Shuffling for a job

5-5-03, 6 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson couldn't wait to call his brother back in Louisville after he got back to his hotel Saturday night. He had just met his favorite running back of all time at the Bengals' alumni dinner, and Ickey Woods signed one of his football cards he carries with him and gave it to him.

"Nice guy, very nice," Johnson said. "He's big. I knew he looked big, but that was on television. But he's a big guy. He asked where I was from and where I played college. I called my older brother because he knew how much I liked him."

It's hard to believe, but Johnson was just eight years old when Woods took America by storm with the "Ickey Shuffle," in his rookie year of 1,066 yards in 1988. Johnson became one of the kids charmed enough that he did the end zone dance playing Little League football in Louisville wearing Woods' No. 30.

Now Johnson is beginning life as a Bengal not unlike Woods in 1988. Like Woods, Johnson is starting out wearing No. 31. And, like Woods, Johnson is not the starter yet. But after the fourth-round pick out of Western Kentucky got through with Sunday's final practice of minicamp Sunday, there was a satisfied buzz among the club that they had found a guy very much in the mix for the wide-open fullback job.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski pronounced he had "great potential." Running backs coach Jim Anderson doesn't want to compare him to the recently departed Nicolas Luchey, but everybody else does. Extremely athletic big men who can make plays running the ball and are a good catch out of the backfield. They also have to fight their weight as well as linebackers, but Anderson thinks Johnson can respond.

"I was pleasantly surprised how he went about his daily task," Anderson said. "How he worked through some things and paid attention to his assignments with his work ethic."

The draftnicks had hinted that maybe that wouldn't be so with Johnson, which is what a guy who has to control his weight always has to hear even if he's working it. Johnson helped Western Kentucky to the Division I-AA national championship by averaging 6.2 yards per his 100 or so carries at nearly 285 pounds. In his last two seasons, Johnson had more than 500 yards receiving while showing deft hands. He showed up this weekend at 274 pounds and Anderson wants him to lose about 20 more. But he thinks he will.

"He's a big man and I think he realizes what he has to do to make it in the league," Anderson said. "He's got that hip snap. He's got athleticism. He's got the foundation. He senses what he has to do.'

Johnson sounds like he's not kidding himself on what he has to do. He knows he has to shed some pounds and he knows he has to block and he knows he has to pick up the finer points of blocking.

"I can't overpower people like I did in college," Johnson said. "I know I've got to learn the techniques of blocking and that I've got to get with Coach Anderson. From what I've seen (this weekend), it comes down to the mental part. Everybody here is a great athlete. But what separates players is studying and looking at the playbook. Mental reps."

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., said he has to prove he has the mentality of a pure NFL fullback. But Johnson says he is perfectly content to block and not be the lead dog. At Indiana, he was never higher than the Hoosiers' third-leading rusher. When a new coach arrived at Bloomington and shelved the fullback, Johnson went to WKU and still only carried about an average of 10 times per game.

"If you look back over my college career, my tailback has always been the guy," Johnson said. "I just want to play football. I don't have to run the ball. I'm not like a tailback. I just want to be able to get on the field. That's not going to be a problem, with me."

Actually, blocking is what drew the Bengals to Johnson and in the end is why they drafted him. That, and catching the ball. There can be an argument that the Bengals' selections in the second and third rounds, and first pick in the fourth round, were picks that Bengals President Mike Brown wouldn't have made in another era. Eric Steinbach was their first second-round guard since 1989, and wide receiver Kelley Washington and cornerback Dennis Weathersby are medical risks that the Bengals have historically stayed away from.

But with the second pick in the fourth round, Johnson is a more traditional Bengals' pick. This is Anderson's 20th draft with the team and he has always liked his backs big and athletic, even if they run the ball, and so have the Browns. Remember Pete Johnson and Larry Kinnebrew, drafted in 1977 and 1983, respectively?

"Mike Green is another guy with characteristics like that," said Anderson of the waiver-wire pickup from the Titans. "You get a back that can run, block and catch and you've really got something."

The Bengals need something at fullback. Luchey won their only home game with a big fourth-quarter running the ball against the Saints, and Lorenzo Neal lead blocked to the Pro Bowl before both opted for free agency. The Bengals have Green, as well as Terry Witherspoon, and transplanted linebacker and tight end Chris Edmonds is trying his hand at the position.

"Whatever they want me to do," said Johnson, who won't be doing many Ickey Shuffles in this offense. "I just want to play, running, blocking, or catching."

**

DAILY CARSON UPDATE:** Like many of his fellow rookies, quarterback Carson Palmer returns May 19 after Sunday's sixth and final minicamp workout. He'll have a lot to ponder after finishing up his dizzying first two-minute drill. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski grabbed him coming off the field and told him it happens to everyone.

"Going to the line as quickly as you can, and calling your own play is the hardest thing to do when you're learning a new offense," Bratkowski said. "I told him that veterans who have played a lot of games in this league who run the two-minute for the first time in a new offense, it's shaky. It's going to be that way. It's to be expected."

But overall, the Bengals are pleased with how Palmer did in his first exposure to the offense and, he looked comfortable enough to be in the mix for the backup job immediately in the backup derby with Akili Smith.

As for Palmer, he joked once during the weekend,

"I don't know what I'm doing, yet," but his play belied his ability to go through his reads fairly competently. Although, on the third day, Bratkowski saw another common rookie reaction.

"The third day, when you've got so many things in there compared to the first day, it catches up to you," Bratkowski said. "But he was what we expected, and he picked up things well."

On Friday, Palmer admitted he was trying to catch up to the speed of the game, but as soon as Saturday he thought he was there and felt like he was in sync with his wideouts. He felt particularly in rhythm when he hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh on back-to-back curl routes.

But Houshmandzadeh injured his wrist Saturday and didn't practice Sunday. Two of his other receivers, Kelley Washington (ankle) and Danny Farmer (hamstring), didn't practice for most of the weekend, so he already had to fight through some adversity.

"It's what I expected," Palmer said. "I've got a ways to go, but I love the offense and the talent is great. I'll get used to it. I'm still waiting to see the play develop as I drop back, but that's going to come."

He offered a wan smile after the two-minute drill.

"It's tough because you have to run the play in the shortest amount of time and you have to react so fast," Palmer said. "But you figure that's going to get easier each time you do it."

The Bengals' on-field coaching sessions start next week to set up the June 9-11 mandatory minicamp.

**

LINE MOVES:** The Bengals released backup tackle Reggie Coleman Monday, indicating they are pleased with their rookie linemen. Also released a day after the completion of their second minicamp is rookie free-agent tackle Garrett DiCarlo out of Williams. Coleman, a sixth-round pick by the Redskins last year, was signed off the Washington practice squad in October but wasn't active for a game and missed one week when he was suspended for conduct detrimental to the club. Left guard Eric Steinbach could finish a game at tackle if the Bengals needed him, plus they must have liked the looks of such tackle types as seventh-round pick Scott Kooistra out of North Carolina State and Garry Johnson, a free agent out of Arkansas State, as they seek backups to Willie Anderson and Levi Jones.

**

SLANTS AND SCREENS:** NFL sources outside the Bengals have indicated the club is still seeking defensive ends in free agency, but apparently have held off doing anything until they meet Monday after this past weekend's minicamp.

Word from outside the team is they have approached Duane Clemons of the Chiefs and Peppi Zellner of the Cowboys. Late Monday afternoon an outside source said a visit to Cincinnati is in the works for Zellner and that it could be as soon as Wednesday.

The 6-5, 280-pound Clemons, who turns 29 later this month, had two sacks last season and has 35 for a career in which he has been viewed largely as a rush end since the Vikings took him in the first round in 1996. Zellner, 28, 6-5, 262 pounds, has been with the Cowboys since they took him in the fourth round in 1999. He's known mainly as a good run stopper with just six career sacks after none last year. "The Washington Post," reported Sunday that Zellner is expected to sign with the Redskins. After starters Justin Smith and Carl Powell, the Bengals also have for ends on the roster veterans Reinard Wilson and Eric Ogbogu, as well as sixth-round pick Elton Patterson. . .

Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh surfaced Sunday with a cast on his injured wrist and said he is sidelined for a few weeks, but he also says he'll be back for the June 9-11 mandatory minicamp. Houshmandzadeh got hurt in Saturday afternoon's practice when he collided with two defenders leaping for a pass and landed on his wrist as he tried to break his fall. . .

It was a tough camp for the wideouts. Veteran Danny Farmer (hamstring) and rookie Kelley Washington (ankle) never made it back after getting nicked in the first practice.

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