Redshirt freshman QB Bennie Coney entered UC with a special skill set but reputation of an attitude problem. After 16 months quietly working in the shadows of the UC football program, a mature Coney is finally seeing the light.
CINCINNATI -- For years, a checkered past haunted Bennie Coney. Every scouting report, every newspaper story, every whisper under the breath of onlooking coaches.
Sure, this kid could play, but would he be more trouble than he's worth?
Coney was the starting quarterback his junior year at Plant City (Fla.) High, but was suspended once, then later dismissed from the team midway through the 2010 season for what he would tell reporters to be "an altercation with a teammate." He'd return and mend fences for a senior season, but his reputation remained in rubble.
The incident lived as the most significant hindrance on a promising football career. Two years later, entering his redshirt freshman season at UC, the emerging quarterback views it as the biggest blessing.
"The one thing I can say about that is I'm glad it happened when it did," Coney said. "Because if it didn't happen then, it would happen now and I'd be home. Now I can see what I need to do and what I need to work on - and that's my attitude. That's one thing I've been harping on, my attitude and just leading."
A contrite, more mature Coney views life through a different prism now. His developmental years were laced with trouble, immature actions and all the ego saddled by any teenage quarterback offered by schools like Michigan, Arkansas and Virginia Tech.
Changing opinions and healing a reputation only occurs with time served. Coney spent many hours over his redshirt year therapeutically spilling this concept on the phone with his mother in Florida. He didn't doubt he chose the correct school, but waiting for his opportunity to prove he's more than the questioned character made for long, frustrating nights and days.
This now humbled, 6-foot-3, 205-pound QB spent the last 16 months quietly grinding away in the dark corners of the Bearcats program, peeling the layers off his potential and persona. One not only utilizing his physical tools to impress on the field, but tapping into maturity and leadership in the process.
This spring, Coney changed the conversation.
"It's fun when you can actually see the light now, man," he said. "I'm seeing the light now. My opportunity is coming."
He's earning it. Of the four quarterbacks taking the majority of snaps through the spring's three scrimmages, he led them all in completion percentage (62 percent) and ranked only behind Brandon Kay in yards per pass. While both Munchie Legaux and Trenton Norvell struggled with interceptions, he threw three touchdowns with only one pass picked off.
|Quarterbacks in three spring scrimmages||Passing||Yards||TDs-Ints|
|Brendon Kay||22 of 37 (59%)||394||6-1|
|Munchie Legaux||19 of 42 (45%)||310||1-3|
|Bennie Coney||26 of 42 (62%)||394||3-1|
|Trenton Norvell||18 of 41 (44%)||219||0-3|
Last year, Coney arrived as an early enrollee at UC and participated in spring football. A year later, as he made play after play this spring, he noticed the response from his teammates changing. When he ran on the field with the backups last season, the huddle would be met with a silence, as if they all were looking at him, judging, wondering. Today, Coney sprints directly to his offensive lineman with a smile and swagger.
"Oh my gosh, man, it's so weird," Coney said. "Most of the O-line when I first got here we really didn't talk much. Now when I step out it's, 'Let's go, man, let's go, man, put us on your back. You got to lead us. Come on, 10, you got to lead us.' I feel like I have been making strides and they see it."
Hard not to, combining his natural athletic ability with a climbing confidence produces results to make anyone look twice. Quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Darin Hinshaw raves about his ability to avoid pressure in the pocket and instinctual knack to focus downfield as protection breaks down around him.
During the scrimmage at Paul Brown Stadium, pressure forced Coney out of the pocket and his burst distanced linebackers sprinting off the edge. Just as he appeared destined to take a loss out of bounds, Coney snapped off a throw 20 yards down the sideline to hit a late-breaking receiver who tiptoed in for a completion. Special stuff.
Coney circled through his teammates on the sidelines as he ran back to the field clapping his hands and urging on his offensive team to keep the momentum rolling.
On the surface, his ascension came on plays such as that one during each of the 15 practice sessions, but Coney's always excelled on the field. His spike in development came off it. Now, when practice ends, Coney only begins. Nights and days are spent buried in the playbook and film study instead of assuming his talent will take over on gameday. A constant stream of questions are directed at Hinshaw in a relentless effort to learn.
While Coney's far from perfect, attitude, enthusiasm and maturity are beginning to catch up to the talent.
Hinshaw witnesses the transformation every day. Even over the last four weeks, he's seen Coney jump out of his shell and into the acceptance of teammates.
"No doubt, you see it," Hinshaw said. "As a quarterback you do it with your play. That's the only way. You go out there and run the offense and score touchdowns, you move the chains.
"People make mistakes in life. You don't learn from them unless you make them. He's made them, he's learned from them, now the worst thing you can do is make them again. I think now he's growing up. That's what I talk to him about. You got to grow up. Freshman have to become juniors and seniors out there pretty quick if you are going to play."
Theoretically, the table appears set for him to play on opening day in 2014. Kay and Legaux both graduate after this season and he could position himself to be the redshirt sophomore quarterback to replace them. Coney admits he views that date as when the path clears for him. He's also seen too many teams forced deep into their depth chart to think he's still 16 months away from hitting the field.
"For right now, I am competing like I am the starting quarterback," Coney said. "You never know what can happen. I've seen teams play with their fourth string. My goal is be third string or the backup. That's all I'm focusing on right now. Take a step in front of the freshmen, take a step and learn as much as I can from the seniors so I can be ready when they leave."
Coney spent much of the last three years running from his past. Now, having embraced and learned from it, he's finally prepared to move past it. He finally ready to become a leader.
He's finally able to see the light.
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