(picture courtesy masnsports.com)
With UC's recent success in football that started their return to bowl games in 1997, more and more former Bearcats are going onto the NFL and having lucrative careers. The 1998 draft gave the Bearcats a record five draft picks and Artrell Hawkins, Brad Jackson, Jason Fabini, Derrick Ransom and Rodrick Monroe all had decent NFL careers.
In 2009, that was surpassed by the six picks from Brian Kelly's Orange Bowl team (Connor Barwin, Kevin Huber, DeAngelo Smith, Brandon Underwood, Mike Mickens and Trevor Canfield). So, seeing a Cincinnati Bearcat drafted is commonplace now. (Unlike 1983-86, 1990-93, 1995-96, when no Bearcats were selected.)
While not all that are picked stick, there still is a fair amount of former Bearcats "representing the C" in the NFL.
One of those is fan favorite Haruki Nakamura from Mark Dantonio's first recruiting class who was a sixth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. With an injury-depleted defensive backfield in Baltimore, Nakamura stands to gain more playing time this year. Previously, he's made his name as a key reserve and a special teams hustler.
"It's the 'next man in' philosophy that we have here," said Nakamura reciting a phrase familiar to Bearcat fans. "Regardless of whether you're a starter or a back-up, everybody's ready to play."
I connected with Haruki at Ravens training camp recently during a lunch break in between practices. At the time he was looking forward to getting a lick on Tony Pike and the Panthers on the 12th, and looking ahead to the "bump and run" with Mardy Gilyard and the Rams September 2nd.
"Oh yeah, I've been waiting to get Mardy for a long time--I can't wait for that one," said a seemingly salivating Nakamura. "Picking on guys you used to play in college--it's funny. It's fun to see those guys in the league."
This is year three for Nakamura and he's played all three for Coach John Harbaugh (one of three former UC assistants under Rick Minter with NFL head coaching jobs--Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Rex Ryan of the Jets being the others).
"He's been doing a heck of a job the last couple years," said Nakamura of Harbaugh. "His first year he was building a base, trying to start from scratch. Now, we're basically working for the championship this year. He's kept us even keel, we've been on a steady plane going up. We're extremely excited about this year."
Nakamura and Harbaugh have shared in the Ravens success with back-to-back playoff years, highlighted by an appearance in the AFC championship game in their rookie season. Still, both coach and player find time to talk UC football on occasion.
"We've had tons of conversations, especially when they play during the season," said Nakamura. "He's a Miami (OH) graduate, so I'm on him when that week comes around."
As for UC's new head coach, even though he played for Dantonio and Kelly, Haruki Nakamura is a Butch Jones fan.
"I had a chance to have a bunch of conversations with Butch this year," said Nakamura. "He's got the right mindset as far as taking Cincinnati to the next level. I think Mark Dantonio brought in a very physical tradition of football. He just wanted to be hard-nosed and wanted to dominate people. Brian Kelly came in with the glamor and that's what we needed at the time. Butch is basically the balance of those two."
"He knows how to coach an explosive offense," continued Nakamura. "He knows how to coach a different style of football. He's just a nice fit. I talked to a lot of guys that played at Cincinnati and we feel like this year could be a big year. They've got a tremendous amount of talent and it's not like they have a quarterback situation. Zach Collaros has proven himself. He's just got to stay level-headed and just make plays."
While Nakamura was involved with three bowls at UC (Fort Worth, International and Papajohns.com) none were of the scale that the Bearcats have seen the last two years in the Orange and Sugar Bowls. Like many ex-Bearcats, there's a wee bit of jealousy, but a lot more pride than anything over their success.
"You're very proud of what those guys are doing," said Nakamura. "My senior year, we won 10 games for the first time in I think 50 years. Just to see it continuing to show promise, you're very proud of the tradition that they're building. Cincinnati has great tradition, people just don't know about it."
Meantime, while wishing the Bearcats well, Nakamura must concentrate on the rigors of NFL training camp. And, getting ready to face the Cincinnati Bengals on September 19th at Paul Brown Stadium.
Nakamura usually fields a few ticket requests for that one and plans to oblige--as long as his friends/fans wear their Ravens jerseys.
"I usually only just do a few," said Nakamura with a chuckle. "A couple of friends, my mother and my sister. The guys, Lamonte Nelms and those guys, I get them tickets all of the time. I'm always staying close with the friends I had when I went to college."
To see Haruki Nakamura, you may not guess he was an NFL player. But, if you KNOW Haruki Nakamura, you know that being smaller means nothing to him as he can deliver a hit with anybody. Plus, his judo training from his parents gives him a few tricks that many aren't aware of.
In Nakamura's world, it's the size of the heart and mind that matter (as it should).
"I finished college around 193, I'm probably about 197 now," said Nakamura. "I don't want to put on too much weight. The way I play, I'm a very intense guy--an effort guy--I don't feel putting on all that weight is all that big of a deal."
Many former Bearcats that were on the receiving end of a "slobber-knocker" from #13 in their playing days would probably agree.