Kaesviharn leaps into mix

12-7-01, 11:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The storyline sounded so absurd. So ridiculous.

Yet there was no one laughing after the Division II -Arena League-XFL refugee went helmet to number with the NFL's former No. 1 overall draft choice, Pro Bowl player, and NFC's leading receiver.

Bengals rookie cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn, the kid with the funny name, held up against Keyshawn Johnson, the guy who wrote a book with a funny name.

"I just told myself to play my technique," Kaesviharn said this week. "Use my strengths to my advantage. I didn't want to get too tight with him and then have him put his hands on me and make him dictate where he wants me to go. I tried to stay away a little and use my quickness to get into position."

Yes, Keyshawn made some plays. But the Bucs didn't score a touchdown. And after the Bengals were done playing two of the NFC's top 10 third-down receivers, their third-down conversion rate is still 36 percent, 12th best in the NFL and up from 25th last year.

"I think," Kaesviharn said, "I held up OK."

A ripped hamstring (Rodney Heath), a balky knee (Tom Carter), and a high ankle sprain (Artrell Hawkins) formed a medical conspiracy to lift Kaesviharn from his $25,000-a-year substitute teaching job in Sioux Falls, S.D., to NFL nickel cornerback.

Kaesviharn got beat for the Browns' only touchdown in Cleveland two weeks ago. Last week, Keyshawn got Kaesviharn on a Pro Bowl pass-interference call on third-and-27 that his position coach says should have been a no-call after he responded to Keyshawn's grab. This week, the rough weather continues.

The forecast is for "Thunder and Lightning," as Jaguars receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith come to town as two of the NFL's five most prolific receivers of the last six seasons. It will be another test for the starting corners, 2000 draft picks Mark Roman and Robert Bean, and the two rookie free agents who joined the team in mid-October, Kaesviharn and Bo Jennings.

And yet, in the Bengals' locker room, there is no one rolling their eyes about the kid from Augustana College and the Div. II all-star game. In fact, there are some eyebrows being raised and some whispers among the lockers that Kaesviharn is good enough to stay even when everybody gets healthy.

"He's one of those guys I think who may surprise a lot of people in time," said cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle this week as the Bengals prepared for the Jags. "He's smart. He's very competitive. The game isn't too big for him. He's very poised and calm. He understands the importance of things. He's not a young rookie. He's 25."

Kaesviharn had 11 snaps last week against the Buccaneers. Eight were positive. You can hear fans gripe about why this no name is out there. But Coyle wonders why.

"Not if you look at the film and his grades and what he's done out here in practice," Coyle said.

He's 6-1, 190 pounds and can run. He's also been around. There have been 23 interceptions for the Arena Football League Iowa Barnstormers in two seasons. Three in the only season for the XFL San Francisco Demons. And two off Brett Favre at Lambeau Field that he took back for touchdowns.

Not supposed to get Favre mad? Kaesviharn thinks he got under his skin that summer Green Bay night in front of about 40,000 of the Pack's faithful at the team's annual intrasquad scrimmage during the latest training camp.

But all Kaesviharn got for his efforts when he had some trouble negotiating the "Lambeau Leap," into the stands after scoring was some gags from his teammates.

"You just proved the myth," they told him, "that white men can't jump."

His big night certainly didn't leap him into the league. He got cut on his 25th birthday, just after the preseason ended.

But fate was taking a leap,

too, as Kaesviharn went back home to substitute teach. Cornerbacks started dropping like names in Cincinnati and Coyle, in his first NFL season after two decades as a college coach, needed players in a hurry.

The Bengals' scouting department went to its board and Duke Tobin, director of pro/college personnel, recommended Kaesviharn because of his production on the pro level. Tobin also liked his size and athleticism and the call was made and that's how Kaesviharn went from teaching high school gym to wearing No. 34.

It just so happens the Packers coaching staff is stocked with recent college guys headed by head coach Mike Sherman, Coyle's former colleague at Holy Cross. So he had plenty of brains to pick on Kaesviharn once he arrived. Packers defensive line coach Jethro Franklin was once Coyle's line coach when Coyle coordinated the Fresno State defense in the late '90s. Green Bay secondary coach Bob Slowik recruited for Rutgers while Coyle worked New Jersey for Holy Cross in the late '80s.

Their evaluations on Kaesviharn were pretty much the same as Tobin's: Smart, athletic kid who can help you.

Take his two interceptions off Favre. The first one came at about his own 5-yard line when he stepped in front of tight end Bubba Franks, one of three guys in a "bunch," route:

"They had run that a few times in practice and I sat a little on it hard," and Kaesviharn took it about 95 yards.

Later, he stepped in front of a curl route to wide receiver Bill Schroeder, caught it, and went about 50 yards more: "I was too tired to leap. I just kind of went to the wall and stood."

Coyle thinks Kaesviharn had position for his first NFL interception on Tampa Bay's first series last week. The pass interference call negated safety Chris Carter's interception after Johnson tangled with Kaesviharn on a come-back route that Johnson originally took vertically down the sideline.

"Kevin was above him and Johnson grabbed him and got in position," Coyle said. "When Kevin (made contact) to regain his balance after being grabbed and thrown to the ground, that's when they flagged him. A very questionable call.

"The contact was initiated by the offensive player," Coyle said. "It should have really been a no-call. . .Kevin would have had a chance to intercept that ball had Chris not intercepted it because he was coming up underneath."

Kaesviharn is finding out you don't have to be a millionaire to run with one.

"A coupe of times he came too far up the field," Coyle said. "I think a lot of it is not knowing the speed and almost being too aggressive. He was concerned about Keyshawn's speed, but he found out he could be a little more patient than he was."

A day after Cleveland's Tim Couch lofted a six-yard touchdown pass over Kaesviharn that led Kevin Johnson perfectly, Bengals wide receiver Danny Farmer spotted Kaesviharn in the locker room and shook his hand.

"He had it as well covered as it could be," Farmer said. "Nobody makes that play."

But Kaesviharn thinks he could have.

"It shouldn't have happened," he said. "If I had opened up to the quarterback, I would have seen the ball right away. I ended up going into (Kevin Johnson) and when I went to look for the ball, I put my head around to locate the ball and lost it."

But it's looking more and more like the Bengals have found something in the NFL's Lost-and-Found.

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