BUFORD, Ga. — Circle No. 39 in stripes for your viewing of Thursday's preseason opener in the Georgia Dome (8 p.m.-ESPN, Cincinnati's Channel 5). Rookie free-agent rookie Onterio McCalebb is probably not even playing for the 53-man roster and is likely grinding for a spot on the practice squad as a transplanted running back at cornerback.
Even though McCalebb is one of the more productive running backs in Auburn history, the Bengals looked at his 5-10, 170-pound frame and his 4.3 40-yard combine speed and thought "cornerback/returner/special teams."
The fact that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hasn't handed him back to the offense shows after three months on the corner the club thinks he's done enough to keep looking.
"He's got potential. He can run and turn his hips and do a lot of the things good corners can do," Zimmer said. "Technique-wise is way down. Learning what DBs are doing is going to be a while.
"I'm fine with (keeping him on defense). Maybe. I haven't seen him hit anyone yet. He's got some NFL cornerback qualities."
Like that blinding speed and an athletic knack. But McCalebb didn't think he could play NFL corner until he checked into training camp late last month and veteran corners like Leon Hall and Terence Newman told him his backpedal looked 10 times better than when he left in June.
Hall said he could already see the impact Zimmer, secondary coach Mark Carrier, and assistant Adam Zimmer had on McCalebb by the time the Bengals broke in mid-June.
"Then whatever he did on his own after we left he did a good job," Hall said. "If you were to put the film side-by-side, it's night and day. He actually looks like a corner now as opposed to before. For good reason. He's not being just an athlete. Now he's kind of adapting to the position much better."
McCalebb chalks up a lot of his improvement to one of the greatest Bengals of all-time. Ken Riley, the club's all-time interceptor, went beyond giving him a call of encouragement at the rookie minicamp. After the Bengals broke spring camp, McCalebb worked out a couple of times a week with Riley in his hometown of Bartow, Fla., next door to McCalebb's hometown of Fort Meade.
Riley, a Florida A&M quarterback the Bengals took in the sixth round of the 1969 draft, immediately switched to corner and 15 seasons later retired with 65 picks, the third-most interceptions in NFL history at the time.
"Mr. Riley gave me some pointers covering receivers and worked on my technique and I felt better in my backpedal. When I came back and guys like Terence and Leon said I looked better, that's when I thought I have a chance to play it," McCalebb said.
Riley coached in the NFL and at his alma mater, and despite turning 66 Tuesday and being out of the ranks for years, it sounds like he still enjoys it.
"He called me the other day and asked me how I was doing and told me to keep working and that I had all the tools to be a good defensive back," McCalebb said. "And that he wished he was still coaching."
Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is also going to get a good look at McCalebb covering punts as a gunner and possibly as a kick returner. Against the Falcons on Monday, he said McCalebb got some good releases off the line running down on punts.
"He's an interesting guy with great speed and a good athlete," Simmons said. "He just doesn't know what he doesn't know."
Before Thursday's game, McCalebb is going to recall the words of head coach Marvin Lewis.
"Coach Lewis is always talking about getting better every day. You might have a bad day, you might have a good day, but the one thing you learn from that bad day can help you."
KNOCKS REACT: There wasn't a lot of buzz around Bengals headquarters after Tuesday's first episode of Hard Knocks, but people generally liked what they saw.
Safety Taylor Mays, who was caught in a very funny moment wondering about superpowers on an airplane ("If you're invisible you still have to go through security"), thought the many funny moments showed the camaraderie of the locker room.
"We've got a fun team and it works hard," Mays said. "We've got guys that have been around each other for a while. Obviously, Coach Lewis has been here forever, guys know how to work and we have a good time around each other."
Mays is uncomfortable, however, with how closely the show captured the injuries.
"It's tough to show injuries on TV," Mays said. "We assume to the general public it's not something that serious, but those are serious events to us. It's hard to see guys go down. It shows everything. It's almost like it should be private."
The cameras caught offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's very funny irreverent humor and it was no surprise to him how it came out.
"They're very good at what they do," Gruden said. "We're miked all the time so I really don't worry about it."
One of the more interesting moments centered around Gruden's conversation on the practice field with SAM linebacker James Harrison after Harrison manhandled the franchise, two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green. When Gruden asked Harrison to stay away from the merchandise, Harrison said he was still going to do his job without hurting him. Looking back on it, Gruden wouldn't have had Green run that route and he loves what Harrison brings to practice.
"A.J. actually ran into him," Gruden said. "Usually on that particular route we tell A.J. to go in there and get separation with your physicality. We didn't take into account that James Harrison would be lined up out there. Usually it's a corner or a safety, but not James Harrison. You're not going to get much. The only thing separating is your shoulder. (Harrison's) job is to hold his ground and A.J. should have tried to avoid him on that play. It was not a major, major issue. I was busting his chops."