Friday August 08, 2003
By Brian Allee-Walsh
When Saints running back Curtis Keaton has a football in his hands, good things usually happen. It's when he doesn't that concerns Coach Jim Haslett.
Keaton, acquired from the Cincinnati Bengals just before the 2002 season opener for a fourth-round pick, is trying to win the No. 2 job behind star running back Deuce McAllister.
But nearly two weeks into training camp, no clear backup has emerged from the pack of contenders that includes Keaton, James Fenderson, Walt Williams and Tavian Banks, who has been sidelined since July 28th with an injured hamstring.
"Right now, it's still up in the air," Haslett said Thursday. "Somebody needs to step up here in the next couple of weeks. That position is important to us. Since we've been here, we've had a running back hurt all three years. We need to keep Deuce healthy, but in this league you need to have a pretty good, reliable backup."
Haslett and Saints director of player personnel Rick Mueller said Keaton could be that player once he masters the playbook and learns the many nuances that come with his position.
"It's the little things," Haslett said. "He's got to improve his pass blocking because I don't want to get a quarterback hurt. He needs to know his alignments and assignments and all that stuff. He's got to do all those things right."
"To be honest with you, our offense is not easy and Curtis is taking some time to learn it," Mueller said. "He's made strides and he works at it, it's just taking him some time. He's certainly a good runner. You can see it out here in practice. He does some special things with the ball in his hands. He's just got to round out his game."
Keaton, 26, said he feels more comfortable in the Saints' offensive system after going through an entire offseason program, but said he's still learning.
"The most difficult part is retaining everything they are throwing at you," said Keaton, 5 feet 10, 228 pounds. "It's a lot. Our playbook is bigger than the Yellow Pages.
"There are certain plays that I think I have down pat, and there's a quirk in it that kind of throws a loop into everything. I go over things, over and over and over again. Even when I think I have it, I try to write it out again and I quiz myself. I make note cards. I study film. I have found that working alone has increased my learning curve and my ability to retain."
Keaton said he is his own worst critic and was disappointed with his performance last season. He played sparingly in six games, rushing 12 times for 19 yards. Those 12 carries represent one more than he had the entire 2000 and 2001 seasons in Cincinnati.
"I really think that I have just scratched the surface," Keaton said. "I trust my God-given talent, so it behooves me to show these coaches and the people who make the decisions here that when they call Curtis' number, he'll make a play.
"I look at it this way: If Curtis is happy then the organization is going to be elated. I just have to go out there and let my talent take over. If you're thinking out there, it's too late. The reaction time is imperative. That's why I'm trying to make sure I store it right in my head the first time so when I need to recall it, I'll have it."
Haslett said he plans to keep three running backs on his 53-man roster, plus special teams standout Fred McAfee, who also plays running back. At this stage, after McAllister, the leading candidates to make the team appear to be Keaton and Fenderson, who started once last season and played well on special teams.
"James is probably the most consistent of the backs but he's not the biggest guy in the world at 5-9, 200," Haslett said. "But he's a heck of a special teams player, he blocks extremely well, he runs all the right routes and he's a good receiver. His durability is the question. Can he hold up through 16 games?"
Mueller said he is hopeful that a running back already in camp will emerge as McAllister's backup. If not, Mueller said the team is prepared to go outside the organization to bolster the position.
"We'll always be looking but I got to be honest with you, I think we're going to be hard-pressed to find a player better than what we got," Mueller said. "It's almost like trying to find a quarterback, good running backs are hard to find.
"Normally guys who get cut in training camp are not better than what you have. But we've planned for this position. We've planned for Curtis to be our backup. He's certainly talented enough to be a solid backup in this league. He just has to make a conscious effort to get better."
Two things I like to hear in this:
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