7-31-01, 7:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ With the Justin Smith contract negotiations turning into a 15-round heavyweight bout, Bengals defensive end and part-time boxer Jevon Langford is getting more snaps than if the club's first-rounder was signed, sealed and delivered.
And with the Bengals and agent Jim Steiner not talking at all Tuesday, John Copeland is going to be holding down that starting job at right end longer than he thought.
Copeland, the dean of the Bengals' defense who wasn't even sure he could play 10 days ago, has been rejuvenated this training camp by what he calls, "the best defensive line I've ever played on in football." The Bengals had the least sacks in the AFC last year, but Copeland thinks the addition of tackle Tony Williams and a healthy Vaughn Booker and Tom Barndt will change things dramatically in a two-line rotation.
He also says this slimmed-down version of the pass-rushing Langford is playing the best football of his life.
"Wish we had him. Glad when we get him," Copeland said of Smith. "But if we had to go today, I think we can hold our own."
Langford did more than that in Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage, where he had a sack and recovered a fumble in his Rocky-like effort to beat out Reinard Wilson, Glen Steele and Kevin Henry for a roster spot.
Langford, 27, started his boxing career this past offseason in Denver and both foes never made it out of the first round. He might have had a shot at an HBO fight if the Bengals let him keep boxing, but he plans to keep at it after football is over. He says that just isn't now.
Instead, Langford has brought the boxing mind set to training camp and a six-year career that is at the crossroads.
"This is the biggest fight of all," said Langford after Tuesday's practice. "This is the sixth-month fight. And I think I'm playing well. Believe me, if I didn't think I could make this team, I
would have gone into boxing. This is just like a fight. You get back up."
The 6-3, 265-pound Langford dropped 25 pounds while boxing 16 rounds a day. The 90-degree Kentucky steamgrass hasn't seemed all that bad. He also worked with a track coach in an effort to translate the ring's quickness into the trenches.
"The first thing I envision," said Langford when he lines up across the tackle, "is knowing that guy didn't work as hard as I did in the offseason. I'm outweighed by that dude by about 40, 50 pounds, and I'm just going to go after him until he gets tired. I'm proud to say I made it through 16 rounds a day and to come back and do this."
The defensive coaches don't want to say much about the battle on the line because there are too many veteran egos on which to tread. But at the moment, Langford, Wilson, Henry and Steele seem to be grinding for one spot.
"Jevon is doing OK. I think he looks more explosive this year," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner.
Langford knows it's a numbers game. That's why he's calling on that feeling he'd get in the third round, knowing there were 13 more to go.
"It's tight in that room," said Langford of the defensive line. "I can look around the room and I can't imagine anyone else getting cut. I'm glad about the scrimmage, but I don't want to be seen as just a practice player."
Langford has only 3.5 career sacks and not one since 1997 in sporadic play that has matched his weight fluctuations. But he has always gone all out all the time with a huge heart. When the Bengals asked him not to take that third fight because football was his first obligation, he didn't fight them.
Yet he thinks he can be a factor with the help of the psychology of the sweet science.
"Boxing gives you a goal," Langford said. "It's not just the pleasure beating the man, Now I have a goal to get more sacks and put more pressure on the passer than I ever have. In boxing, when it gets to crunch time, that third round, you don't have a teammate or a coach to call a timeout for you. I think that makes you tougher mentally."
Copeland's battles are always physical and they have gotten the best of him since he blew out his left Achilles tendon before the 1998 season. Tendinitis in the ankle hobbled him at times last year and the foot was sore before he came to camp a little more than a week ago.
"I didn't know if I could go," Copeland said. "I wasn't sure how it would do. It was sore as hell. But once I've been stretching it and icing it, it's been OK. It gets sore, but I'm just playing through it."
Copeland, who turns 31 in September, says this defensive line has a better group of players than the Alabama line of his college days that produced two first-round picks. He has been particularly impressed by the play of Booker at left end and Williams at tackle.
"The work ethic is something else," Copeland said. "All these guys can play. I mean, I think we're all fighting for a job if you ask me."
As for the impact of the holdout on Smith's progress, head coach Dick LeBeau is cautious. He admits Smith could line up on third-and-12 and told to get the quarterback. And if he got in early in the week, he could take a few snaps in game that weekend.
But, LeBeau said, Smith wouldn't be able to play the defense's entire scheme on first, second, or third down.