Cloudy forecast on Giant horizon

Wearing some of the top-shelf stuff from his Boston College clothes closet, Tom Coughlin sat in Mike Cloud's living room when Cloud was a Rhode Island scholastic sensation in the early 1990s and sold him on the virtues of playing for the Eagles.

Of course, Coughlin never actually got to see Cloud pass over Chestnut Hill. Before the kid could drop his suitcase in his dorm room, his would-be mentor was mentoring a NFL expansion team in Jacksonville.

That's how life goes sometimes. But sometimes it also runs full circle. And now Cloud is back in Coughlin's sights again. And his gazed is fixed.

Cloud's nomadic career, now in its sixth season with his third team, may now actually be aligned with Ron Dayne's, just one of the surprises that's helped define the Giants at the season's midpoint. In fact, his value on the Giants may soon surpass that of Dayne, the greatest running back in NCAA Division I-A history.

Cloud's profile just doesn't receive the attention his teammate and former Heisman Trophy winner does. But that could change very quickly.

Cloud was once a pre-eminent halfback, the former career rushing leader at Boston College (3,597 yards). Cloud had 25 rushing touchdowns, two 200-yard games, 18 100-yard games and set a BC and Big East Conference single-season rushing record with 1,729 yards as a senior in 1998.

The world knows of Dayne's exploits at Wisconsin. They could fill a wall at the college football Hall of Fame.

But the NFL has given neither the foundation to duplicate their collegiate exploits.

"It's been frustrating after having such a great college career," Cloud said. "I wanted to continue that in the NFL, but things didn't turn out that way. I continue to work hard to try and get myself back on track in that direction."

In his continuing effort to improve the Giants, Coughlin is now in position to promote Cloud ahead of Dayne, perhaps in anticipation of 2005 when Dayne will take his hat and coat to another city as a free agent.

"I think Mike can contribute in many areas," Coughlin said. "I'm not sure about the early part of his career, but he is certainly playing well for us. He fills many roles, which shows his exceptional versatility. He is very smart and takes pride in what he does. We'll see how things work out here for him. Time will tell on that."

Cloud got his first substantive playing time Oct. 31 in Minnesota when Coughlin decided to deactivate Dayne because of roster complications. With Amani Toomer's hamstring aching and center Shaun O'Hara hospitalized with an infection, Coughlin needed a backup receiver and offensive lineman and used Dayne's spot to help free the space.

Cloud has been entrenched as the kick returner since the season's third week, but had only nine carries for 19 yards and one touchdown backing up Tiki Barber and Dayne. But Cloud figured his work would increase without Dayne around.

"When they told me Ron was down, I figured I get a few more touches," Cloud said.

Cloud took advantage of his additional playing time to gain 55 yards on nine carries, score two second-half touchdowns and break off a 26-yard gain, the second-longest of his career. Both of his scores, from the 1 and 2, capped off red zone possessions, the most glaring deficiency of the team's attack prior to its rousing 34-13 victory over the Vikings.

"The offensive line got some push for me up front," Cloud said. "Just a few inches in those situations really helps out a lot. They did that for me and I was able to keep my shoulders down."

With Dayne struggling mightily in that area, it was production that received a lot of attention.

"Mike was phenomenal," Barber said. "You need the backup. They say individual rushers don't win championships. It's team rushing that wins them and I'd say we're developing that."

Cloud has already had an interesting career. The first four years were spent with the Chiefs, where his carries decreased incrementally after his rookie season (35 for 128) in 1999 until an injury to Priest Holmes in 2002 got him a pair of December starts.

He expected free agency to boost his career, but at the end of his final season in Kansas City he tested positive for a steroid hidden in the ingredients of an athletic supplement he'd been taking. Knowing Cloud would be suspended for four games at the start of 2003 severely limited his market, even causing the Giants to pass on him. The Patriots finally signed him, but he played in only five games, gaining 74 yards on 17 carries with three touchdowns.

"I was never considered strictly a short-yardage back in either Kansas City or New England. In college, either," Cloud said. "But during my first two years in Kansas City that was the running mentality the team had, smash-mouth football. So I had to turn my game into that type of running. When Coach Vermeil arrived, I had a chance to turn my game over again into a different aspect."

When the Patriots released Cloud near the end of training camp, Coughlin quickly grabbed away, aware of his dependability and trustworthiness. Cloud had also never fumbled in his career. And now that the Giants may be looking for someone to spell Barber, especially with Dayne unproductive in likely his last season in New York, they may have found their man.

"You're always looking for opportunities in this league," Cloud said. "When you get them, the last thing you want to do is put doubt in the coaches' mind. I just wanted to play well [in Minnesota]. I believe I did that. I went out there and ran hard, no matter what the play was. Hopefully that will earn me some more touches in the future. I just try to do my thing every time I go out there."

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