Stewart races into picture

8-13-03, 8:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Tony Stewart still can't forget the look on Harold Carmichael's face.

It was during the tight end's stint with the Eagles' practice squad last year when Carmichael, Philadelphia's all-time leading receiver, took Stewart aside.

"What your problem is, you're not flying around out here like you were earlier in the year."

That line still hangs with Stewart like a balloon of words in a cartoon.

"I knew then if I wanted to make it in this league, I'd have to fly around 100 percent all the time," Stewart said after a practice here Wednesday at Georgetown College. "I made a commitment during the offseason. I wanted to do it for my family and me. I haven't been back since late February. I've been in Cincinnati ever since."

The 6-8 Carmichael is standing even taller now. Stewart is flying around so much with tag-team partner Reggie Kelly that they are re-introducing the

tight end position back to the Bengals' offense. Double tights no longer describes a play list narrowed because of a lack of tight ends.

"Those two guys are beasts," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "When they get on you, they don't get off you."

Kelly, the 6-4, 255-pound free-agent pickup from Atlanta during the offseason, was supposed to be the catcher. Stewart, the 6-5, 255-pound late-season practice squad pickup last year, was supposed to be a guy who could do both, but they were looking for a blocker.

That's why they have camp. Kelly didn't catch a pass Sunday in the pre-season opener, but was all over the place blocking. Stewart led the team in catches with four, but he's done that before. Back in 2000, he became the first tight end to lead Penn State in receiving in 21 years with 38 catches, a Nittany Lion record for tight ends.

"Most definitely,' said tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes, when asked if he has been surprised by the 24-year-old's hands. "But then, I wasn't quite sure what I was getting because I was new coming in here. But he's got athleticism that should definitely help us in the passing game. He presents good vertical speed. Hopefully, he can continue to work on that as the season goes on and create problems for the offense."

For the past two seasons, the tight end has been one of the leasts on the depth chart.The Bengals' troubles there have been well documented since Tony McGee, Marco Battaglia and Sean Brewer were all on injured reserve by the middle of the 2001 season. That basically stripped the Bengals of any plays with two tight ends, a pretty standard alignment in the NFL, particularly on running downs.

And things didn't get much better in 2002 when Brewer went down for good in the third game and rookie Matt Schobel spent nearly half the season as basically the only tight end. It was good for Schobel because his 27 catches were the most by a Cincinnati tight end since McGee five years before. But it was so desperate early in the season that rookie left tackle Levi Jones was being run out as the second tight end.

But now things have turned around as much as Stewart's commitment. Schobel (hamstring) has been hurt virtually the entire camp, but the Bengals haven't missed a beat. He's now third on the depth chart behind Kelly and Stewart, and Brewer is making a run at him with the best camp of his three seasons. And the University of Kentucky's Derek Smith has been good enough that some insiders feel he would have made the team as a third tight end in any other season.

"We've got four good ones and Shobes isn't even practicing," said Kitna, who is now envisioning running back Corey Dillon taking off. "The good thing about lining up in two tight-end sets is you get the edge on people. You'll be able to get CD running around the corner taking on the safeties instead of climbing in there with linebackers. They can close it down in a hurry, those two."

Hayes was known primarily as a blocker in 12 seasons with the Chiefs and Steelers, and Stewart is taking advantage of this 25-day clinic.

"I love my coach. He's a guy who played many years in the league and I hope I can get on his level," Stewart said. "If we're not in the right position, he knows exactly what to say (from experience) to get us back on track."

Stewart admits he wasn't in the best shape when he arrived for work at Paul Brown Stadium last Nov. 25 from Philadelphia. And having to learn a new system wasn't easy, either.

"I'm lighter now, I took off some weight, and I'm faster," Stewart said. "I'm not in the same class I was last year. It's a case when (Carmichael) said that, I think I was feeling sorry for myself. But I just made up my mind. I'm playing to get on tape for this team or somewhere else around the league

What the Bengals see on their tape is a big, fast guy who had 25 yards Sunday and ran well after the catch. They thought he made some nice adjustments on lopsided medicine balls courtesy of the Meadowlands Car Wash. They thought he showed strength blocking at the point of attack.

Kitna is also having fun looking at tape.

"They can stretch the field pretty well," Kitna said. "Double tight ends is a great formation to pass out of, too, because everybody is in tight there , but then your receivers are spread out there on an island."

But for the moment, Stewart has the critics crowding around him.

"I think I can do both. Catch and block," he said. "But whatever they want me do to contribute. I know I'll have to play special teams, too."

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