6th Year Puts "Coach Witty" Back On Field

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The UC Bearcats are likely to be the only team in college football next year with a former coach in the starting lineup.

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When fifth-year senior cornerback Adrian Witty suffered a significant groin injury in the season opener last year, it appeared his career was over.

"I tore it up pretty bad," said Witty.  "I thought I was going to be able to come back, but things didn't go the way I wanted."

So to remain part of the team, Witty became an unofficial member of the coaching staff.

"He knows so much about football," said head coach Tommy Tuberville.  "He's going to make a great coach if he ever wants to do that.  Last year he ran some drills for us.  I think he learned a lot from standing and watching guys, teaching them, telling them what to do, and watching film with them.  He traveled with us, went to every game, and was like another set of eyes for us."

As it turned out, Witty's injury was not career-ending.  He's been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after suffering separate season-ending injuries in 2010 and 2014.

"He went from playing, to coaching for a year, and now he's back to playing," said Tuberville.  "He's seen all sides of it."

"God blessed me with another season," said Witty.

The speedy Floridian is Cincinnati's most experienced defensive back, having played cornerback, safety, and nickel in 41 career games.  Now he has the added knowledge from having spent a season on the coaching staff.  

"He learned a lot being on the sidelines and being in the meeting rooms as a coach," said co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale.  "To have him back is literally to have a coach on the field for me.  He can definitely control his side of the field, get the calls in, and make adjustments.  I love having him back and really appreciate his leadership.  He's going to do a great job for us."

"It helped me see things from a coach's view," said Witty.  "They consistently stressed the same things over and over.  Now that I'm back on the field, I understand what they see."

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Adrian has been successful on and off the field at Cincinnati.  He's already earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and is working toward a master's degree in health education.  

"He was elected one of our team captains last week and it was an obvious choice," said Tuberville.  

"He's a good mentor on and off the field," said Clinkscale.  "He does a great job in the classroom.  You couldn't ask for a better son, a better player, or a better person."  

"Being named a captain means a lot," said Witty.  "It means the guys believe in me and the coaches believe in me and I'm going to live up to that.  I have no problem being a leader.  I want guys to follow me and look up to me.  That's just who I am."

And the former coach is looking forward to playing again.

"I love these guys," said Witty.  "When you're on the field you want to play for each other, battle for each other, bleed for each other, and do whatever you have to do in order to win."

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Backcourt Brothers

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Troy Caupain verbally committed to play college basketball at Cincinnati in early June before his senior year of high school.

Three days later, Kevin Johnson did the same thing.

The two future Bearcats read about each other after committing to UC, but didn't cross paths until an unexpected meeting the following month.

"We met at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas," said Caupain.  "We played in a back gym - Team Loaded vs OBC (Ohio Basketball Club).  It went to overtime and unfortunately, Kevin's team beat us by like one point.  Later on the trip, we were walking the strip and I saw his team at Chipotle and we both had on Cincinnati shirts.  I was like, 'That's Kevin.'  And he was like, 'That's Troy.'  There was a bond from there." 

"Their friendship kind of started at that tournament in Vegas," said UC associate head coach Larry Davis.  "They made the effort to hook up with one another because they were both committed to Cincinnati." 

Caupain was born in Amityville, NY but attended high school near Richmond, VA.  Johnson grew up in Cincinnati and introduced his future teammate to his hometown when they were still in high school."

"I visited during spring break senior year and spent a week with him and we built a relationship," said Caupain.  "Ever since then, there's been a bond that can't be broken." 

"He's my brother," said Johnson.  "I feel like I've known him for more than these two years of college.  It seems like I've known him forever and that's a good feeling man."

"That wasn't a surprise because of their families," said head coach Mick Cronin.  "They're both educated and intelligent kids and they got to know each other before they even came to Cincinnati.  I think they both have the character where they are rooting for the other guy.  It's important on a team to have somebody there to support you when you struggle.  It's easy for the kids when things are going well, but Troy and Kevin have really helped each other through any tough times that they've had to this point in their careers."

After coming off of the bench as freshman, the two roommates are starting backcourt mates as sophomores.  Caupain leads the Bearcats in scoring (10.1) and assists (3.6), and Johnson is averaging 7.6 points since the start of conference play.

"It definitely helps to know that you have somebody by your side who believes in you," said Johnson.  "And we definitely have that chemistry - you kind of know what the other guy is going to do and that's a great feeling on the court."

"If you look at great guard tandems over the years, they had a second sense for knowing when the other guy was going to cut or what he was going to do," said Coach Davis.  "I think the more that they play together, the more they are going to develop that closeness."

And it's not only on offense.  A major reason why Cincinnati is fifth in the nation in scoring defense (54.5 points) is the pressure Caupain and Johnson put on opposing guards at the top of UC's matchup zone.

"You see it out front in our defense when Troy and Kevin are in there and they are playing as one," said Coach Cronin.  "The more they do that, the better we've gotten on defense.  And I really believe over the last few weeks that it's improved immensely."

While their chemistry continues to grow on the court, the backcourt brothers could not be much closer off of it.

"We sit in our living room all the time after practice and talk about everything," said Caupain.  "Deshaun Morman is usually with us too - he lives across the hall but he's like a roommate.  We talk about the things you need to talk about with people that are really important to you."

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Annen Sprinting Toward NFL Shot

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Who is the fastest tight end in this year's NFL draft?

Would you believe UC's Blake Annen?

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The 6'4", 247 pounder is not even among the 29 TE prospects listed in the USA Today's NFL Draft guide, but after running the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at UC's pro day, the former Bearcat is definitely attracting interest from NFL teams.

"There's a difference sometimes between playing speed and timed speed," an NFL scout told me.  "As a receiving tight end, the question will be, 'Can he play to that timed speed?'  He hasn't always done that on tape.  But now you know he's capable of it so that's intriguing."

"That obviously opened everybody's eyes," said UC head coach Tommy Tuberville.  "He's a little undersized but there are not a lot of tight ends out there like him.  He's physical, he can block, and you can also flex him out and play him as a receiver.  He did great in almost everything that he did as his pro day so his stock went up.  I'm excited for him."

Annen showed good speed on a 49-yard grab against Northwestern State last year and a 41-yard touchdown catch vs UConn.  Still, despite seeing nearly every game he played at UC, I'll admit to being a bit stunned when I saw his 40-yard dash time. 

But teammate and fellow NFL hopeful Brendon Kay says he was not surprised.

"Not at all because I was training with him for two months so I would have been surprised if he didn't," said Kay.

OK, so he's fast.  But 4.41?  That's faster than the 4.43 posted by top wide receiver prospect Sammy Watkins of Clemson at the NFL Scouting Combine.  I asked Annen how he did it.

"I've heard that question a lot," Blake said with a laugh.  "Part of it was training and being around nutritionists more and learning different ways to take care of your body."

Annen finished last season with 16 catches for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns (you can listen to his first TD catch here).  But his stats suffered when the Bearcats changed their offense following a loss at USF in the fifth game of the season.  For the rest of the year, UC emphasized a 4-wide receiver attack with limited use of the tight end.

"I think it was a great decision by the coaching staff and we won nine games which is nothing to complain about," said Annen.  "Obviously you want to contribute as much as you can, and that means finding ways to be a team player.  If that means catching 100 balls then I do.  If that means making 100 blocks, then I make 100 blocks.  When you win nine games you can't complain about it."

"He was a team player and he was a professional about it," said Kay.  "My hat's off to him.  I'm close to Blake - we've spent a lot of time training together - and we've been tight for the last five years.  It was definitely tough for him when we made that change and he didn't get many opportunities.  I still think he made the most of the opportunities that he had.  He can do it all - he can run, he can catch, and he can block.  He has a bright future."     

Annen recently had a private workout with the Philadelphia Eagles and last week, took part in the Bengals' annual workout for draft-eligible players from area colleges and high schools.  If he is not selected in the late rounds of the draft, Blake stands a good chance of winding up in an NFL training camp as an undrafted free agent.

"That's the goal and all I need is a shot," Annen told me.  "Obviously if that comes on draft day I would be ecstatic, but just being able to have an opportunity is more than a lot of people can say.  If you do get that opportunity, it all comes down to what you do with it."

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Tommy Tuberville Talks about The Masters

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As the nation's sports focus turns to Augusta, Georgia and The Masters for a week, many people don't realize that Tommy Tuberville played college golf in addition to football. 

With numerous Bearcat football lettermen in town April 11 for the annual Letterman's Golf Outing, Tuberville can talk about some of the legendary holes he's played before.  Among those, is the famous (or infamous) Amen Corner at Augusta National.


Gunner Comes Out Firing In Bearcats Spring Game

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The Bearcats annual spring game began with an 8-yard pass from Gunner Kiel to Mekale McKay.  Followed by a 7-yard strike to Max Morrison.  Then a 47-yard bomb to Chris Moore.  And then another 15-yard bullet to Moore.

Four plays, four passes, and four completions for 77 yards.  Not a bad way for Gunner Kiel to make his unofficial Bearcats debut in front of roughly 5,400 fans at Paul Brown Stadium.

"A lot of people kind of bash me and hadn't really seen me play," said Kiel.  "I haven't played in three years.  So to come out here and silence the critics is definitely one thing that I wanted to do."

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The bashing resulted from Kiel's struggle to choose a college as one of the nation's most heavily-recruited high school quarterbacks.  Gunner changed his mind after verbal commitments to Indiana and LSU and eventually enrolled at Notre Dame.  After a redshirt season with the Fighting Irish, he transferred to Cincinnati last spring.

"I know what I did some people say was dumb - and I agree with them 100% -- but that doesn't change the person that I am," said Kiel.  "I'm a good person and I'm going to do what's right.  I'm going to be a good teammate and I'm going to come out here and work my hardest."

His hard work appears to be paying off.

Kiel played only the first half of Saturday's scrimmage and directed the first team offense to three touchdowns and one field goal on six drives against the first team defense.  He finished 17-for-22 for 300 yards, with one touchdown run and one interception.    

"That's amazing and this probably wasn't even his best practice," said wide receiver Shaq Washington. 

"Gunner's got a quick release, he understands football, and he's usually going to throw it to the right guy," said head coach Tommy Tuberville.  "The problem that he's had this spring is that he's had 'happy feet' because we have had three starting offensive lineman out."

That was a factor last Sunday in a scrimmage that was dominated by the defense.  Kiel was 9-for-20 for 44 yards and Tuberville did not pull any punches afterward.

"Offensively, we looked as bad as I've ever seen." he told reporters.

"To hear your head coach make comments like that sets a fire under your butt," said Kiel.

So the sophomore quarterback was determined to end spring practice on a positive note.

"I treated it just like a game," said Kiel.  "Last night I watched tape, I went over our plays, I went over the protections and coverages, and I treated it just like a regular game.  I woke up early and had breakfast, and came out with a chip on my shoulder to get better and play hard."

"There were a lot of questions marks at quarterback after last week," said Tuberville.  "The big thing about college is being consistent.  We haven't been very consistent this spring.  The defense won most of the time during the spring, but today the defense didn't win.  The offense came out with a different frame of mind and played a lot better.

"I can sleep a little bit better now.  Last week we were just awful on offense, but today we threw it and caught it well." 

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Tuberville will not name a starting quarterback until fall camp, saying that Jarred Evans will compete for the job and possibly Munchie Legaux as he continues to rehab from the gruesome knee injury he suffered last year vs. Illinois.

But Kiel appears to be the man to beat.

"Obviously Gunner looked really, really good today," said Tuberville.   

"I got the 'ones' reps, but I am not the number one quarterback right now," said Kiel.  "That doesn't mean anything.  You still have to come out each day and work hard and compete and do your best.  At the end of the day, the coaches are going to make their decision and I understand that, but I'm going to do whatever I can to get the team's respect, and learn as much as I possibly can because I know that I have to learn more and accomplish more.  The sky is the limit and we'll see what happens."

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Cincinnati's associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator Robert Prunty has been named the Recruiter of the Year in his conference in each of the last four seasons by Scout.com.

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"Robert Prunty is one of the best recruiters in the country," said head coach Tommy Tuberville.  "If you look at our (signing day) list this year, he probably had something to do with half of them.  He has that gift. 

"He's outgoing - he's never met a stranger.  That's what it's all about.  You have to be able to turn it on in any environment and he does a great job in the home and with parents.  He understands the need for recruiting 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  There's not a day that goes by where he doesn't do something in recruiting." 

But the key to Prunty's recruiting pitch isn't his mouth, it's his ears.

"Listening," Robert answered when I asked what makes him a good recruiter.  "I was reading an article about a month ago about psychiatrists and how much money they were making, and one of them said, 'Basically I just sit there and listen to people's problems.'  I think when you're dealing with teenagers and young men; they just want somebody to listen to them.  They're so used to people telling them everything that I form a bond by simply listening to them.

"My mother had 10 kids and my father died when I was 10 years old.  I'll never forget when I was about 15, my mother said, 'You know what?  I'm just going to listen to what you have to say.'  So that came from my mother."

Prunty's ability to bond with young people was honed during his eight years as head coach at Hargrave Military Academy where many of his players originally signed with Division 1 schools before needing a year of prep school to improve their grades.

The job required Robert to be more than a football coach.

"Educator...father...preacher...mentor...psychiatrist," said Prunty.  "Remember, everybody that came there had a problem because they didn't qualify.  So they were all sad and depressed and we had to try to build them back up."

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At Hargrave, Prunty coached 27 players that made it to the NFL including Pro Bowlers Ahmad Brooks, Brandon Flowers, and Jay Ratliff.

"At one point, they did an article where the players who had played at Hargrave were making close to $400 million dollars," said Prunty. 

Tuberville got to know Robert while recruiting players at Hargrave and offered him an opportunity at the college level when he became the head coach at Texas Tech in 2010.

"There were a lot of big-shot coaches that had a chance to hire him, but he was from a prep school and they didn't give him a chance," said Tuberville.

"For Coach Tuberville to give me a job when I was at Hargrave - I'm just thankful to God," said Prunty.  "My brother and sister go to factories 12 hours a day and I get to coach football.  I grew up in an industrial area where people worked hard, so I'm driven by the fact that I get to coach football and I love it."

Prunty's loyalty to Tuberville is a key reason why he has turned down some lucrative opportunities.

"I just had an offer last week from an NFL team as a defensive assistant and I had about five offers before that, but Coach Tuberville gave me a shot when nobody else would and I like Cincinnati," Robert told me.  "I like the people here, my wife likes it here, my kids go to a great school, and that has a lot to do with it.  I'm just thankful."

"He's been offered all over the country but he's been loyal and he wants to stay," said Tuberville.

In addition to his recruiting ability, Prunty is the Bearcats co-defensive coordinator and coaches the defensive line.

"Coach Prunty is a helluva guy," said junior Silverberry Mouhon.  "He demands so much of us because he brings energy every day at practice.  You never see a day where he's down or moping."  

"He's tough on them," said Tuberville.  "He's hard-nosed, he's disciplined - he's one of those guys that understands how to get it out of guys that maybe did not know how to give 100% effort. 

"He was a good coach when we got him, but he's a much better coach now because works at it like he does in recruiting.  He wants to learn, he wants to get better, he doesn't stay the same, he studies, he goes to other colleges, he goes to high schools, he spends a lot of time with the Bengals, and he's as good of a coach as he is a recruiter.  I'm just excited about him being on our staff and being a good friend."

"Everybody has respect for him - from the defensive line to the offense," said Mouhon.  "He works hard for us and that makes you want to work that much harder for him because he gives us his all."

"Growing up with no father and my momma raising 10 kids, all I know is hard work," said Prunty.  "That's all I know.  There's no substitute."

That work ethic helps explain his four year streak of being named Recruiter of the Year in the Big 12 (twice), Big East, and AAC. 

What does that recognition mean to Prunty? 

"It means that I have to try to win it again this year," he said. 

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Catching up with Deyshawn Bond

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The University of Cincinnati offensive line has the luxury of an experienced center who is only a sophomore.  Deyshawn Bond out of Warren Central High School in Indianapolis could potentially be a four-year starter; a rarity on a Division I offensive line.

When senior Dan Sprague went down prior to the start of the season, Bond stepped in and played the majority of the season until tweaking an ankle late in the year.  The 6-foot-2, 287 pounder was originally a high school guard, but was a quick study at center once arriving at UC.

Catching up with Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran

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Back for a second year, University of Cincinnati Eddie Gran is revving up the Bearcat offense even more. When Munchie Legaux was injured last year and Brendon Kay stepped in, the offense eventually reverted to what Kay was familiar with, the hurry-up.

Based on that success, the hurry-up is trying to hurry even more for 2014 with the likes of Gunner Kiel, Jarred Evans, Michael Colosimo, Hayden Moore and possibly Leagaux again (he's thrown some in practice).

Coupled with outstanding receivers and running backs in better condition, the Bearcats could be full throttle by September's opener.

Gran himself works quick, I had to chase him down outside of the Sheakley Athletics Center by the Bearcat statue on this day.

Edwards Looks To Build On Excellent Start

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Did you know that the UC football team had a freshman All-American last year?

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Safety Zach Edwards, who started the last 11 games at safety, received honorable mention recognition among the nation's top freshman from CollegeFootballNews.com.

"He's got a knack for finding the ball," said cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale.  "He made some freshman mistakes, but he was able to come up with some big plays when we needed it.  For a true freshman to do that at safety and be in charge of the defense and make all of the alignments and the checks - I think that's pretty impressive."

"He played well - he didn't play great because it was his first year and he was trying to figure out what to do," said head coach Tommy Tuberville.  "Each week it's tough on an inexperienced kid because we change the game plan, we change techniques, and his head was swimming most of the year.  He got better as the season went on, but this year he'll be much better." 

Edwards was an all-conference wide receiver/defensive back at Middletown High School and came to Cincinnati as a "grayshirt," meaning that he sat out the 2012 season before enrolling at UC in January of 2013.

"When you play football so much and then you have to sit out, it's pretty depressing, but I kept faith in God and kept going knowing that everything would work out for the best," Zach told me.  "Eventually it did."

Enrolling for the second semester allowed Zach to take part in spring football last year, but an injury limited his participation.

"I pulled my hamstring in about the third practice and had to sit out a lot," said Edwards.

But that didn't stop him from making a favorable impression.

"He had one practice at safety and I told the coaches, 'Hey, this is our safety next year,'" said Clinkscale.  "The one thing that he had at practice that was a little bit different from our other guys is that burst to the ball.  His athleticism was the biggest difference that made him stand out."    

By the third game of the season, Edwards was in the starting lineup.  He finished the season third on the team in tackles, tied for second with two interceptions, and earned American Defensive Player of the Week honors in early November after having 11 tackles and recovering a fumble in a win over Memphis.

"Being a safety, you have to be physical and that was my whole mindset," Zach told me.  "Be physical and try to beat whoever you're going against.  I knew if I could do that, I could prove myself to these coaches and to the players."

After losing senior starters Deven Drane and Arryn Chenault, Edwards will be one of the Bearcats most experienced players in the secondary this year despite only being a sophomore.

"The big thing now is to keep it competitive for him," said Clinkscale.  "I tell these guys all that time that there are no starters anymore.  You have to win that job again.  We are going to recruit guys that might be better than you and we have guys here that are going to do a better job.  He understands that he has to give us more every day, and we expect more of him now than we did as a freshman."

"The guys around me are pushing me every day, and I'm pushing them to better than we were last year," said Edwards.  "My maturity level has to step up and I have to become a leader."

There's definitely room for improvement, but after earning freshman All-America recognition, Zach's Cincinnati career is obviously off to a strong start.

"You can tell that he's a lot more comfortable this spring," said Tuberville.  "This is his second spring.  He started school in January of last year, so he's been with us for a year and gotten better and got some accolades, but he can play a lot better than he did last year."

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With a father, uncle, and two older brothers who played quarterback in college, it's easy to imagine young Gunner Kiel spending countless hours tossing a football through a tire hanging from a tree in the backyard of his home in Columbus, Indiana.

"We did not have a tire, but we did actually have a full goal post," said Kiel with a laugh.

In other words, football is a pretty big deal in the Kiel family.

"I was kind of born into a bunch of quarterbacks," Gunner told me.  "I always looked up to my older brothers, so whenever I saw them playing quarterback I wanted to do what they did.  We have a big yard so we always threw the ball to each other.  Between us, we had a quarterback and two wide receivers and then we would switch positions."

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Gunner became the starting quarterback at Columbus (IN) East High School as a 10th grader and threw 36 TD passes and only 6 INT in his first season.  That summer he attended a football camp at the University of Tennessee where UC quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw was on the staff at the time.

"He was one of the best I've seen in terms of raw tools to work with," said Hinshaw.  "His arm strength and his release - things that I look for - I was very excited to recruit this kid.  He did very well in high school and earned the accolades and the high recruiting ranking because he continued to blossom all the way through his senior year.  I saw a lot of good things at a young age and so did everybody else.  It wasn't hard to see."

After throwing for 7,362 yards and 89 touchdowns in three high school seasons, Kiel was ranked as the top high school quarterback prospect in the country by several recruiting services and elected to attend Notre Dame where he redshirted for a team that played in the BCS Championship game two years ago.  But faced with the prospect of serving as a backup to Everett Golson for three more seasons, Kiel elected to transfer and contacted Coach Hinshaw about the possibility of playing at Cincinnati. 

"It was the relationship that we had built and knowing that I could trust him with anything," said Kiel.  "What was great about Coach Hinshaw is that we wouldn't just talk about football.  We would talk about class, or golfing, or other hobbies.  Coach Hinshaw did a great job of just being a friend and a good role model to look up to." 

"We did everything that we could do to recruit him at Tennessee," said Hinshaw.  "When he made his decision to go elsewhere I told him, 'Look.  If you change your mind, you've always got a home.'  We had a really good relationship with Gunner and his family."

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Kiel transferred to Cincinnati last April and practiced with the Bearcats last season.  The 6'4, 210 pound sophomore has three years of eligibility remaining and is the early frontrunner to take over at quarterback this fall.

"He's one of these driven kids," said head coach Tommy Tuberville.  "He wants to play, he wants to do well, and he's going to do everything possible on and off the field - even when the lights are not on and the coach is not out here - to make himself better.

"He's around a guy that he knew in Coach Hinshaw and I think the offense fits him real well.  It's working out pretty good for him, but he's going to be pushed by the guys behind him.  There's going to be a lot of competition there."

"I'm having fun and trying to learn as much as possible," Gunner told me.  "I'm working my butt off to get the guys' respect and having fun in the process.  So far things are going great.  I know that I have a lot of work on, but at the same time, it's a fun game."

Bearcats fans can see Kiel in action for the first time on April 5th at noon in a scrimmage that is free and open to the public at Paul Brown Stadium.

"He's got a lot of talent mentally and physically, but he's got to work on both," said Tuberville.  "The good thing about it is that the good Lord gave him height, strength, and the ability to have a lot of football sense.  Time will tell - probably in the next year - how far his football talents go.  It only goes as far as what you have between your ears."

Perhaps Kiel was destined to wind up in Cincinnati all along considering that his parents chose his first name after hearing that former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason named his son Gunnar. 

Gunner says that he's happy with his decision to transfer to UC.

"It's a family environment here and we're all super-close," said Kiel.  "There are no cliques and we all hang out and get along.  We have great team chemistry.  We have a lot to work on and get better at, but we're all dedicated and we all want the same thing.  To be around these guys and to be around people who want you to succeed in life is second to none.  I've got that at Cincinnati and I'm glad to call it home."

"Obviously because of his size and his arm strength, he was a high recruit, but I've seen a lot of those guys come in and they don't have the football knowledge or the football sense to play quarterback," said Coach Tuberville.  "He's got that.  So I think the sky's the limit for him."

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