Mario Alford looks to hone do-everything ability for Bengals

CINCINNATI -- One would have thought Mario Alford's primarily focus last week when he arrived for the Cincinnati Bengals' rookie camp would involve his feet.

After all, the former West Virginia receiver is a speedster who registered back-to-back sub-4.3-second readings in the 40-yard dash at his pro day.

Then there were the shoes. Oh, those shoes. For the two open practices the Bengals had this past weekend, Alford sported a pair of shiny gold cleats. Like the distracting spikes sprinter Michael Johnson wore during the 1996 Summer Olympics, Alford's gold shoes seemed to make him look even faster.

But as much buzz as Alford's feet might have generated, when he stepped onto the practice fields for the first time as an NFL player four days ago, his focus -- and that of Bengals coaches -- was actually on his hands. Everyone knew he could run, coaches wanted to see him prove he could catch punts, passes and kicks.

It was all about honing his potential do-everything ability.

"He dropped a ball and I told him I didn't want to see that," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said about one of Alford's offensive plays following the first day of rookie camp. "I made that very clear, because I think he has a lot of talent."

Alford had not regularly fielded punts in about two years. Although he had no issues with kickoffs, cleanly catching punts was an area where he struggled.

On three career punt returns, including two early last season, Alford collected minus-13 yards. On one he lost a fumble. As a result, he primarily returned kicks, and returned two for touchdowns last season.

"It's learning how to follow the ball and track the ball down," Alford said of returning punts. "I can show them I can catch punts and on kickoff return also. After that, it's show them I can hit the hole and burst."

The burst wowed the Bengals at Alford's pro day, and they were excited he was still on the draft board when they made their seventh-round selection this month. On Sunday, Alford became the first member of this year's Bengals draft class to sign. He is to make about $2.34 million over the next four seasons.

"You can see the speed, you can see the suddenness and the quickness and that's what we're looking for," Jackson said. "But now we just have to fine-tune it and have him play the way we play."

On offense, that means getting him to chop off routes adequately and use his shiftiness in the open field. During the rookie camp, the Bengals gave him several of those opportunities. He carried the ball on a couple end-arounds and flashed his quickness on short, intermediate and long passing routes.

Whether praised or criticized, Alford clearly had the coaches' attention. He certainly will continue hearing from special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.

"Darrin will have him returning punts like he’s been doing it his whole life. I don’t think we will have any problems with that," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We have had a lot of guys around here that could never return a punt, and then Darrin has turned them into good catchers of the football."