By: Scott Springer
The Kingsgate Marriott was the host to Bearcat royalty
Oct. 28 as the Legion of Excellence had their gathering and inductees into the
James P. Kelly Athletic Hall of Fame were announced.
Among those going in were former Naismith Player of the
Year Kenyon Martin and former UC quarterback Gino Guidugli. I was fortunate to cover the entire careers
As for Martin, I first saw him in an AAU game at UC when
he was a "man among boys" swatting shots down. He grew from a player that was somewhat shy
around the media to a well-spoken senior by the time he left.
Sadly, I was in Memphis the afternoon he broke his leg
and stood next to his locker after UC's conference tournament loss afterward
when he knew his season was over. For a
lesson in heart and soul, search for the UC/DePaul game in Chicago in 2000 and
watch the final 10 minutes. I watched
him live while covering Reds spring training in Sarasota and it still stands as
one of the more improbable finishes ever.
As for Gino Guidugli, he easily is my favorite Bearcat
from doing 14 years of football radio.
From entering the game against Army in the second quarter in 2001 and
pulling it out in his first college action, to walking off the field with him
in Fort Worth in 2004 with his MVP trophy, he provided Bearcat fans with
several memorable games.
Gino Guidugli's accomplishments were the building blocks
for where the program stands now. Given a supporting cast, I would bet the
ranch on him anytime in the final minutes of a game. Had he had access to some of the offenses
that came after his career, it's hard to say what kind of numbers he would've
Gino Guidugli in Brian Kelly's UC offense would probably
have knocked out several lights in the scoreboard. I also was able to cover Ben Guidugli who
continued the tradition of his brother in being a pleasurable interview.
It was a thrill and a half for me again be around guys
that I covered in the peak of my career and it was fun seeing again so many
folks that I don't get to see as much any more.
The anticipated debut of a highly-regarded freshman class came with the standard nerves as Mick Cronin searches for the best ways to utilize his new toys.
Every season presents a new puzzle for college coaches. Mick Cronin is no different. Only, this year's puzzle comes with three unique freshman pieces. Pieces essential for success. The challenge comes in finding the way Jermaine Lawrence, Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson fit into the Bearcats big picture without truly knowing their shape yet.
One method exists to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and how ready they are to help the 2013-14 edition of the Bearcats: Play them, review tape, repeat.
Hence, the conundrum.
"The key is to get them out there without losing," Cronin said following UC's season-opening 64-51 win against North Carolina Central on Friday.
Easier said than done at times. Nervousness and apprehension on the court come as standard in the freshmen adjustment process as learning where class buildings are located. For these 19-year-olds, pulling the trigger on shots or risky passes came without thought in high school. They were rarely challenged. Cronin fuming with arms crossed didn't await during their free and easy days as the superstar.
When games count and lights flip on inside Fifth Third Arena, the pressure changes.
"There's a great deal of pressure when first coming out," said junior Jermaine Sanders, who scored a career high 13 points Friday. "You have to be ready and focused. I remember being nervous, and not being ready to shoot. Just the adrenaline of the game and the big crowd."
Lawrence, Caupain and Johnson combined for 39 minutes Friday - many of them during tense final stretch as NCC cut a double-digit lead to as little as five. They also combined on 1 of 12 shooting.
Expecting a Dontonio Wingfield debut (30 points, 12 rebounds) would be unrealistic. For Johnson, who grew up dreaming of wearing a Bearcats jersey or Caupain and Lawrence whose high school performance categorizes their debuts as highly anticipated, meshing confidently in an environment filled with seniors and juniors with 60-plus games under their belt will take time.
In Cronin's eyes, all were nervous, all will be fine.
The infusion of these freshmen into the rotation won't happen smoothly in fledgling games of their career, but need to happen fast. North Carolina Central left Friday night, but big brother N.C. State arrives Tuesday in an early impact game on UC's non-conference slate.
Nobody understands the urgency more than senior team leader Sean Kilpatrick, searching for help carrying the offensive load but can only receive assistance from Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker these days via text.
"It's kind of hard to pull them to the senior's levels due to the fact they are new to this," Kilpatrick said. "In order for us to win, we need them to win. There is not a player on this team that we don't need. That's something we actually have to continue to keep working on with these young guys because it's not the exhibition games no more. The running starts now."
Once the rust of the first half chipped away to relaxing, Lawrence found a glimpse of comfort against NCC. After contributing the first freshman points late in the first half he drove with confidence the next play. Thus will be the process in the development. Quality plays grow confidence and another sliver of instinct peels back for all to see.
"When he scored it was a relief because we are not used to seeing that," Kilpatrick said. "When we are able to see when he's not playing like a freshman, playing like an older guy with the rip throughs, that helps us because we need more help on the scoring side."
Caupain tallied 13 minutes in relief of Ge'Lawn Guyn which Cronin dubbed "solid." The coach left happiest with a pull-up jumper he shot in the second half even though it didn't fall, the first show of offensive confidence arrived.
"He's got talent, he's got to play with courage," Cronin said.
Johnson didn't experience such problems. Of the three, he displayed the most confidence. When the Bearcats lead trimmed to single digits late, Johnson caught a pass at the 3-point line and fired off as if a senior on a heat check. For these 19-year-olds feeling the regular season pressure for the first time the moment not being too big for them counts as much as the sound of swish.
Relaxation will develop. Anxiety will fade. For the sake of UC's non-conference success, Cronin hopes sooner rather than later. When it does, these freshmen will be called upon.
"Round here we don't care what grade you are in, that doens't matter," Cronin said."Anybody that's got a jersey, the guys that play the best and give us the most chance to win are going to play the most."
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Quarterback Jordan Luallen emerged as a burst of energy offensively in recent weeks and created a special conclusion to a circuitous college career.
CINCINNATI - Jordan Luallen can easily be spotted on the sideline. Screaming, jumping and trash-talking. Hugging, waving and high-fiving.
His excitement level could only be matched by the mascot, maybe. Coach's attempted to calm him down in the past, but with little effectiveness. Players don't bother.
"I think people try to at first but then realize I am just kind of in my own zone," Luallen said.
After a touchdown run at Memphis Luallen offered a shush to the crowd.
"I don't know what I was thinking," he said. "It just happened."
Luallen's intensity explosion doesn't stem from crushing Five-Hour Energys in the locker room or a last-minute weight-room party pump. Enthusiasm begins the business of affecting the game in any way possible.
"That's just my personality, too," he said. "I want to be very involved in everything. Whether it's me playing or cheering on my teammates I feel a very big part of this team and this program. I put a lot of time and effort into it. Regardless of whether I am going to play or not that's just who I am."
Lately, his sideline persona took on a different feel.
For a player who transferred schools, dropped weight, added weight, evolved as a leader and unselfishly learned five different positions in hopes of an opportunity to help the team win on the field, Luallen treats Saturdays like they have been half a decade of unrecognized labor in the making.
Because that's what they are.
Luallen exited Center Grove High School (Ind.) expecting make an impact as the No. 22 ranked quarterback in the country by ESPN.com. His reputation began with running skills as a quarterback, so he headed to Georgia Tech with their triple-option offense. He'd eventually transfer to UC eventually playing quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, tight end and fullback.
He'd experience brief flashes of opportunity, but for the most part relegated to head cheerleader duty again this year as a tight end/fullback on a spread attack. That is, until the last three weeks.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran inserted a wildcat package into the offense with Luallen at the helm spelling Brendon Kay. Experiment evolved into effectiveness instantaneously. Over the last three games he's rushed 27 times for 151 yards at 5.6 yards per carry. Only Tion Green has rushed for more yards over that span (153).
Luallen also hit 5 of 6 passes for 72 yards. He's contributed a touchdown (one rushing, one passing) in each of the last two games.
"For all the stuff I have gone through, all the position changes, I don't know for everyone else but it means a little bit more to me," Luallen said. "A lot of these guys, some of my teammates, have been able to be successful since Day 1. I've had to work five years to be able to get consistent playing time for three games."
The firebrand off the field assumed the same role on it.
"He's always a spark," linebacker Greg Blair said. "He's always being vocal when we need a spark being a crazy dude on the sideline."
Saturday against SMU Luallen will take the field for Senior Day ceremonies as one of the most under appreciated models of what made Universtiy of Cincinnati football a household name.
The AFCA named Luallen to their 22-member All-Good Works team in September. He was the first Bearcats player to receive the honor. A regular in the community, member of the 2012 Big East All-Academic team and a player whose taken mission trips to Nicaragua and other countries, he's developed a full-circle education beyond football.
You can find Luallen hours before kickoff leading the team prayer at midfield. You'll find him this summer collecting his Masters and - he hopes -- beginning his career as a strength coach. He and his girlfriend even hope to one day adopt a child from Haiti.
There's college athletes who do everything right and then there's Luallen. Only, many role models aren't rewarded with more than a pat on the back and excellence in leadership award. Until three weeks ago Luallen stood in the express lane for the same fate. His time on the field Saturday would end with hugs for his parents following pregame ceremonies.
Instead, Luallen takes on the role of offensive spark in the Bearcats critical final month run toward a possible American title. His path to this moment weaved circuitously and with a pit stop at two schools and five positions but concludes the way he hoped from the beginning: Making plays as a college quarterback.
"It's definitely not anything I expected," Luallen said. "Kind of brought everything full circle, so that has been kind of cool being able to end my career where everything started. It wouldn't feel as good now if I hadn't gone through what I've gone through. Had I done this from the beginning, yeah, it would be cool. But it definitely wouldn't be nearly as satisfying for me to end my football career having some success."
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He may not quite have the following of "Hingle
McCringleberry" or "Fudge" of Key and Peele East/West College
Bowl fame, but UC's Silverberry Mouhon does have many appreciative fans.
The sophomore from Norcross, Georgia is the Bearcats' sack
leader and leads the defensive line in tackles.
No. 92 is a constant presence at 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds from his
defensive end position and hopes to spend considerable time in the SMU
backfield this Saturday.
Mouhon was the Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year in
his redshirt year of 2011 and will join all of the defensive ends returning
next year as none of them are seniors. (UC will lose defensive tackles Mitch
Meador, Adam Dempsey, Jordan Stepp and Marques Aiken.)
Here is the man with the best name in college football as
we spoke just outside of the Bob Goin Team Room in the Lindner Center.
A run to 6-2 will only be remembered as the appetizer to a meaty four-week main course for the 2013 Bearcats.
CINCINNATI -- Before this season began, little could be predicated about how it would unfurl. New coach, new system, new league, heck, even new turf.
Amid the months of transition and scrambling, one fact could be prognosticated fairly easy. The season would be judged by the month of November.
Non-conference wins against Purdue and Miami were nice for bragging rights and testing who will respond under bright lights. The first four four games of conference play would assure the Bearcats could improve against inferior competition.
The running through the dregs of the new American conference saw the last five games come against teams who currently own a 4-35 record. Only Memphis entered the game with a victory.
Those days are gone.
Beginning Saturday against SMU this final stretch will determine how the 2013 Bearcats are remembered, success or failure. The final four opponents are a combined 22-9 overall and 11-4 in conference.
SMU, Houston, Rutgers and Louisville all hover around the top of the conference standings.
Do the 6-2, 3-1 Bearcats belong alongside them? The record would infer yes, but we really don't know how good the Bearcats are because they've rarely been forced to be.
"I am excited to show the world who we are, what we do," senior Jordan Stepp said. "I feel like the last few weeks we put a few full team games out on the field."
The schedule couldn't break much better for a new year coach installing two new systems and personnel adjusting to them. Eight games in, Tommy Tuberville and his players understand what they do best and learned the hard way twice what they must avoid.
Finding a way to motivate players through a 4-35 proves a challenge. Tuberville can't hide the standings. He can't hide the ESPN bottom line. Kids know the deal, they research the scores. Yet, even a team whose struggled can pull an upset if the energy level doesn't match.
Just ask USF.
"It's going to be tougher," Tuberville said. "I told our team we can't play like we have been playing. We shoot ourselves in the foot we won't win a game the week we do that."
Not against these offenses. Sure, the Bearcats are ranked as the No. 4 defense in the country right now. Those stats can't be argued, but placed against perspective of competition lack bite. Keep in mind, there are only 125 teams in the FBS.
| || |
Three of the final four opponents rank in the Top 25 of national offenses. If the Bearcats defense wants to be recognized as one of the premier groups in the country, the time has come to prove it.
"We always come with that mentality we have to showcase we are the best defense in the nation regardless of what we are ranked," Blair said. "That's why I say that we always have something to prove until we are the No. 1 defense in the nation."
The beauty of this setup, all UC wants is within reach. Conference title, defining win, BCS bowl - a clean sweep of the final four games could likely deliver all three. They'd need only a single loss by UCF to share the title. The Knights still have Houston and SMU on the schedule.
Of course, it would mean a sweep of arguably four of the five best teams in the conference. Turning this closing run into a defining one will assure nobody claims the Bearcats didn't earn the position.
The schedule layout allowed Cincinnati to fade as a forgotten team in this title race, an unfamiliar role for a program who at least shared four of the last five conference titles. All the injuries, upsets and transitions are in the past now.
Time for this season to be judged.
"It's how you finish," Stepp said. "It's one of the strong suits of not only this football team but the players, the teams of the past. It's kind of in our DNA."
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Kenyon Martin was inducted into the UC Hall of Fame Monday. He not only defined an era, but in his induction defines the way Bearcats fans should treat it.
CINCINNATI -- What was the memory for you?
The turnaround jump shot?
The triple-double with 13 blocks against Memphis? Tossing the Bearcats on his back down 10 under four minutes against DePaul?
The absurd 3.5 blocks per game his senior season?
Was it the injury? Witnessing the evolution of a superstar?
Being named consensus National Player of the Year? Selection atop the NBA Draft?
Was it the style?
Was it the shimmy?
Depending on age, appreciation and seat location the specific memory from fan to fan differs dramatically.
For those die-hards who still line the front rows of Fifth Third Arena and refer to it as The Shoe, remembering particular portions of Kenyon Martin fade into a grander picture.
Kenyon Martin more than defined a team, a personality of Bearcats basketball. He defined the Bob Huggins Era. From Corie Blount to Danny Fortson, Bobby Brannen to Pete Mickeal, Steve Logan to Jason Maxiell, many players typified the attitude embodied over a span of 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
All follow in line behind Martin.
His rise from raw to revered over a four-year span illustrated the brilliance, effectiveness of hard work and Huggins philosophy. Martin fittingly for those clubs made his name on defense and did so better than any to wear red and black. Despite the anchor of Conference USA, Martin belonged second to none on the national landscape, exactly like the UC program in those days.
"For me to come from where I was my freshman year to being able to develop my game into becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA is a great honor to the work Coach Huggins put into me and the time that he stayed on me academically and athletically," Martin said. "I didn't have a father figure so without him none of this would be possible."
His senior year tournament run tragically never came, but his place as the face of Huggins brand of Cincinnati basketball remains cemented for ever. His induction into the UC Hall of Fame Monday night assured as much.
A deeper reality follows his return to campus and physical re-connection with the university and basketball program, though.
Kenyon not only defined the Huggins Era, but now in his induction defines the way Bearcats fans should treat it.
Too often a line in the sand had been drawn between those days and today's Bearcats. Fans, coaches, boosters, administration needed to take sides and separate the two. Or just separate from it.
That's what Kenyon did. He picked sides and made disparaging remarks about the school in frustration of the dissolution of a brand he represented. That was then, this is now.
"Things (with the university) over the years have been a little rocky," Martin said at his induction. "I made some statements a few years ago that I couldn't take back, but at the time that's how I felt. But I'm still a Bearcat at heart. Thanks for this honor and this is not the last you will see of me."
Everyone made remarks they couldn't take back in the years since. All felt the need to take a stand in their direction of choice.
But here stands Kenyon Martin, back for the first time since 2000, in the middle of a circle of players wearing the C-Paw holding the same aspirations he once did as a lanky, unsure center from Dallas, Texas in 1997.
To deny the ascension of UC basketball under Mick Cronin - the man who helped bring Martin to Cincinnati - would mean living in a past nobody worries about anymore. Not Huggins, who proudly looked on at Martin's ceremony Monday. Not Martin, who admits he's always watching and will always be a Bearcat.
So should all UC fans who stood at Martin's Senior Day and picked up their jaws after every block Martin snatched out of the air like a rebound.
Perhaps asserting Martin's return and induction connects two eras and officially buries any old dissension could be considered overly philosophical and unnecessary. Maybe. The amped atmospheres at Fifth Third the last few years of conference play and success in the NCAA tournament insist as much. Probably.
But the man who stood as the symbol of all considered great about the Huggins Era should stand now as a symbol of all that is great about this one. And the need to embrace it.
Connecting tradition with a blossoming future like Martin did Monday sets an example. One that could allow a new set of signature moments for fans to choose from.
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Sean Kilpatrick spent his summer playing for Team USA at the World University Games, but returned with much more than just a free trip to Kazan, Russia.
CINCINNATI -- Some realities can't be taught in Cincinnati.
On campus Sean Kilpatrick stops for fans saying hello and thank you for returning for one more year. In practice, he plays the role of leader amidst a team ballooning with following underclassmen. In games this past year, he fought double and triple teams by players unfit for one-on-one.
In Kazan, Russia, however, Kilpatrick dribbled a basketball amid a sprawling landscape of great basketball players. There, at the World University Games, he was just another guy. One of hundreds, thousands.
Some realities can only be taught in Russia.
Kilpatrick may be the big man on campus but in a worldwide snapshot of basketball he desires to infiltrate, he's far from where he needs to be. Opening a senior season leading the Bearcats on Saturday, he takes the reins with a newly acquired perspective only sold overseas.
"It really humbled me a lot more," Kilpatrick said. "Due to the fact I know where my game can take me, but also I have a lot more to learn. Being here with coach knowing I'm one of the leaders now on this team, that is a huge step for me. Now I'm just really ready to take what I learned with Team USA and bring it back to the UC Bearcats."
Lessons began with poise and patience. Playing among so many talented players Kilpatrick took away recognition forcing the offensive fire in any game will only rack up missed shots and contested jumpers. Allowing the game to flow to him and involve everyone else becomes more important than how many 3-pointers he can hoist.
Kilpatrick now claims close friendships with players like Doug McDemott of Creighton, who ousted his Bearcats in last year's NCAA tournament, as well Spencer Dinwiddie, of Colorado. Those along with nine more of the country's best made the trek to Russia for the WUG. Only, the collection of Team USA players ended up finishing fifth.
Aspirations for a professional career only need one trip through all those potential competitors for jobs to know how far Kilpatrick needs to develop.
"I tell our guys all the time it's a hard sport to be a professional in because they play our game all over the world and it's competitive," Mick Cronin said. "And his team found that out finishing fifth. You got guys all over the world that aren't in the NBA, it was a bit of an eye-opener for him."
Nobody needs to tell Sean Kilpatrick to work harder. His first-team All-Conference reputation was built as an under-recruited player who outworked everyone to ascend to among the 12 best players capable of representing this country overseas.
Cronin will need to ease his star into practice, fighting his primary concern that SK would wear down having played so many extra games. There may be the occassional practice he rides the bike or substitues as an assistant coach.
Just don't expect Kilpatrick to sit quietly. He works. It's what he does.
He wasted little time putting his lessons to work and starting the journey toward the next level and what he hopes will be hearing his name called next June.
"It really taught me a lot of things that I am able to play with other great players and really stand out with my game," Kilpatrick said. "There was a couple of things in my game that I had to work on. During the summer after Team USA I came and worked on it. Everything is starting to come together."
Starting Saturday, he hopes his experience pays off in the season coming for Team UC. Anyone expecting Kilpatrick to take the floor with a big head won't find one.
"There's great players all over the world," Cronin said. "As good as he is, he's learned he's got to get better."
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Brendon Kay is enjoying the best run of his career as the offense changed to fit his style.
CINCINNATI - In late July, Brendon Kay hovered 30,000 feet above the ground flying on his way back from the Manning Passing Camp in Thibodaux, La.
Staring out the window of the plane it's hard not to think about all the skills acquired over the course of the week and how it can apply to a sixth year of eligibility and opportunity Kay waited for his entire life.
Yet, a two-month blur of injuries, ugly losses, a fight for his job and offensive growing pains left that opportunity as a distant memory and uncertain future.
In the aftermath of a tragedy outside Oxford and gutcheck defeat in Tampa the Brendon Kay who Bearcats pinned hopes of the 2013 offense on emerged, one spiral at a time - the latest tossing four touchdowns in Saturday's 41-16 victory against Connecticut.
Kay and the Bearcats offense have hit the stride Kay daydreamed about this offeseason. Finally. Few thought the offensive identity would take this long, but without doubt it's been established. It wears No. 11.
"You hope it doesn't (take this long)," said Kay after throwing for 300 yards and the four scores. "It's tough with all the coaching changes. There's going to be ups and downs regardless with all the stuff. It's just part or the process."
Tommy Tuberville described Kay's game Saturday as "gutty." A great place to start for a quarterback playing through a multitude of ailments and barely practicing. Through the pain, Kay returned to the same efficiency and execution showcased during his impressive run to close out the 2012 season. For those final five games he threw 10 touchdowns to just two picks to go with 1,282 yards over the final five games.
Since the disastrous first half at South Florida Kay's last 10 quarters have been the best run of his career. He's hit 60 of 79 passes for 717 yards. That's an absurd 76 percent completion rate. In the meantime he's thrown nine touchdowns to one interception.
Not a bad run. Oh yeah, that's for an offense who scored 93 points in the process.
Much of that stems from being willing to crumble up the original offensive philosophy and throw it in the trash. The idea of playing power football need to go. It wasn't working, the time came to play into Kay's strengths and spread the passing game. So, slot receivers Anthony McClung and Shaq Washington began running the slot with Chris Moore and emerging transfer Mekale McKay taking the top off.
It changed the game. Mostly because Kay's proven more than capable to do so.
"We had to find something that will open it up," Tuberville said. "By spreading out it got a guy out of the box, made them play a little bit more zone coverage and Brendon is very accurate. Just happened to start clicking for us."
Saturday's click started with the first snap. All week offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and Kay talked about throwing a bomb to open the game. Only one problem, during the entire week of practice Kay couldn't throw one. It hurt to much.
Dropping back off a play action he stood in the pocket and nobody quite knew what to expect. Not a problem, though. Kay delivered a perfect deep ball that hit Mekale McKay in stride for a 56-yard gain. If UC looked to send a message and set a tone, both were accomplished.
"I didn't throw it all week because I couldn't really throw a long ball," Kay said. "I had the adrenaline going at the beginning of the game."
Kay and the Bearcats never looked back. He connected on five passes of at least 40 yards entering the game, he added two more with the bomb to McKay and another 41-yard bullet to tight end Blake Annen rumbling down the right sideline for a touchdown.
A plot twist in the Brendon Kay saga wouldn't be right without fighting through injuries. Tuberville will demand Kay take nearly all of the 10-day break off before heading to Memphis to play the Tigers.
The quarterback describes himself as "banged up." Don't expect a player who missed years at a time with injuries to let a banged up body keep him from this opportunity. Specifically the way he's play now.
When flying above clouds before the season, allowing injuries to curtail his season wasn't a part of the vision.
"I am going to play and the team knows I am going to play," Kay said. "As long as I can walk I am going to be out there."
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By: Scott Springer
When veteran Pat O'Donnell left spring practice, there
was some alarm in the air under the bubble at the Sheakley Athletics Center.
The highly-awarded punter had his degree, so under NCAA
rules he could transfer and play immediately elsewhere. Initially, there was speculation he might
follow Butch Jones to Tennessee, then O'Donnell eventually went to the Miami
Hurricanes, closer to his home.
After the initial surprise of O'Donnell leaving, the
question was who would step in?
The answer came in John Lloyd who had two years on the
squad and won the battle to boot the ball for the Bearcats over some walk-ons
and current freshman Sam Geraci of Moeller.
Lloyd has responded with a 44.8 average through six games
with a long of 60 yards and three kicks inside the 20. In certain situations, he's shared the
punting duties with Brendon Kay who's averaging 37.6 with four inside the 20
and a long of 58.
Geraci is currently injured, so Lloyd is your go-to
punter and also the holder for kicker Tony Miliano.
He's a little thicker than your average punter/holder at
6-foot-2 and 237 pounds. At CHCA, he
played some quarterback, tight end, and offensive line in addition to
punting,holding and kicking off.
He averaged 44 yards per boot as a senior and 42.6 as a junior
to lead the state.
He also has the possibility of being a trick play
candidate with his high school offensive skills, plus the fact he was a
baseball pitcher at CHCA (four years varsity, two-time all-State) and for a
while at UC.
Freshman Zach Edwards arrived this year as a transitioning former receiver challenged by his first college experience but he's quickly emerged as the lone true freshman starter in his class.
CINCINNATI - For one play, for one brief moment, the turf of Nippert Stadium surrounded by 32,000-plus fans felt like an average Friday night in Middletown for Zach Edwards.
The Bearcats freshman safety spotted a P.J. Walker pass floating deep into the secondary toward a Temple receiver and instincts from years of tracking down touchdown passes as a receiver for the Middies at Barnitz Stadium took over.
Edwards added safety to his receiver repertoire only one year ago during his senior season, but when opportunities like his interception to help put away the Owls Friday night present themselves, drawing a distinction between offense and defense blurs. .
"It did feel like high school. I went up for the ball just like a receiver, just like high school," Edwards said. "Football is football."
And Edwards owns the instincts to play it, no matter the position. That's why he's emerged as the only true freshman starter on the Bearcats depth chart. For a team craving production in the secondary, Edwards earned it. He leads the team with two interceptions following his second-quarter pick that eventually provided a lead the Bearcats wouldn't relinquish in beating the Owls.
No play more typified playmaking the 5-11, 186-pound Edwards provides as the third safety in spread defense packages than this one.
"That wasn't his guy they were throwing to and he made up ground flipping his hips and covering ground with his long legs intercepting the pass," Tommy Tuberville said. "It's good to know he's going to be back for three years. A safety you can count on playing the middle."
The surprise comes in Edwards touching the field so soon. Few expected this inexperienced converted wide receiver from Middletown to be a factor, or even much more than a difficult redshirt decision upon his arrival. Yet, he caught coaches eyes in the spring and preseason, including a scrimmage where he hauled in two interceptions.
Suddenly, the expectation changed.
"Right after spring ball when we had the break (defensive backs coach Steven Clinkscale) and coach Tuberville both sat me down and said I was going to be in the rotation, I'd be fighting for a starting position," he said. "That right that made me aware I might have to play and start and I'm going to have to get on my game."
Inserted as a starter for the first time against Northwestern State Edwards grabbed his first career interception. The last two weeks he returned to the same spot in the starting lineup and continues to earn the trust of coaches and teammates alike.
He's now fifth on the team in tackles (21) and has a pass breakup and forced fumble to go with his two picks.
"I've always been in a position where we are going to play our best players and the guys that are doing all the things right on and off the field," Clinkscale said. "It's not my first time starting true freshman. I am not scared at all to do it and Zach kind of helps that because he's a lot more mature then your usual freshman and handles the responsibility very well."
Not without criticism, of course. Every Tuesday Tuberville and company challenge Edwards with tackling drills on the sled and perfecting pursuit angles. As with many receivers, he's still adapting to physicality and the tendency to always attempt the big play.
Clinkscale preaches not being afraid to execute the job and pass on the highlight interception attempt. All will come with time, but Edwards owns plenty of it.
"He's got a lot to learn, he makes a lot of mistakes in the game," Tuberville said. "Through the first six games I've been very surprised how he's picked up what we are doing."
After each game, the first conversation goes to his mother and a second usually to close friend and former Middletown teammate Cody Quinn, a sophomore corner at Kentucky.
At home games mom talks near the field, if away a phone call will suffice. Originally, the excitement would span on and on as the two relived his opportunities. Now, they've drawn a little shorter each week as his playmaking shifts from surprising to standard.
Still hard to believe this former receiver from Middletown broke out as the current star of this freshmen class, but with every play like the one against Temple, his arrival becomes more believable.
"It's been a wild ride," Edwards said. "It's a lot of hard work put into it. I knew it would be hard picking it up, only played one year as a safety so I knew it was going to be hard. I just kept pushing and keeping the faith I could do it."
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