School opens for top two rookies

7-26-02, 11:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Bengals safeties coach Darren Perry, who had been in this very position 10 years ago, knew exactly what had flashed in and out of the mind of a NFL rookie free safety.

Friday. Lamont Thompson's very first day on the field in the NFL. It turned out to be everybody's first day in pads. The offense runs "The Boot," at him in the flat with the quarterback rolling out and throwing to the tight end. Thompson arrives in time to break up the pass, but not to make the interception.

"He got there and he got there rather quickly to make the hit," said Perry of his prized second-rounder. "But you could see he was thinking, 'Should I back off him?' and he kind of fell back into the deep cross. He got there, but with a little more experience and a few more snaps, he's going to make the pick on that play."

Thompson may have been lucky to even find the ball after arriving here at 1 a.m. Friday from his hometown of Richmond, Calif. But the fact he was here after missing all of May's on-field activities and running with the first team on the first day of camp had Perry excited.

"My guy had a tough day at times, but it's all going to get easier because he's here from day one," said Perry, who went from the eighth round to the Steelers' 1992 Opening Day lineup at free safety. "If anything, he learned that no matter how much you think you know it, you really don't know it until you take it from the chalkboard to the field."

Levi Jones, the first-rounder, didn't have an easy day at left tackle, either. He pulled in from Arizona about midnight

and even though he had been practicing getting up at 5 a.m. his time for the past two weeks to work out, it didn't prepare him for everything.

"It wasn't so much getting used to the pads. The humidity got the best of me today," Jones said. "My legs got a little rubbery. I felt a little down and out."

In a marquee matchup in a pass-rush drill pitting the club's last two No. 1 picks, Jones couldn't keep his feet under him against defensive end Justin Smith.

"It was a tough-adjustment day," Jones said. "Once I adjust, I'll be all right."

The 6-1 220-pound Thompson looked like a linebacker as he worked opposite strong safety Cory Hall. And the dreadlocks flowing out of the back of his helmet made him look a little bigger. But he was impressed by the speed on each side of the ball.

"It's a different ballgame," Thompson said. "Everyone runs fast. All the receivers. The linebackers. (Michael) Westbrook and Chad Johnson are receivers that can really run."

And Perry says it will only get faster once the players get used to the pads.

"We have to be careful when we evaluate a guy like Lamont," Perry said. "He might look a little out of whack and a little uncoordinated because he's thinking and running at the same time and the athletic ability and the instincts haven't taken over yet. We just have to be patient because we know he's going to be fine."

Thompson never practiced in 7-on-7 or team drills back in May because of a dispute in which the Bengals wouldn't guarantee his $1.6 million bonus if he got injured.

"The hand signals and making all the different calls when receivers were going in motion," said Thompson of Friday's hardest tasks. "I'm trying to take it a day at a time. Trying to get a little better each day. It felt a little funny out there, but it felt good to be able to get out here with my teammates."

But the talent was evident even on the awkward first day. JoJuan Armour, the incumbent strong safety displaced by the Thompson signing, observed, "Lamont is an excellent athlete. He's a big man and he's got great hands," and cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle said, "You're going to see a real fine athlete once he gets confident in his calls."

Thompson, whose number 24 is the same as his Pac 10 all-time interceptions record, did feel comfortable about one thing after his first day as a pro.

"This is the same game I've been playing since I was seven years old," he said. "It's not that different."

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