By GEOFF HOBSON
Rookie Curtis Keaton startled the Bengal stopwatches this weekend when his 216 pounds ripped off the fastest 10 yards they can ever remember by a running back. Now the question is if he's good enough to go the distance if Pro Bowler Corey Dillon continues to stretch his holdout deep into the season.
It could be a marathon instead of a sprint. Bengals vice president Paul Brown could be getting a counter-proposal from agent Marvin Demoff Monday. Dillon reportedly is unhappy the Bengals are using statistics putting him in the second tier of NFL running backs. Demoff has indicated he has statistics that put Dillon's exploits in a better light.
Dillon wasn't far from Bengals President Mike Brown's mind as Brown watched Keaton during today's two minicamp practices. After recording Keaton's first 10 yards of his 40-yard dash at 1.47 seconds, scout Frank Smouse told Brown it was the fastest ever by a Bengal back. At least since Warren McVea 32 years ago in the first baby steps of the franchise.
They also know his 20-yard shuttle time at the NFL scouting combine was lower than the average of the cornerbacks.
"He's quick, he's well put together and he's smart," Brown said of Keaton, the club's fourth round pick. "But you never know about running backs until they play in a game. And it's not just one game. The thing Corey can do is stay up pretty much all year long. That's not easy to do with the pounding a running back takes in this league. Can (Keaton) play game after game? The even more basic question. Can he do it at all? We don't know and won't for awhile."
Keaton, for one, thinks he can. Asked if he thinks he can start if Dillon doesn't show, Keaton said, "Keep your eyes peeled."
Jim Anderson, his position coach, likes his explosiveness. "His burst," Anderson calls it. Anderson also says he's raw. But the 5-10 Keaton has clearly caught eyes at this camp. He's got a boulder for a neck, trees for thighs and brains. He yanked 225 pounds into the air 23 times the other day, but he's going back to James Madison this week so he can walk across the stage for his mother and get his degree in kinesiology.
"She wanted me to walk, so I'm walking," Keaton said. "That was my major because I wanted to know as much as possible about my body. I thought that would help me in my football career. I'd like to be a high school athletic director."
Coach Bruce Coslet has noticed No. 29.
"Real thick. He'll be a load to bring down," Coslet said. "He's a cutback runner, probably a little too much for our offense, but he'll learn that. He's got the ability to make the secondary guys miss. ... He seems to be a real bright kid. He's not making any assignment errors."
Keaton, 23, grew up in Columbus, Ohio. His father is a supervisor for the Columbus Metropolitan Area Housing Authority and his mother is a bank consultant. Keaton credits them for keeping his feet on the ground while rushing for more than 1,700 yards this past season.
But it hasn't been easy for him. That's why Anderson likes him. He can tell the kid is hungry. First, he nearly died of meningitis. Then he got put on the backburner at West Virginia and transferred to Division I-AA James Madison. He almost relishes those small-school whispers.
"There's always something to prove," Keaton said. "It's the small school thing that's the question now. The guys are a little bigger, faster, stronger. If you can play, you can play."
The Bengals need him to play. Maybe sooner rather than later.