8-29-01, 9:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' punting picture dramatically changed Wednesday, 48 hours after incumbent Daniel Pope warded off challenger Will Brice.
Cincinnati beat the 49ers to claim Denver rookie Nick Harris off the waiver wire and pencilled in the first punter taken in the last draft to take most of the punts in Thursday's pre-season finale. Since the Bengals had a worse record than San Francisco last year, they were awarded Harris.
In order to make room on the roster, the Bengals put wide receiver Chad Plummer (hip) on injured reserve in what could lead to an injury settlement Thursday. That would pave the way for Plummer to return to the Bengals in the 11th week of the regular season if another team doesn't pick him up.
Harris, a fourth-round pick out of California and the most prolific punter in NCAA Division I history, was on a 5:30 p.m. plane out of Denver after a disappointing effort in the preseason sabotaged what was supposed to be a lock to unseat long-time veteran Tom Rouen.
But Jim Lippincott and Duke Tobin, the Bengals' directors of pro/college personnel, heavily recommended Harris during the draft season. And again when they saw his name on the waiver wire, even though Harris averaged just 37.3 yards and 26.7 yards net on his seven pre-season punts that included a bad kick that got returned 74 yards for a touchdown.
They aren't saying it's Harris' job to lose when he faces off against Pope. But Lippincott admitted, "it's extreme competition.
"He's got a booming leg. You can't help but be impressed when you see him punt," Lippincott said. "Our scouting service (National Combine) had him projected as a third-round pick and we as an organization had him in the fourth round."
There were also grumblings in Denver about Harris' holding on kicks, but Tobin saw no problems on film.
"He's a good athlete who had a tremendous college career," Tobin said. "One of the advantages of having a bad record the year before is that you get a lot of chances to claim people on waivers. This costs us nothing to take a look at a highly-regarded punter."
The 6-2, 220-pound Harris punted all four years at Cal and set NCAA Div. I records with 322 career punts for 13,621 yards. In one game last year against Illinois he dropped 10 of 12 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
But Lippincott and Tobin stressed the club is not disappointed in Pope even though he's had a so-so preseason. They like his holding and athleticism, but they are looking for someone consistently longer than Pope's 41-yard-per-punt career average.
Harris told "The Rocky Mountain News," Wednesday that it would have been "cool," to go to San Francisco, since that's where his girl friend lives. But after a season Pope had a franchise-record 94 punts and leaving the high-scoring Broncos, Harris thinks "there will be more punts than in Denver. . .It's nice that people are fighting for you."