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BILLS BANKING ON HARD-DRIVING FORD TO GIVE FOES FIELD-POSITION WOES

As far as the Buffalo Bills are concerned, this Ford is no lemon.

"I'm excited to be here," Cole Ford said Sunday, after learning he had made the 53-man roster with which the Bills enter the regular season. "Maybe we can bring something special to this team."

In what qualifies as at least a mild surprise, the Bills' decision-makers were impressed enough with Ford's audition in Friday night's preseason finale against Washington to keep the fourth-year NFL veteran as a kickoff specialist along with incumbent place-kicker Steve Christie.

Ford, acquired off waivers from Oakland Wednesday, put two of six kickoffs into the end zone, forcing a touchback on one. The Redskins' average drive start after the kickoffs was the 29.2-yard line. Most observers thought Ford's performance wasn't strong enough for him to stick.

However, the Bills, desperate to upgrade the NFL's worst kickoff coverage, liked his hang time on the kicks that didn't reach the end zone and are encouraged by the 20 touchbacks he averaged in each of the last two seasons.

"I think the Bills have got to look at my numbers over the past two years with kickoffs, and understand that a lot of kickers are the tiredest at this point," Ford said. "After training camp, your legs are as tired as you're going to get. I'm only going to get stronger from here on out."

The Bills pretty much did the expected Sunday in waiving center Dan Williams, offensive tackle David Mudge, wide receiver Fred Coleman, defensive back Ray Hill, defensive tackle James Grier, and linebackers Dwayne Sabb and Joe Cummings to reach the 53-man limit.

Mudge, Coleman, Hill, and Cummings are leading candidates to be re-signed today to the Bills' five-man practice squad, as is tight end Jerry Ross, who was cut last weekend.

Ford, 25, is the first kickoff specialist the Bills have had since they carried Brad Daluiso in that capacity for most of the 1991 season, along with place-kicker Scott Norwood. Ford, a former USC standout, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1995, was released and signed with the Raiders later that year.

He insists he doesn't feel any greater pressure as a kickoff specialist than he did as a place-kicker.

"I think every player is evaluated on a game-to-game basis," Ford said. "If you don't go out there and perform every game to the best of your ability, I think you're selling yourself short and you're selling your team short. The ultimate goal is to win games and go to championships, and that's what I want to be part of."

How concerned is he about kicking in cold weather?

"I've kicked in some cold-weather games in college. . . . I understand how hard the ball gets when it gets cold," Ford said. "Those are the pressures and the challenges I'll be facing toward the end of the season. Right now, I'll take advantage of the weather when it's good and try to pad our stats a lot at the beginning of the season."

Fullback Clarence "Pooh Bear" Williams, a former Florida State standout who did not play football in 1997, is the only rookie free
agent on the club. He is one of six offensive backs on the team, along with Antowain Smith, Thurman Thomas, Sam Gash, Jonathan Linton, and Darick Holmes.

"I'm going to get on my knees now (and say), 'Dear God, thanks for everything,' " Williams said. "I was just keeping my fingers crossed and just hoping for the best and getting a lot of positive (feedback) from the other guys on the team."

He credits the strong blocking he did to help fellow rookie Linton lead the Bills in rushing during the preseason (218 yards on 48 carries) with securing his place on the roster.

"We're just so much in synch with each other," Williams said. "Our trust is just great. He trusts that my block will be there, and everything was just going great for us."

Another player who overcame long odds to make the team was rookie wide receiver Kamil Loud, the second of Buffalo's two seventh-round draft choices. Showing great speed, dependable hands, and promising return work, Loud convinced the Bills he could make the transition from Division I-AA Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo to the NFL.

"Coming in, I felt they really didn't have any hope for me. I felt basically they were just bringing me into camp just to bring me into camp and cut me," Loud said. "They gave me a 45 number as a receiver . . . that's a fullback number. Those free agents (who have since been released) had 80 numbers before I did, and I was a little disappointed over that.

"(Sunday) came, and I was just relieved that nobody tapped me on my shoulder and pulled me to the side and said, 'The coach wants to talk to you.' "
The Bills have 13 newcomers -- seven veterans and six rookies -- which represents a 25-percent change in the roster since last year. Coleman was the only one of their six draft picks not to make the team.

Buffalo's roster breaks down as follows: Three quarterbacks, six running backs, five wide receivers, three tight ends, 10 offensive linemen, seven defensive linemen, six linebackers, eight defensive backs, and five specialists.

There was no practice Sunday, but players did report to the stadium for meetings and videotape review. They will practice today, have Tuesday off, and then begin full-scale preparation on Wednesday for next Sunday's season-opener in San Diego.

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