only equalizier for nine healthy receivers with 43 NFL catches might be three-receiver sets.

"Guys like Hundon and (Craig) Yeast are fast and any combination of them, or Damon Griffin would emiliminate teams double covering," said receivers coach Steve Mooshagian before tonight's practice at Georgetown College. "They would have to respect guys with all that speed. I don't think three receivers is dead by any means. I think we can still do it with the guys we have. It may help us in the running game spread people out and we can move Peter around and hide him in the slot."

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Hundon is now backing up Yeast, the starter in Scott's flanker spot, but he can also play split end as well as spots in "Hawk," and "Eagle," two of the Bengals' three-receiver sets. One is when a running back comes out and the other is when a tight end leaves.

"That was a good period for me," said Hundon of '97, when the club finished 4-1 under Esiason with Hundon at split end in three-receiver sets. "It proved to myself and everyone else that we could still win without our big guns. And this reminds me of '97. We lost Pick and now we lost Darnay in 2000. . .There's no Boomer, but even if Boomer wasn't here we probably still would have won in '97 without Carl. It's just a matter of showing the coaches we can do it and make them feel comfortable with us."

Hundon says he has worked at getting more comfortable catching the ball, at keeping focus on the ball as well as learning the arm angle of his quarterbacks.

"I wouldn't say that. I don't know if he's dropped the ball in games," Mooshagian said. "To me the biggest question is if can he get off the line when he gets bumped and people get up in his face. Can he catch it in a crowd? It's more of a physical question than his hands. His hands have improved. They say this is the best camp he's had so far. He's an interesting guy because he has done it. In that one year when Pickens went down and David Dunn went into the slot, he played well on the outside."

Injuries haven't been kind to Hundon the past few seasons. In fact, even his touchdown catches haven't been kind to him. After his strong '97 finish, he suffered a severe sprained ankle in the second preseason game in '98 and then a few months later in his first NFL start he broke a rib catching an 11-yard touchdown. Then after sitting out last season's preseason opener with a bruised kidney, he sprained his right toe making a diving 33-yard catch of Akili Smith's first NFL touchdown pass in the preseason finale against Atlanta.

"I look back on that, but there's nothing I can do about it," Hundon said. "What I can do is be a tougher guy. Stay smart and continue to work hard."

Also interesting about Hundon is his size. He's six inches taller than Yeast and Mooshagian admits, "coaches and management would rather have big receivers. But I've coached guys in college who went into the NFL the same size (5-7, 160 pounds) as Yeast and they've performed. Stephen Baker played five years with the Giants before they decided to go with bigger receivers and Charlie Jones (nine TDs in four years in San Diego) until he went down with a (hip) injury last year."

A year ago at this time, both Hundon and Yeast were sidelined. Yeast's high ankle sprain slowed his adjustment to the NFL after becoming the SEC's all-time leading receiver, but Smith noticed his progress Tuesday night while watching tape of last season's preseason game against Buffalo.

"(On one play), he should have gone underneath the linebacker," Smith said. "Now he'll go underneath the linebacker and be open." Smith shrugged. He's concerned about the lack of his receivers' experience. But at least the shock of Scott's injury seemed to be wearing off.

"The guys are a lot more antsy," Smith said. "You can see it in them. They've got a lot more bounce."

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