Weighty issues

5-19-04, 5:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

There are some weighty issues on the mind of Bengals fullback Jeremi Johnson. About 275, in fact, and he would like to lose 20 of them in the two months leading up to training camp.

Maybe he left that marvelous day the Bengals upset the unbeaten Chiefs last year wondering what it would be like. That was the day he took a dump pass, squared his shoulders, tiptoed down the sidelines, and finished off a 13-yard touchdown by leaping into the end zone and kicking the pylon.

All at 274 pounds.

"It would have been a lot easier," said Johnson Wednesday of life at 255 pounds. "Plus, I want to play a long time. I'm not going to play long being

heavy at 275. I just think I'll be more effective in everything. Getting to my blocks faster, running pass routes, getting the ball up the middle."

Johnson did all those things so well as a rookie that he became the first rookie back to contribute so much since Corey Dillon six years before. He started Opening Day and blocked well enough that the Bengals finished 13th in the NFL in rushing, eight spots higher than they finished the year before with Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal.

No one was saying last year that Johnson was Neal, but the Bengals felt he more than fit the bill with his athleticism and youth. Now, Johnson wants to add some experience. That, and subtracting some weight, should make him even more athletic and youthful.

"I just want to learn the whole game, get better at my technique in everything," Johnson said. "I want to learn everything about fullback. I've got to get better at blocking. Where to put my helmet. Where to put my hands."

Johnson said he didn't go crazy over the offseason with his weight. He said he's at 275 simply because that is what he played at as a rookie. But now he's working out twice a day when the Bengals aren't practicing, like they did Wednesday and will Thursday.

But they won't Friday, when Johnson expects to be in the weight room again with strength and conditioning coaches Chip Morton and Ray Oliver. That means an hour walking on the treadmill, and then another 60 to 90 minutes on the stairs. Then, he'll do it again later in the day.

"I'm just trying to get in better shape," Johnson said. "I don't have anything better to do. I might as well come in here with these guys and get it done. I know that being lighter is going to make me better."

**

HAIL AND HARDY:** Linebacker Kevin Hardy likes the view from the strong side as he returns to his natural position after a year hiatus in the middle. But now that he's going to be coming off the field on third down, he wants to get into the mix as a pass rusher from an end spot.

"It's going to be the only way I can stay on the field, so I'd like to get into the mix," Hardy said. "I did a little bit of it in Dallas and a little bit in Jacksonville, and I think it's something I can still do."

The 6-4, 260-pound Hardy, who turns 31 just before training camp, comes into his ninth season with 32 career sacks. When the Jaguars went to the AFC title game in 1999, he had a career-high 10.5, and had a 5.5-sack season as recently as 2001 in Jacksonville. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier says Hardy is going to get a shot.

"He's another guy we can put in there in a rotation with Duane (Clemons) and Justin (Smith)," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes.

"There is a lot to rushing the passer," Hardy said. "A guy like Justin Smith has some skills because he's got a good mixture of power and some speed. I'm not going to overpower many tackles out there, but I should be able to use some speed to get around and make some plays. I'd like to get in on some third downs.'

Ironically, a defensive end that Hardy would love to see the Bengals sign would probably nix his plans to get on the field on third down. But there are no signs that Cincinnati is talking to Tony Brackens and Hardy said he hasn't lobbied the Bengals about his good friend.

Brackens, who has 55 career sacks in his eight seasons in Jacksonville, has visited Hardy in Cincinnati but it was purely a social call. After the Jags took Hardy with the No. 2 pick in the 1996 draft, they took Brackens in the second round and are still close.

"He'd be a great addition, but I don't know anything beyond that. I'm just playing," Hardy said.

Hardy said he's enjoying the switch back to strong-side backer and is now able to call on some of the skills and techniques he has used much of his career.

"I don't know what to call it except to say it's a little easier," Hardy said. "When you break the huddle, the only thing I've got on my mind, standing on the outside, I've got one key. The guy right in front of me, as opposed to coming out and looking around.

"I'm better suited out there," Hardy said. "I'm looking forward to a big year. I'm looking forward to being able to make some plays and get to the quarterback."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander says this is no time of year for a depth chart. So he did the unexpected Tuesday and Wednesday and lined up Victor Leyva at right guard instead of the recently acquired free-agent Bobbie Williams.

"(Leyva) knows the system. He's been here at that spot. But there is no depth chart," said Alexander, who could mix it up again at any point.

The 335-pound Williams, a big run blocker with the Eagles, had been penciled in as the replacement for Mike Goff. Leyva, a fourth-year player who appeared in all 10 of his NFL games in 2002, was plagued early last year when he pulled a chest muscle in the preseason.

"The coaches have a game plan. I'm sure they have a good game plan," Williams said. "I'm not the kind of guy who goes on words. I'm going to let what I do on the field speak for me." . . .

Left tackle Levi Jones offered one of the gutsiest performances in Bengals' history late last season when he started against the 49ers six days after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair torn knee cartilage. But after his first two days on the field, he admitted he is still grinding to get it back to 100 percent

"Work in progress," Jones said. "There is a way to go." . . .

Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson has taken a good look at rookie Stacy Andrews for the past two days and likes what he sees out of the fourth-rounder from Mississippi that comes into the league with just about 70 college snaps.

They've got him stationed at right tackle, so Anderson, who turns 29 in July, started laughing.

"This guy is a beast. If they can get him to understand the football part, I guess I'm going to be the latest 31-year-old cap casualty," he said.

All kidding aside, Anderson is hugely impressed with the 6-6, 342-pound Andrews' size and movement ("He ran a 4 damn 9 in the 40,") and says it's simply a matter of working on mechanics.

"A guy like Paul is known for turning guys into starters and he's turned guys with less ability than this guy into starters," Anderson said.

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