Surprised Dillon ready

8-8-01, 8:00 p.m.

Updated: 8-8-01, 10:45 p.m.

Updated: 8-9-01, 12:55 a.m.

Updated: 8-10-01, 3:00 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ When Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau changed gears and named Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon as the starter for Friday night's second pre-season game, the most surprised guy may have been Dillon himself.

LeBeau told Dillon of the change before Wednesday night's practice here at Georgetown College. LeBeau had said Tuesday Dillon wouldn't play until the club's Aug. 25 home opener and would miss Friday's game at the Pontiac Silverdome against the Lions.

"I prefer grass, but everybody prefers grass, so it's no big deal," Dillon said. "No problem. I'm ready to go. The coaches tell me

when to play and I play."

Asked if LeBeau gave him a reason for the change, Dillon said, "He doesn't need one. I've said I wanted to play, so here we go."

Dillon probably won't play more than one or two series, but LeBeau expects him to get several snaps against the Bills Aug. 25.

"I want Corey to go through the process of getting ready for the game, go through pre-game, go out with the group," LeBeau said.

The Bengals have had a tough time on the Silverdome's Astroturf in the preseason of late. It's where running back Ki-Jana Carter ripped up his knee in 1995 on the third play of his career and where long snapper Greg Truitt (knee) and safety Kelvin Moore (neck) suffered career-ending injuries in 1999.

"That doesn't come into our figuring," LeBeau said.

Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson is pleased his No. 1 runner will get some game action and has no problems with the turf.

"I only think positive thoughts,' Anderson said. "Corey's ready for this. Like he told me, 'Coach I was born to play this game.' And there's a game Friday."

LeBeau said he's keeping an eye on backup running back Brandon Bennett's broken and torn left pinky finger, which may mean more time in the intense backup back derby for veterans Curtis Keaton and Michael Basnight and rookie Rudi Johnson. **

NO JUSTIN:** The Bengals play their second pre-season game without first-round pick Justin Smith Friday. But next week's bye doesn't appear to be as magical as once thought.

Both sides don't seem ready to abandon their position to jump-start the talks that have been stalemated for about a week.

Smith agent Jim Steiner disputed the notion Thursday night that the deal for Leonard Davis, the Texas tackle taken two spots ahead of Smith at No. 2, strengthens the Bengals' stance because it doesn't have guaranteed money.

"It's just one deal," Steiner said. He also indicated a guarantee for part of the signing bonus is part of a deal "that has to be worthy of the fourth pick in the draft."

But the Bengals feel the Davis deal proves their point.

"That's another deal

that shows most teams in the first round didn't do a guarantee," said Bengals executive Katie Blackburn Thursday. "We've thought through our position and we think it's a good deal for the player, and we hope to move forward."

Three of the round's top 10 picks have a contract without a guarantee. But Steiner wants one in case the Bengals cut Smith before next March.

Steiner said the sides also have to close gaps on several other issues, such as incentives, escalators, signing bonus and cash flow.

"From our discussions, we have some work to do there," Steiner said. "I haven't seen the Davis deal so I really can't comment on it."

The Bengals feel their total package (believed to be $18 million for six years) and first-year compensation which includes the second half of the signing bonus that he'd receive next March falls in line financially with the deals for No. 3 pick Gerard Warren and No. 6 Richard Seymour. Smith and No. 5 LaDainian Tomlinson are the only healthy unsigned picks left from the draft.

Steiner seeks a guarantee for the second part of the bonus, which is part of the deals for the Nos. 3, 6, 7 and 9 picks. The Bengals argue that Nos. 2, 8 and 10 didn't guarantee money and that teams did enough different deals that allow others to go their own way.

THIS AND THAT: The agent for tackle Mike Doughty said Wednesday his client is "up in the air," about returning to Bengals' camp. Frank Murtha said Doughty's mother received the club's letter Wednesday, giving him until Monday to report or else go on the ineligible list for any team while his rights remain with the Bengals. If he comes back, he faces a heavy fine. . .

RT Willie Anderson has a tender ankle and is questionable after sitting out Wednesday night's practice. Jamain Stephens would get the start. ROLB Takeo Spikes (ankle) is also questionable with Armegis Spearman behind him on the depth chart. Spikes did work in limited fashion Wednesday. Trainer Paul Sparling said both are game-time decisions.

DE Kevin Henry (elbow) remains probable and defensive line coach Tim Krumrie says he'll get some snaps Friday. Henry reported no soreness after Tuesday's first workout since arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips three weeks ago.

ALL T.J. ALL TIME: Believe it or not, Oregon State rookie T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals' seventh-round pick, says he's more confident than college teammate, fellow wide receiver and Bengals second-rounder Chad Johnson. Houshmandzadeh sees if he can match Johnson's four-catch debut when he returns punts and kickoffs against the Lions in his first extended NFL action.

Houshmandzadeh was limited last Saturday against the Bears because of a sore hamstring.

"I did something against everybody I played against and I'll do something Friday," said Houshmandzadeh of his

return abilities. "I would like to do something and I think I can. I never go in thinking negative."

He averaged 9.4 yards for his 49 punt returns at Oregon State, where he returned 15 kicks for an 18-yard average. In junior college at Cerritos, he had two 100-yard touchdowns and an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown.

"In college, I had Chad's personality now and Chad was kind of laid back," Houshmandzadeh said. "I'm more confident than Chad. But he got drafted high, so he can come in and say what he's said and look what he's done. I've got to prove myself. I just need the opportunity."

Houshmandzadeh can secure what already looks to be a roster spot with solid return work. But that's assuming he can return. It would make incumbent punt returner Craig Yeast vulnerable and the status of incumbent kick returner Tremain Mack interesting.

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