One less number in safeties

1-22-04, 8:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

MOBILE, Ala. _ Marvin Lewis calls Saturday's Senior Bowl a game for quarterbacks and receivers.

Safety Stuart Schweigert calls it a game that most likely is going to decide if he's a first-rounder or second-rounder when the NFL Draft arrives April 24-25.

So it's a nice fit for a player looking to make an impact and a Bengals' coaching staff looking for an impact defensive player in this off-season collage of college players and veteran free-agents.

"I'm trying to show them I'm coachable, that I hustle, and I'm not the kind of player who is going to be pulling teeth and always changing technique," Schweigert said before Wednesday's practice.

If it sounds like Schweigert is bright and alert, it's only because he is. He got out of Purdue in three and a half years with a degree in technology, so he can add and subtract. Which meant had no trouble looking around here Wednesday to find out he now has a greater opportunity to impress than when he first arrived Sunday?

Iowa safety Bob Sanders was ruled out of the game after he re-aggravated a foot injury from earlier in the season in Tuesday's session when it got stepped on. The 5-8 Sanders had been the one defensive player who jumped off the practice tape when the offensive players watched Monday's workout.

There was a definite Ohio flavor here on the Gulf Coast Wednesday with the North's injury problems in the secondary and the visit of Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger carrying the day's events. USC cornerback Will Poole went home with a strained Achilles', forcing the Senior Bowl committee to haul in Ohio State free safety Will Allen from Columbus, and he was due in Wednesday night for Thursday morning's practice.

"We're getting reinforcements from the North," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who said the injuries shouldn't hurt the draft status of Poole or Sanders. But it does put the onus on Allen.

"He'll have to play both (cornerback and safety). Last guy in gets stuck. . .It's a good thing because we get to see more guys this way."

The Bengals won't take much of a look at Roethlisberger with Lewis' decision between Jon Kitna and last year's overall No. 1 pick Carson Palmer waiting for him back in Cincinnati. But the 6-5, 235-pounder provided another reminder of that big call waiting back in Cincinnati.

"There are pros and cons for each guy and I'm sure Coach Lewis is looking at everything before he makes a decision," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "Hopefully, (Palmer) learned some things last year. There's a point he can learn only so much without getting in there and doing it, and whenever that point comes, he'll go through another learning situation when it's a real situation.

"There's no substitute for the experience of playing. At some point he'll need to do that to take the next step," said Bratkowski, acknowledging wins don't often accompany the start of a quarterback's career. "It's been done. It's not done a lot, but it's been done."

Roethlisberger, a junior who hopes he can play right away, was displayed by agent Leigh Steinberg on the sidelines to show NFL teams that the man has some serious size. ESPN helped by trailing along with him and Miami head coach Terry Hoeppner, cruising through the Gulf on some recruiting stops.

"That's what a lot of people have already said," Roethlisberger said. "They didn't realize I'm this big. I just want to meet with as many teams as I can, get the process going. We've done a little bit of that already. I'm supposed to meet with the Cardinals at some point, and I'm trying to at least shake hands with everybody for now and then spend more time with them at the combine."

The Cards hold the No. 3 pick and he said, "That's the idea. Meet as many teams as you can and get picked as high as you can." He figures to go probably go in the Top 5 without lifting a finger this week, while a guy like Schweigert is probably going to go a long way in carving his draft position on Saturday.

Here's why:

On Wednesday, the 6-1, 211-pound Schweigert said he has to show scouts here that he can cover receivers, and he's loving the opportunity of displaying his one-on-one skills in practice.

"I didn't get much of a chance to do that in college," he said.

But Michigan quarterback Jon Navarre, who saw him plenty, thinks coverage is the best part of his game.

"See," Lewis said. (Schweigert) knows that covering in the Big Ten isn't the same as covering the guys here."

The scouts like Schweigert's range, size, and his instincts. They need to see more of his speed, but they think he's got some football sense that can turn him into a productive NFL safety. Where that puts him on the draft's first day is anyone's guess.

This is why Wednesday is big for a guy like Schweigert, proud that he played all specials teams but field goal and point-after for the Boilermakers.

"You love those big safeties that can run," said special teams coach Darrin Simmons. "He gets the importance of it. (Sanders, Schweigert, and Oklahoma safety Brandon Everage) all come from programs where specials teams are considered important. I've told all these guys here that if you're not a starter, or a first- or second-rounder, the one place they're going to have to make a niche for themselves is in the kicking game."

Sanders made a huge niche Monday and Tuesday before he got hurt in proving that you can be 5-8 and still have first-round potential. Like, Schweigert, he was trying to show the scouts he was first-round material and not just first-day fodder.

A guy like Navarre was already a believer. As he watched tape Tuesday of Sanders coming out of nowhere trying to strip the ball when the play looked to be dead after a pass, he told his fellow quarterbacks, "Watch out for this guy. He's always everywhere."

"He's like a bowling ball out there," Navarre said. "He's a real competitor, a guy who gets down in the box and you have to put a hat on him (in the running game). He's not bad covering, either. I don't think his size hurts him. It doesn't stop him from coming up and hitting people."

At least one NFL observer said height has never been a negative in Sanders' productive career, and he pointed to the safeties of some recent NFL teams: The Titans' 5-8 Blaine Bishop and the Panthers' 5-10 Mike Minter.

Schweigert has the nice 6-1 size that Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier covets, and Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle has a relationship with some of his coaches at Purdue. Schweigert has a lot going for him, but he'll have a lot more if he can make some big plays against some big players.

The same goes for two small-school cornerbacks who are also going to get more time than they expected. Rica Colclough of Tusculum and cornerback Joey Thomas of Montana State are going to have to help out Allen.

Idaho State's Lewis has a soft Big Sky heart for Thomas. But he knows Thomas is going to have to deal with an entirely different level.

"The receivers just aren't as big or as fast at Montana State," Lewis said.

There is some feeling that the only linebacker here this week that could be worthy and available for the Bengals at No. 17 is Oklahoma's speedy Teddy Lehman. But Lewis said the linebackers are the one position group that has been a pleasant surprise because it shows more depth than the past two or three years.

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