Back on field, Carter in rush to prove self Preseason performance, injury raise doubts about NFL's top pick of 1995

August 31, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Cincinnati Bengals running back Ki-Jana Carter ended the 1996 preseason the same way he spent all of last season: on the sidelines.

Last year, Carter, the No. 1 pick in the 1995 draft, blew out a knee on his third carry of the preseason and missed the regular season.

Carter is back running a year later, but not the way the Bengals had hoped he would. Before suffering a minor ankle injury Aug. 23, Carter Carter had gained 60 yards in 22 preseason carries.

The Bengals are being sympathetic about Carter's slow start. Offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet, noting the team has an inexperienced offensive line, said: "He's had to make some real exciting runs just to get back to the line of scrimmage a couple of times."

And Carter is, in effect, a rookie runner adjusting to the NFL.

"Everybody is bigger, and there are a lot of cagey veterans who know [offensive] tendencies," Carter said. "There might be a hole for a minute, then it closes. For the most part, if I needed to get outside [in college], I could outrun a lot of people.

"Here, everybody's so fast, so you've got to be more of a north-south runner. Take the cracks when you have them, but mostly try to get the ball upfield as much as possible."

However, his preseason performance has raised more questions about a back who is looking to regain his form of 1994, when he gained 1,539 yards and helped Penn State to a perfect season.

When the Bengals traded up to the No. 1 pick to select Carter and gave him a seven-year, $19.2 million contract with a $7.1 million signing bonus, he was expected to solve their rushing problems.

Instead, Carter's injury left them without a running game to complement quarterback Jeff Blake, who has developed into a long-ball threat. The Bengals have gone 49 consecutive regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher.

Despite expressing support for Carter, the Bengals made another statement when they claimed Garrison Hearst and his $2 million contract off the waiver wire last week.

When Hearst declined to negotiate a new deal, there was some speculation that the Bengals would cut him, but they didn't. He may not stay the season, but Hearst does give the Bengals insurance if Carter doesn't become the back they expect him to be.

Carter said he hasn't had a chance to get in a groove because of limited preseason duty.

"I only play a quarter [in preseason games]," he said. "Usually, I play four. I think as the game rolls on, I run the ball better. When it gets to the second and third quarter, our line is wearing them down. . . . As the season goes on, I hope I get better and better."

It's also likely that just a year after the major surgery, Carter's knee isn't fully healed.

The Bengals and Carter put a lot of emphasis on his rehabilitation program. They hired former Atlanta Falcons trainer Billy Brooks to work solely with Carter in the off-season and even purchased more exercise equipment for his highly regimented program.

Despite his progress, Carter may not have his old confidence back.

"He's still feeling his way," said veteran tackle Joe Walter. "He never really ran the system last year. He was hurt all of training camp.

"But we've got a lot of young guys on the line. It's a collective thing. We've got to move the ball better. It's not on one man. It's going to take awhile to get the timing down and this worked out."

When the Bengals drafted Carter, they gushed about his potential.

"He's a threat to score from anywhere," coach Dave Shula said.

Team president Mike Brown said: "He's our bell cow."

When the Bengals open the regular season against the St. Louis Rams tomorrow, it'll be time for Carter to start proving he can live up to those expectations.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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