Self-starter for '02?

1-3-02, 9:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

As he has done since he returned Duke Tobin's call after teaching the gym class back in October, Kevin Kaesviharn has blown up the computer and has made himself the leading contender for a starting job come May minicamp.

Here's a guy who arrived at Paul Brown Stadium via the back roads and alleys of pro football at age 25 from Division II Augustanta College in South Dakota, four years after his last college snap. Far and away from the draftnicks and war rooms and sun-splashed all-star games and star-soaked scouting combines.

Kaesviharn showed up three months ago. Tall. Fast. A cornerback who had picked off 26 passes for the Iowa Barnstormers in the Arena League and the San Francisco Demons of the XFL.

Now after two interceptions of NFL MVP candidate Kordell Stewart Sunday, Kaesviharn has three in his first nine NFL games for a team that has desperately needed them in the recent and not so recent past.

The next pick should be interesting for Kaesviharn, the starter at left cornerback the past two games after the Bengals suffered their third season-ending injury to a cornerback.

It took the other starter, Artrell Hawkins, a second-round pick, 48 games to get his fourth NFL interception. Injured starter Rodney Heath has three interceptions in 34 games. Another injured starter and second-round pick Mark Roman has one in 21 games. Fifth-rounder Robert Bean has one in 25 games.

"I didn't teach it to him," said cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle. "The guy already came in with a feel for the ball and the game."

Exhibit A:

Late in the third quarter last Sunday, Stewart prepared to put the Bengals away from the Cincinnati 39 with a touchdown pass to game-breaker Plaxico Burress on a post pattern down the middle that would give the AFC Central champion Steelers a 30-10 lead.

But the keyboard jammed. The cursor froze. The computer glitched.

Kaesviharn, the Division II track horizontal jumper, leaped all over Burress and his built-to-specifications 6-6, 230-pound Michigan State frame that had been drafted in the first round. Kaesviharn intercepted his second pass of the day and Pittsburgh never

scored again in the Bengals' 16-point comeback.

The play was pure Kaesviharn and shows why he is turning out to be as good a substitute NFL cornerback as he was a substitute teacher and why he could end up being a big part of the future here.

With Stewart's pass in the air, Kaesviharn saw it was headed to Burress' outside shoulder as he ran with him. Instead of worrying about Burress, Kaesviharn said he suddenly felt like he was the receiver because of his position on Burress' outside shoulder. So he did what receivers do. He caught the ball.

"It's no fun just to let it be an incomplete pass," Kaesviharn said. "And I don't get to blitz very much so I have to make it fun for myself somehow."

That's how Kaesviharn plays the ball. Like it's fun. Other Bengals cornerbacks down through the years have played the ball like it's a grenade. That's the knock on Hawkins, but this year's pass rush has helped him have his best season and he shares the team interception lead with Kaesviharn.

Hawkins said he shares more than that with him. Like one of Sunday's interceptions. They didn't see each other leaping for Stewart's Hail Mary at the end of regulation. Both got their hands on it. Kaesviharn got credit.

"It should be like sacks," Hawkins said. "I've got 3.5 and he's got 2.5. I want a recount."

"Tell him," Kaesviharn said, "This is Ohio. Not Florida."

"Actually," Kaesviharn said. "I grabbed it and once I realized it was Hawk, I thought, 'I don't care.' But then I thought, 'I do care. I've got to make sure I hold on to it.' He didn't mind. We get along. I think he sees my work ethic and I see his. It's fun playing with a guy like that."

Fun is knowing the Bengals want him back. Fun is having to make three or four plans over the phone with his wife back in South Dakota. Three months ago, he was making about $28,000 a year subbing at Washington High School in Sioux Falls. Now he's made about $100,000 and is looking at another $250,000 next year if he's here Opening Day.

The Bengals, of course, want him back for minicamp and training camp. The big question is, with everyone healthy, will he make the team? Will he start? Will his wife have to find a permanent nursing job in Cincinnati?

The Bengals think the Kaesviharns have a chance to do all of these things. Heath (hamstring) and Roman (hand) will be back, but Kaesviharn is playing the ball well enough to put the heat on. Is he playing well enough to turn Roman into a free safety? That will be another question.

What Kaesviharn has shown is there is no question he's taller (6-1), bigger (190 pounds) and just as fast as the team's other cornerbacks.

"The first goal is to make it and then I really haven't thought about it after that," Kaesviharn said. "But you know what they say. You have to keep making new goals."

While preparing a ready list of cornerbacks at the beginning of the season, Tobin, the Bengals' director of pro/college personnel, went to teams that had a lot of depth at that spot in training camp. Kaesviharn leaped out at him on the Green Bay tape and Tobin was surprised the Packers cut him after he played the entire pre-season game against the Browns.

When Heath went out for the year against Cleveland on Oct. 14 and Tom Carter did the same Oct. 21 against Chicago, the ready list was ready.

"I don't know why he wasn't looked at coming out of college," said Tobin, an Arena League veteran himself. "He didn't play at a high level of competition in college and some kids mature physically after college.

"But I know if you had 14 interceptions in the Arena league," Tobin said, "you've got to have excellent ball skills. The game is so fast, it's all man-to-man, and the receiver gets a running start. Catching the ball is not something you find because if you can do it, you're usually playing offense."

Kaesviharn keeps making adjustments. On Sunday, Burress had his way with him early. He slipped midway through the first quarter and Burress turned it into a 42-yard touchdown down the sideline. So Kaesviharn changed cleats.

Then a few minutes later, Burress beat him on a post for a 28-yard touchdown that wasn't all his fault because they were in zone, and there was no help in the middle.

"I should have played it better," Kaesviharn said. "I was shading the outside, but I should have been on top of the route more. That way, I could have been closing down hill instead of chasing it."

What the Bengals like is he doesn't back down against guys like Burress an they don't run past him: "I wanted to press him because I felt like he wasn't getting off the line as well and make them commit to whatever they were doing."

And he doesn't get flustered. After the ship hit the iceberg early, Coyle talked to him from upstairs and the kid listened calmly, not raising his voice or gnashing his teeth, and he went back to it.

"We were down, but you just have to keep playing," Kaesviharn said.

While Kaesviharn plays, Sioux Falls watches. But hardly on CBS or Fox. They only get the Bengals on Direct TV. His wife catches the game at sports bars, and so do his friends. They have been calling with congratulations, but Kaesviharn would rather think about the next game than return the calls.

And then there is next year. Coyle needs him back during the offseason because as well as he's played, he's still behind learning the defense.

"We'd like to live here, sure," Kaesviharn said. "But that's stuff that has to get worked out."

Right now, he's trying to find Pick No. 4.

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