Slater tries to break through with Cincinnati

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Michael Slater pulls a set of weights across the Vicksburg High football practice field in training for a shot the the NFL. Slater is trying to make the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster after starring at Hinds and Murray State. (The Vicksburg Post/FILE)

[07/30/02]By the time the credits rolled at the end of the NFL Draft in April, Michael Slater thought his football career might be over.

He had had a solid career at Murray State, but a knee injury late in his senior season kept him out of the pre-draft workouts and combines, and may have cost him a chance to be selected in the later rounds.

Just as Slater was about to roll the credits on football, the phone rang and he was ready for another act.

Slater, a former Vicksburg High and Hinds star, signed a free agent contract with the Cincinnati Bengals and will try to make the team as a wide receiver this summer.

The team’s training camp opened Thursday, and Slater said he hoped to continue what he felt was a strong performance in two minicamps this spring.

“There’s no pressure on me. I could be sitting at home,” Slater said. “I’ll just go in and do what I’ve been doing.”

What Slater did in college was lead Murray State in receiving two straight seasons. He caught 85 passes for 1,419 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons for the Division I-AA Racers, including 42 passes for 600 yards and five TDs in 2001.

His college career ended prematurely on Nov. 3, 2001, however. During a game against Tennessee State, Slater was clipped while running a route over the middle and tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee.

Slater caught seven passes for 144 yards in the 38-25 loss, but his season was over.

“It was a period of time where he was down and out. The first year we were recruiting him, his aspiration was to go into the (NFL), and I think he saw that slipping away,” said Murray State wide receivers coach John Lewis.

The rehab period for the injury lasted through the spring, and cost Slater a chance to show off for pro scouts. He participated in only one pre-draft workout, a group workout for Murray State players.

Coming from a small school may have made it more difficult to get noticed by the pros, and the lack of postseason exposure nearly killed his chances of getting drafted.

“If I hadn’t gotten hurt, I would have gone through the combines and the all-star games and all of that,” Slater said. “Because of that, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I told my agent to take the first call, and we’ll work with them.”

Fortunately, Murray State is within shouting distance of an NFL city. Scouts from the Bengals, located about an hour away in Cincinnati, had seen some of Slater’s games and took a chance.

“It was quite a few teams that stopped by to watch film of him,” Lewis said, adding that he felt his former player can make it in the league if he adds some muscle. “The biggest question mark I have with Michael is his upper body strength. He has the size and height and speed for that level, but they play a lot more physically.

“He is one of those receivers, his strength is going deep. You give him a chance to make a play, and he’ll make the play.”

Slater said his introduction to the NFL at the minicamps was a rude one, but he quickly adjusted and was ready to make his mark this summer.

“The first two camps were tough, but now I’ve had time to learn the playbook and I can just go in and play,” he said. “I know where I’m at, as far as what I did on the field and where I stand with the coaches.”

No matter how well he plays, whether or not Slater can earn a prominent role in the offense remains to be seen. Five of the team’s top six wide receivers from last season Peter Warrick, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Danny Farmer and Ron Dugans crowd the receiving corps. Free-agent pickup Michael Westbrook is also in the mix, but he injured his wrist on Sunday and it is unclear how long he will be out. In any respect, Slater appears to have to be able to beat out a crop of veterans.

Bengals’ wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian conceded that that wasn’t likely to happen, but said Slater had a good chance to make the team’s practice squad. NFL teams carry 53 players on the roster, but only 45 dress out for games.

“He’s pretty much in a tough battle as far as making the active roster, but he’s in a battle for one of our one or two practice squad spots,” Mooshagian said. “He’s working hard, doing a good job, and taking advantage of opportunities when he gets them.”

Still, Slater said he wasn’t heading into camp just thinking of earning a roster spot.

“I’m trying to start,” he said, seemingly surprised that anything less was an option. “I’m trying to take somebody’s starting position, not just a job.”