1-22-02, 5:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
MOBILE, Ala. _ The Bengals have a Takeo, as in Spikes, their defensive captain.
He could get a new man in Keyuo, as in Craver, the cornerback from Nebraska who pronounces it like Takeo. If you take away the first two letters of Takeo like Craver took away 11 career interceptions for Nebraska.
Tight end Tracey Wistrom, the Cornhuskers' tight end who is also Craver's teammate here this week on the North team in the Senior Bowl, is standing on the field here after Tuesday's practice and describes a football cross between Ozzie Smith and the Harlem Globetrotters.
"Just a great cover guy,'' Wistrom says. 'He's so athletic. You'll see him deflect a ball and do a back flip at the same time. That's kind of how he is. You'll see him do it occasionally just playing around out there.''
The 5-10, 190-pound Craver is not playing around this week. He's locked in a draft board battle with Texas' Quentin Jammer, who decided not to play this week, and Miami of Florida's Phillip Buchanon, a junior who isn't eligible for all-star games, and Craver says he's trying to separate himself from the guys who are here.
Even his name is serious.
I didn't, my parents did," says Craver with a smile when asked how he came up with such a name. "It's Hawaiian. It means talented one. My Dad heard it on some karate show and he just said it stuck with him ever since.''
Craver is taking a break from the Senior Bowl practices one night this week at dinner with his North teammates. Someone mentions the Bengals are interested in taking a cornerback with the 10th pick in April's NFL Draft and Craver becomes just as interested.
''What defense do they play, sir?" Craver asks.
Told they play a 4-3 zone-blitz defense that needs a shut-down cornerback who plays the ball, Craver says, "I'm the best cover cornerback in the country.''
Asked if his strength is playing the ball, Craver says, 'Quite definitely, sir.''
The next day at practice, he proves it. Kevin Coyle, the Bengals cornerbacks coach, is sitting high in the stands talking into a tape recorder. He
has been praising Craver's patience and now as Michigan State wide receiver Herb Haygood turns on a curl pattern, Craver suddenly materializes at his side to pick off the pass.
"There's some patience,'' Coyle says. "He undercut him and when he saw the indicator to throw, he made his move. He didn't overplay it. He played it just the way he saw it. He stayed right on his hip and when the ball came out, he made his move."
Just how and when the Bengals will make their move April 20 is a long way off from this practice field. How early is it? Coyle still has to do the most important part of the evaluation, which is watching game film. The Bengals still have to rate, work out and interview Jammer, Buchanon and Craver individually, and maybe someone else will crop up. Maybe in three months the Bengals feel they need an offensive tackle or a defensive end at No. 10.
Maybes. Ifs. Coulds.
But one thing is for sure. The Bengals have never drafted a cornerback in the first round that played cornerback for them. The only college cornerback they ever took in the first round, Rickey Dixon in 1988, ended up playing five forgettable seasons at safety.
Is it fate that Dixon played at Craver's arch-rival of Oklahoma?
"You'd feel a lot better in two months after you evaluate the film, work out the kid in person and talk to the right people," Coyle says.
He does like some of the drills the Seahawks'coaching staff is using to show off the players. He especially watches a punt cover drill in which the ends release off the line and then sprint down field before breaking down into a stance to make a tackle. Coyle gets to see balance and speed. He also saw Craver catch some punts and he liked that.
"Here, you get a good evaluation of him playing the game," Coyle says. " So far, you can see he's got the ability to change directions. He's got foot quickness. He can start and stop. He's an impressive guy. He's not big. But he's solid. He's 193 pounds and has enough size. He appears to be sturdily built. Nebraska kids have a good background in strength training. He's a good tackler who has made some big plays in big games."
Craver knows there's a question mark hanging over his last big game, even though he had one of those athletic interceptions in the loss to Miami of Florida in the national championship game earlier this month. The Hurricanes' receivers put up some big numbers in the Rose Bowl.
"I didn't play as well as I should have in that game," Craver says. "I don't know how the NFL does it, but I'm not going to judge my career off one game."
Coyle won't either. There will be the tapes and his trip to Lincoln to visit Craver on campus. He especially enjoys those meetings in which he can get prospects away from the high-charged atmosphere of all-star games and the scouting combine and get them relaxed in their own environments.
The earnest, polite Craver will tell him he was born and raised in a Dallas ghetto and that his parents moved him and his three brothers out of there when he was in junior high to the tiny town of East Texas. He will tell Coyle his father is a car detail man and his mother is a nurse in a rest home and "they've been together since they were 16. They're 45 now. Family always been the most important thing to me."
Craver will also probably tell Coyle he went to Nebraska because he admired Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne so much. It was no surprise to him that Osborne retired soon after he got there, but the recruiting pitch stuck.
"Yeah, I could have gone anywhere I guess," Craver says. "But all the other schools told me I was going to start. Nebraska played it straight with me and I liked that. Coach Osborne told me after a year or two I might have a chance to contribute and I sort of took that as a challenge."
Coyle clambers down from the stands after Tuesday's practice and introduces himself to Craver before he gets on the bus. He gives him the 'Coach's Pat,'' on the back of the leg and the short squeeze on the elbow and tells him he's a talented player with a lot patience and that he's impressed.
"He told me I've got a lot of things they're looking for in a DB," Craver says. 'He told me they play a lot of bump-and-run and I told him, 'Hey, that's all we do at Nebraska.'''
A few yards away, Wistrom has no problem recalling the best thing he saw Craver do in a game.
"I forget who it was against,'' Wistrom says. "He made an interception and he was getting knocked out of bounds as he started running. He must have rode the line for about 10 yards as half his body was hanging out of bounds. But somehow he kept his feet in and scored."
Coyle tells Craver he'll see him later. Maybe later this week. Definitely in a month at the combine. For sure in March or April on campus.
By then, he would have seen Wistrom's play about a half dozen times on tape. For the Bengals and a kid named Keyuo, maybe there is more in a name than hope.