Out of the corner

8-9-01, 9:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PONTIAC, Mich. _ Once vilified cornerbacks Tom Carter and Artrell Hawkins are rooming together here while the Bengals prepare for Friday night's game against the Lions and that's really the way it should be.

It's the biggest test in their summer of redemption. New Detroit head coach Marty Mornhinweg figures to unleash the Great Lakes version of the San Francisco 49ers offense that became the first in six decades to lead the NFL in rushing and gross passing yards while he was offensive coordinator.

"If they stay true to what they did in San Francisco," said Bengals cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle, "this will be our first chance at evaluating the deep ball and the deep routes."

For anybody who saw Hawkins' struggles during last season's first four games, his spot on top of Friday's depth chart is jarring.

And for anybody who saw Carter's misdeeds in Dallas and Tennessee late in the year, his spot on the roster never mind on the No. 1 nickel package is positively mind-boggling.

It got so bad for Carter that day in Nashville that at least one of his teammates pleaded with head coach Dick LeBeau right there on the sidelines to take Carter out of the game.

"You're right. I guess last year both of us were left for dead," Hawkins said this week at training camp. "There's a quote in the Bible that says the race doesn't go to the swift or the strong, but to the one who endures. I think that's true in life. Especially your personal life. Do you get up? Or do you stay on the ground?"

Carter, the soft-spoken leader of the Bengals' Bible study, didn't have a job this year until the Bengals cut his $2.4 million salary and then re-signed him for nearly $2 million less. One of the knocks on him is that he doesn't knock enough on the physical side.

The knock on Hawkins is that he's a second-round draft with first-round talent and free-agent production when it comes to playing the ball. He hasn't intercepted a ball in his last 31 regular-season games.

But as Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel, has watched them respond to the club's more centralized secondary coaching during the three weeks of training camp, he makes this call:

"So far, Artrell knows where the ball is and Tom

Carter is hitting people and looking like he's enjoying it. They don't want people to remember them like they were."

Lippincott calls it professionalism. Coyle calls

it diligence. Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner calls it competitive spirit. Carter and Hawkins call it Christ.

"I call Tom my older brother in Christ," Hawkins said. "He's known him longer and more consistently. Tom has been a big help for me. My faith has given me focus and I think that's why I'm playing better."

Hawkins, 25, as he heads into his fourth season, has ditched his cell phone and pager and is carrying the Bible more frequently. For Carter, nothing has changed but the year.

"My goal is to get better every season I play," said Carter, who turns 29 next month in his ninth season. "I've been trying to make more tackles in that aspect. If I feel I can handle the situation physically, I'm going to handle it."

Carter also has a rap for not being able to play the ball despite blanketing receivers. But he did make fourth-quarter interceptions to save two of the Bengals' four victories last season and there is still a pocket of thinking he remains the team's best cover guy.

"Any corner who has been in the league four or five years is going to have tough times. That's the nature of the position," Carter said. "You have to keep playing, act like a professional, keep doing the little things right and hopefully somebody around you, like the coaches, sees it."

Even after he got cut, Carter wanted to stick with his family's plan of settling in Cincinnati for a few years because they enjoy the spiritual community. The Bengals appealed to him because of LeBeau and "at this stage of my career I wanted to be some place where I was comfortable."

Carter agrees with the theory that playing cornerback in the NFL and trying to walk with Christ has the same ups and downs.

"It keeps the foundation," Carter said. "Our business is a glass house. Everything you do everywhere is constantly watched."

The Bengals' secondary is always being watched these days since LeBeau decided to split the coaching duties between corners and safeties. Ray Horton, the secondary coach the previous four seasons, is working with the safeties while Coyle, a Duffner disciple, joined the club to work with the corners after spending the past decade as a college defensive coordinator.

"A Mini-Duff," is the way Carter describes the high-octane, detail-oriented Coyle. Hawkins thinks the format has contributed to his improved play.

"It wouldn't have mattered if was Ray coaching the corners and Kevin was coaching the safeties," Hawkins said. "It's just that you've got time to do a lot more position work. There's more reps, a more concentrated effort. You can spend more time doing the detailed things over and over."

So while Mornhinweg makes a noisy debut, Coyle is making a much quieter debut Friday in his group's first exposure to a down-field passing game.

"It's early," Coyle said of his two reclamation projects. "So far, so good."

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