Johnson 's power, Keaton's quicks in classic duel

8-16-02, 1:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Good running backs always seem to know what the other good running backs are doing.

As Rudi Johnson broke Virginia's state rushing records at Thomas Dale High School in Ettrick, he noticed a picture one day in the "Richmond Times-Dispatch," of a hot, big-time back who had just transferred to James Madison from West Virginia.

Curtis Keaton.

"Curtis probably doesn't know this," Johnson mused this week. "I was still in high school, but I knew he was there when I saw that picture. I never thought we'd be on the same NFL team."

How about fighting for the last spot on that NFL team?

The 5-10, 218-pound Johnson, a self-described power back who has shed 15 pounds to help him move the chains, is battling the rust from last season's rookie year. The 5-10, 222-pound Keaton, your classic speed back who always provides something exciting, feels he's fighting the perception that he's a dancer and not a rusher.

"Fruit is good," Keaton said. "It comes down to what you like when you compare apples and oranges. We all bring something to the table."

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said this week that he could see where both of them could make the roster. But in order for that to happen, dependable veteran running back Brandon Bennett would have to be released (a longshot at this point), or they would have to go light one player at another spot.

They can't do it at wide receiver (six spots) or tight end (three), and they don't want to do it on the offensive line or in the secondary, where there are traditionally 10 spots each.

"It ain't so," said running backs coach Jim Anderson, "until it's so. So they just have to play."

And with Bennett (toe) and Pro Bowler Corey Dillon (foot) out for Saturday night's second preseason game in Indianapolis (8 p.m., Channel 12 in Cincinnati, Channel 10 in Columbus, Ohio, Channel 2 in Dayton, Ohio), Keaton and Johnson have the field all to themselves to give the decision-makers something to sink their teeth.

They already did last Friday night in Buffalo when Bennett left early. Johnson racked up 100 yards on 14 carries and Keaton had a touchdown among his 15 carries for 52 yards.

How deep are they here? Just look at the Colts' club they play. Like LeBeau, first-year head coach Tony Dungy is without his top two running backs in Pro Bowler Edgerrin James and 1,000-yard backup Dominic Rhodes. Dungy is left with a fullback, waiver wire pickup Ben Gay, and the last pick in the 1999 draft, Jim Finn, and he may not be joking about playing the fourth quarter with five receivers.

But that doesn't help the Bengals' dilemma with Johnson, a record-breaker everywhere from Virginia to Auburn, and Keaton, like Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick with unique speed.

"I don't get into all that," Johnson said. "It's good to have fun again. (Last week) was the most fun I've had since Auburn."

The good running backs always seem to keep up with the good running backs. When Johnson arrived at Butler Community College in Kansas in 1998, he was greeted in the newspaper with a headline that trumpeted he was the best running back in the Jayhawk Conference since one Corey Dillon for Garden City.

By then, Dillon had already had his monster rookie season in Cincinnati and Johnson said, "Of course, I never thought I'd be on his team in the NFL."

Johnson says he doesn't mind sitting and learning behind a guy who "is probably the best running back in the league." But we are also talking a about guy who in one year at Auburn blitzed the SEC for 1,567 yards and passed all the Tigers' great backs for one season's work (James Brooks, Joe Cribbs, William Andrews) except Bo Jackson.

Yet he doesn't find himself in the back of his mind wishing for a release so he doesn't lose the first part of his career sitting behind a Hall of Famer.

"I don't want to be cut," Johnson said. "I know in my heart it will come to me sooner or later. I know it will. If I just keep working and learning, the better I'll get and it will come to me."

Johnson's one advantage over Keaton is that he is perceived as the one back on the club besides Dillon who can pound the ball 20 to 30 times a game. Keaton did carry 15 times Friday night, but at a 3.5 clip compared to Johnson's 7.1

Still, Keaton, the almost-local prep star from Columbus, Ohio, always gives the offense a speed jolt that other teams struggle to match. That's his advantage over Johnson.

On Friday night, his eight-yard whew up the middle quickly put the Bengals on the board. And last preseason, Keaton led the club in rushing by averaging 5.3 yards on his 40 carries.

"Frankly, the last couple of years, the opportunities have been scarce," Keaton said. "Realistically, that could be the way the coaches perceived me as a player and the way I adapted to the game. I'm not really a dancer. I make people miss. But perception is their reality. What I've tried to do this year is not second-guess myself."

Keaton admitted he has had trouble finding comfort. He had to learn two offensive systems in his first two seasons and now he seems to be responding in year three. Anderson, a stickler for details, has spent three summers trying to meld Keaton's ample gifts with the game's mechanics and he likes what he sees.

"His blitz pickups have improved, and so has his focus and intensity. He's finishing runs," Anderson said.

No more second-guessing for Keaton, but he has kept his confidence: "I think this is the tip of the iceberg for me.

"There's only one thing on my mind when I go out there and play," Keaton said. "Watch the tape. You can rewind it if you didn't see it the first time. You can look at it a second and third time. I've made a conscious effort to improve my assignments, getting the ball up field, blocking, protecting the ball. There's a lot of ball left to be played."

Anderson is also pleased with Johnson's 218 pounds. Last year he came in at about 233 and Anderson didn't feel he was in good shape. Too heavy even though his job description reads, "power back."

"That's what I'm trying to do. Move the chains," Johnson said. "I think that's what helps your offense best. I like it physical. I like to get to hit and keep going."

Asked if he can hit and run away from scrimmage like Dillon, Johnson smiled.

"We both like to run hard and finish runs," Johnson said. "Get to the secondary, we like to punish people. Of course, he has (better breakaway speed). Without a question. But don't sleep now, I might, so you never know."

Good running backs always seem to know what the other good backs are doing.

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