Pardon the interception

6-12-02, 11:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Since Lamont Thompson has taken the field, the Bengals have been quite taken with their rookie free safety.

Even some of his teammates have been giving each other eye-raising glances after one of his one-handed grabs or diving catches in the individual drills that mark the month of June at Paul Brown Stadium.

Thompson, the last arriving rookie, has become one of the guys the past month. As if to underscore his familiarity with things, veterans and rookies alike spent a post-practice bull session this week grouped around Thompson's locker, which is in a place worthy of a future starter at the corner of the training room door.

"He's a big man, yet he's got a burst about him," said cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle after one of this week's sessions. "He can accelerate and you can see it when the ball is thrown away from him. You can see him close and cover a lot ground and then go up and get it."

The 6-1, 220-pound Thompson, the club's second-round draft pick from Washington State, didn't participate in the May voluntary camps because of a dispute over injury protection. But he has spent this month in the classroom and on the field in making up for missing the study hall part of four minicamp practices and three days of voluntary workouts.

"I've been out of football for some time and I think it's time to get back and get myself ready to play," Thompson said. "All of the things that the coaches

have been doing with us has been a tremendous help for me. Backpedaling. Breaking on the ball. Tip drills."

Thompson wrapped up his sessions with the Bengals' coaches Wednesday and planned to head back home to California to prepare for the NFL rookies' symposium later this month. But not before Coyle raved about the work he has done the past two weeks.

"He's made a ton of progress," Coyle said. "He's advanced his mental aptitude with the scheme a long way. He's got really good anticipation and judgment of the ball in the drills we've been doing. He really has exceptional hands."

Which is why the Bengals drafted him and then made him the starting free safety. They were going off his Pac 10-record 24 career interceptions, a skill desperately needed by a defense that has just 22 interceptions over the past two seasons.

"Some guys are like centerfielders and just can anticipate with the crack of the bat," Coyle said. "It's hard to teach that skill. You can teach angles, depth, practice breaking on the ball, and reinforcing it, and you can get better at it. Some guys do, but certain guys just come by it naturally."

Thompson says he thinks he comes by interceptions naturally, but once he starts talking about how he reads his foes, there is clearly more to it. The drills have been putting a premium on picking up a quarterback's body language.

"If he gives me a high shoulder, that causes me to go on a 45-degree (angle) rather than a 90, depending on the shoulder movement," Thompson said. "I know at this level, quarterbacks look off their receivers and DBs and I have to get a read on the quarterback's shoulders. He can't turn his neck like that, look off, then throw.

"If (the receivers) are running right away off the line, sometimes that will cause me to get a lot of depth," Thompson said, "so I can play with everything in front of me rather than react behind me."

The Bengals hope those instincts and smarts translate into plays, but the safeties in this system also have to be assertive as the secondary's signal callers. Coyle and safeties coach Darren Perry are relieved while watching Thompson come out of his shell after the first few tentative weeks. With agent Mike Sullivan and Bengals management waging a philosophical battle, Thompson has been trying to deal only in Xs and Os.

"I really didn't know how people were going to react," he said. "But the guys have been great. It's a close group. There aren't any headstrong guys even though there are some great players. They're down to earth and just want to win.

" I was in a position where I was in the middle and I've got to focus on playing football and doing what I can to be a factor on the next level," Thompson said. "I think I'm more than capable of doing that. "

At the very least, the Bengals like the first returns of the last guy to show.

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