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PRO FOOTBALL DAILY REPORT : NFC : Morton Finds Niche With Lions

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Wide receiver Johnnie Morton, a disappointment as a rookie last season, is now a leading candidate to replace Mel Gray as the Lions’ kick return specialist.

Gray, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season, signed a $2 million contract with the Houston Oilers, leaving Detroit scrambling to find a worthy replacement.

Morton, the Lions’ first-round draft pick from USC, caught only three passes last year but showed promise as a kick returner. He returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in Miami.

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“He’s very smooth and probably one of the fastest guys on the football team,” Coach Wayne Fontes said. “Does he have the savvy to return kicks like Mel Gray? That remains to be seen.”

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The talk of the St. Louis Rams’ training camp is a running back, but not the one who’s missing. James Bostic is turning heads in the absence of Jerome Bettis, the team’s marquee player who remains AWOL.

Bostic, a second-year player from Auburn, didn’t play last season because of injuries.

“He looks like a different guy out there to me,” Coach Rich Brooks said. “I think he’s lost a little weight and he looks quicker and he’s running very well.”

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The Carolina Panthers of the NFC West, who play their the AFC Central Jacksonville Jaguars in Saturday’s Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, are undecided on who will start at quarterback, Frank Reich or Jack Trudeau.

“No matter who lines up first in the game, it has no significance to who’s the leader in the battle,” Coach Dom Capers said.

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Vaughn Hebron, an unheralded free agent from Virginia Tech who served as a valuable utility back the past two years for the Philadelphia Eagles, will sit out the 1995 season because of a torn ligament in his right knee.

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Hebron, who rushed for 297 yards in 84 carries and two touchdowns in 1993 and 325 yards in 82 carries and two touchdowns last season, collided with defensive lineman Rhett Hall in practice. He will have surgery today.

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The New Orleans Saints waived offensive lineman Jeff Davidson, who re-injured a shoulder that was operated on last season. Coach Jim Mora said Davidson might be used as an assistant coach.

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