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March 2014 Archives

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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Inability To Finish Ends Bearcats Season

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At every NCAA Tournament game there's a person who rapidly types out a description of the play-by-play.  It's similar to how a court stenographer produces an official transcript of the proceedings.

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In Cincinnati's season-ending loss to Harvard, that person typed the words "missed layup" 16 times for the Bearcats.

Call it the Sour Sixteen.

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Harvard didn't need Ivy League smarts to design its game plan:  Do whatever necessary to prevent Sean Kilpatrick from dominating and take your chances with everybody else.

"Every time we tried to free (Sean) they doubled him," explained head coach Mick Cronin.  "Any time he came off a pick on the ball they doubled him.  Any time he came off of a pick off the ball, they left the guy setting the screen and doubled him even off the ball.

"When we struggled to score inside the way we did today, when a team decides - any team decides - hey, we're going to play them this way, we have got to score inside.  Because the only other option would be SK running around taking bad shot after bad shot because they're just not going to leave him open."

When Kilpatrick had the ball and drew a second defender, he frequently fed it inside to Justin Jackson.  But instead of powering toward the rim to try to score or get fouled, Justin flipped up off-balance shots with a high degree of difficulty.  He finished 5-for-15 including nine missed shots from within a few feet of the hoop.

"I missed a lot of opportunities around the rim," said Jackson.  "I usually don't do that - going one-handed flipping the ball."

"We worked really hard on trying to make sure we finished with strength," said Cronin.  "But, like Justin alluded to it, we had way too many one hand shots.  Way too many one hand shots.  We just were sloppy and didn't get the ball in the basket."

That problem is being addressed.  Next year's roster additions include Jamaree Strickland (6'10, 270 lbs), Coreontae DeBerry (6'10, 270 lbs), Quadri Moore (6'8", 230 lbs) and Gary Clark (6'7, 215 lbs).  They are not freakishly athletic shot blockers who are projects on the offensive end.  Strickland, DeBerry, and Moore are broad-shouldered post players who are comfortable in the paint, and Clark is a versatile big man who is capable of scoring inside.  It's hard to imagine seeing 16 missed layups on a play-by-play sheet. 

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What will be harder to replace is the leadership provided by the senior trio of Kilpatrick, Jackson, and Titus Rubles.

"When you see our seniors and you look at Titus Rubles - he couldn't play any harder than he does," Coach Cronin told me.  "He's maximizing his potential at this level.  The same thing with Justin Jackson.  He could not have had a better senior year.  Sean Kilpatrick is a first-team All-American, he's scored over 2000 points, and you couldn't ask any more from him.  That's the biggest thing I learned from my father in coaching.  You try to demand a kid's best effort and when he gives that to you, you appreciate it.  Don't ask for more."

Of course, we all wanted more in the NCAA Tournament:  More games, more bragging rights, more memories.  But when you honestly evaluate the season, 27 wins, a share of the AAC regular season title, and a 4th straight trip to March Madness was pretty remarkable.

"I think this team has given everything that they possibly could have given us as their coach and as their fan base," said Cronin.  "Whenever that happens it's very rewarding because that's what you're shooting for as a coach."

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Catching up with running back Tion Green

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With the move of Ralph David Abernathy IV to receiver (although he'll still run some) UC looks like their moving toward bigger backs.

Though last year's rushing leader was Hosey Williams, who does put 200 pounds on a 5-foot-7 frame, the bigger back is No. 7, Tion Green.

Green's 409 yards were third behind Williams and Abernathy, but he did score more rushing touchdowns with seven.  A first look at Green in spring practice had many thinking he had put on pounds.

In actuality, Green has dropped weight, but apparently but on muscle. At around the 215 mark, Green looks primed to have an impact in the new, fast-paced offense. Of all of the runners, he does appear to have a nose for the endzone and a knack for running "downhill".

Here's the personable Mr. Green:

Kilpatrick Aims For Bigger Prize

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In 1941, Ted Williams batted .406 with 37 HR, 120 RBI, and the 7th best OPS in MLB history (1.2875).  It's been 73 years and no major league player has batted .400 since.

That year he was not the American League MVP.  Some guy named DiMaggio had a pretty good season too, including a 56-game hitting streak.  Furthermore, the Yankees finished 17 games ahead of the Red Sox in the American League standings.

When I attended the AAC awards event on Wednesday in Memphis, I never really considered the possibility that Sean Kilpatrick would not be named Player of the Year.

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Mick Cronin won Coach of the Year and Justin Jackson was named Defensive Player of the Year, but the mood at our table was subdued because Shabazz Napier of UConn received the league's top individual honor instead of Kilpatrick.

"Shabazz is a great player and had a great year," said Cronin.  "I just thought with us winning the conference it should have been a no-brainer.

"I'd trade Coach of the Year for him to win Player of the Year in a heartbeat."   

"Shabazz Napier is my guy so I'm not really mad, but I feel like SK should have won the award," said Jackson.  "Before the season, we were picked to be the number four team in the league and now we're the number one seed.  SK is the biggest reason."

In fairness to Napier, his all-around stats are worthy of MVP.  While Kilpatrick averaged 20.9 points to Napier's 17.8, Shabazz topped SK in rebounds and assists and had a slight edge in shooting percentage.

"The Player of the Year award is in great hands with him," said Kilpatrick.  "He's a great player."

But like Coach Cronin, I thought that Cincinnati's share of the American Conference title would be the difference in Kilpatrick's favor when voting for MVP.

Kilpatrick did not hide his disappointment or his desire to use it for added fuel.

"It's going to be 20 times harder for other teams now," he told reporters.

"We're very similar - we use any motivation we can get to drive ourselves," said Cronin.  "I think the greatest competitor of all-time Michael Jordan did that.  So in a way, I hope he uses it to push himself even further here in March."

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Ironically, one of Napier's former teammates did that three years ago.  BYU's Jimmer Fredette won the national Player of the Year awards, but UConn's Kemba Walker earned a greater prize by carrying the Huskies to an NCAA title.

"My message to SK is:  With all due respect to these awards, I'd like to be standing on a podium in Dallas in April next to him," said Cronin.  "And if he's MVP of something, he wants it to be the NCAA Tournament.

"You become a legend by what you do in March.  That's been my message to the guys all year.  We have a lot of former players that come around and I said, 'Do you ever notice which guys come around the most?'  I make them name names and after they do and I say, 'You do notice that most of those guys played in the Final Four.'  If you want to be remembered for a lifetime, you play on a Final Four team.  A National Championship team would be even better.  That's what it's all about."

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A Big Step On The Road Back For Legaux

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"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" - Lao-Tzu

Far be it from me to paraphrase a famous quote from an ancient Chinese philosopher, but for Munchie Legaux, the long journey back began with a single throw.

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On Tuesday morning, six months and four days after the gruesome knee dislocation he suffered in the second game of last season against Illinois, Legaux took part in passing drills for the first time since the injury as he continues his efforts to return to action in 2014.

"This was a huge day for me," Munchie told me.  "With the injury that I had, I didn't know if I was ever going to play again.  For me to come out here and even practice with my teammates - I mean, I didn't even put a helmet on for six or seven months so it felt kinda weird.  I'm just happy man.  I wouldn't have cared if I got one or two reps, it was just great to be there with these guys."

"Everybody was excited about him coming out here," said head coach Tommy Tuberville.  "He's been out here taking snaps but they wouldn't let him throw in drills.  It was good to see him a little bit mobile - he's probably about 50% of what he would have to be to be able to come out and practice and have somebody hit him, but he's come a long way in (six) months and I'm proud that he's out here.  He's working hard to get back on the field."

"After witnessing what happened, it's almost a miracle to see him out here smiling and throwing with us," said wide receiver Chris Moore.

(See video of Legaux at practice here)

Legaux dislocated his left knee and tore parts of all four ligaments when he was hit while throwing a pass vs. the Illini.  Fortunately, there was no nerve damage and Munchie began the rehab process as soon as possible with the goal of getting back on the field. 

"He was never really down or sad," said Moore.  "He just kept rehabbing and always had a smile on his face knowing that he would be back."

"He's doing whatever he needs to do to rehab," said Tuberville.  "From six o'clock in the morning to about eight every day and then come back in the afternoon and do it again.  It's hours and hours of painful rehab so I'm proud of him.  He's stood up to the task and he wants to play his last year.  I'm gonna tell ya, he's going to be hard to keep off the field if he keeps working like he's working."

"My next hurdle is to be able to run without a limp," said Legaux.  "We're still trying to get it stronger and there is still a lot of room for improvement.  But my next goal is to be able to run."

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And while there are no guarantees that Legaux will make it back on the field in the fall, he has already been an inspiration to his teammates and coaches.

"Those guys see the amount of work that I'm putting in when they come in from practice to the training room and see me doing therapy or rehab," said Legaux.  "A lot of times those guys will text me or even send videos they've taken of me working out.  You never know who is watching and you can brighten somebody's day by the amount of effort you put in."

"They're all pulling for him and when you go in the training room he's there," said Tuberville.  "He's Mr. Training Room.  He gets there early and stays late and when you're in this business as a player or coach you see that every day." 

"I think he'll make it back," said Moore.  "He's making strides and I didn't think he'd be this far along.  I'm no doctor, but he looks great and his arm is still there so I hope so."

"Aw man, it felt great," Munchie told me after practice.  "Just to be back out here with my teammates - competing, talking football, running around, throwing the ball - it felt great."

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Co-DC Hank Hughes on his Return to UC

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Like Eddie Gran, another member of the University of Cincinnati football coach has returned to the Bearcats from an earlier stint.

Co-defensive coordinator Hank Hughes was on Tim Murphy's staff in 1993 when the Bearcats broke a ten-season losing skid with an 8-3 effort. That season included what was then a rare stop by a bowl officer as the "Poulan Weedeater Independence Bowl" officer was here for a Bearcats' game against Memphis.

As some may recall, Cincinnati was treated to a rare, late October snowstorm and the desired attendance for the game at Nippert was not reached (even including the snowman someone had made in the Herschede-Shank Pavilion).

UC won that game and eventually finished with a win over East Carolina for the 8-3 season that catapulted Murphy to Harvard and Boston where he was from. Hughes went with Murphy to the Ivy League, then spent three seasons at Memphis before spending the last 14 seasons at Connecticut.

He now returns to a team with a better identity, better facilities and better players. Here's my chat with Coach Hughes at a recent practice.

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Titus = Toughness

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I'm not about to suggest that he pours in jumpers like Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, but with God as my witness, Titus Rubles makes a good percentage of his outside shots at UC basketball practices.  Unfortunately, that has rarely carried over to the games in his two years with the Bearcats.

"I don't know why - I wish I had the answer," said UC assistant coach Darren Savino.  "I know in the drills that he doesn't hesitate and he makes a high percentage.  In the games it seems that he's hesitant and that's a tough thing to get over." 

"When you're missing shots you're like, 'Dang, I make these all day in practice,'" Rubles told me.  "But what I keep telling myself is that my day is going to come.  I'm just going to keep working."

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Despite his shooting woes, Rubles has been a major reason why the Bearcats are 46-17 in his two seasons and headed to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.

"Titus Rubles is our heart and soul," said head coach Mick Cronin.  "He gives everybody on the team confidence because he's afraid of nothing.  What he may lack in skill level in terms of shooting the basketball, he definitely makes up for it with fortitude, toughness, and in being a fearless competitor."

"He's one of those intangible guys," said Sean Kilpatrick.  "He sets screens that allow me to get open, he rebounds, he dives on the floor - there are a lot of things that he does that don't show up on the stat sheet."

"Titus Rubles gives you everything that coaches talk about that fans really don't understand sometimes," said Cronin.  "They say, 'Coach is always talking about toughness when they need to get some scorers.'  Let me tell you something.  Titus Rubles' toughness is a big reason why we're sitting here at 24-5."

That trait caught Coach Savino's eye from the very beginning.   

"The first time that I saw Titus play was at a JUCO jamboree," said Savino.  "I was watching random games and trying to find guys that we didn't know about and instantly he stood out with his toughness and aggressiveness. He had what I call, 'The look of a Bearcat.'  I watched him the rest of the weekend and he did a lot of things that fit what we do and I thought Coach Cronin would like him and his style of play."

"We will sorely, sorely miss him next year when he is gone because that is stuff that comes from within," said Cronin.  "You can't go into the gym and work on having a fearless attitude every day.  That means wins, although it doesn't show in the box score.  I can't imagine where we would be without him."

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And while Rubles is only averaging 7.0 points a game, he probably scored Cincinnati's most important basket of the year so far - the game-winning bucket with four seconds left to beat Pitt in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

(Listen to the radio call here)

Rubles calls it the highlight of his UC career.

"It is, and the place that it happened made it a highlight too," said Rubles.  "I still have the headband that I was wearing when I hit the shot.  I'll probably never wash it."

"The tougher the game, the bigger the moment, the tougher the environment; the more physical he plays and the more he gets done," said Cronin.

On senior night vs. Memphis, the loudest cheers will undoubtedly be reserved for Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson, but Rubles deserves a lengthy ovation as well.   

"Titus has made as much of an impact as any two-year player here in a long, long time," said Cronin.

"I feel like I made a really good decision coming here," Rubles told me.  "I've been on two teams that have been in the Top 10 and that doesn't happen for a lot of JUCO guys.  I really like the city of Cincinnati and this has been a really good experience for me.  It's crazy that it's coming to an end.  It seems like it's gone by so fast."

"To win a war you've got to have some soldiers, and he's a soldier," said Cronin.

**********

I haven't posted a photo of the handsome lad lately.  On Senior Night it seems appropriate to include this picture of Sam wearing one of his favorite Christmas gifts this year.

Sam in SK jersey (330x440).jpg

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Meet Transfer QB Jarred Evans

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If you see a young man around campus wearing a Seahawks jersey and looking like Russell Wilson, you're sadly mistaken.

You won't be too far off though as the person you're looking at is also a football player and a quarterback.

Coming to Cincinnati from Queens, by way of Santa Barbara, Calif., Jarred Evans is a dead ringer for the Super Bowl-winning quarterback. A dead ringer, with a live arm.

Wearing No. 12 for the Bearcats, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound signal caller can throw, run and throw on the run. Judging from the direction of Coach Tommy Tuberville's Bearcat offense, he should fit in just fine.

Evans will compete for the job this spring with sophomore Gunner Kiel, senior Michael Colosimo and true freshman Hayden Moore. Also, lurking around practice and waiting to return this summer is Munchie Legaux.

In other words, Coach Tuberville and the 'Cats have some options and some pretty darn good ones.

Here's a snippet of Mr. Evans from a recent practice at the Sheakley Athletic Center:

Luc Hopes To Be Man In Middle

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The UC Bearcats will have a new starting quarterback in the fall.

On both sides of the ball.

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In addition to losing QB Brendon Kay, two-time all-conference middle linebacker Greg Blair - who helped call signals on defense - also exhausted his eligibility last season.

When spring football opened last week, the new man in the middle of the Bearcats defense was Jeff Luc who started at outside linebacker last year.

"Right now Jeff Luc is starting in the middle and we'll see what he's got," said head coach Tommy Tuberville.  "He's a senior, he knows how to play football, he understands it, and he just has to put it all together."

"I adapted better than I thought I would for the first day," Luc told me.  "It felt like it was my natural position.  I'm not just saying that.  The calls went well, I was getting the fronts right, and I feel comfortable.  I feel like everybody on the defense was working with me and when you have amazing athletes around you, everything is a lot easier."

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"We're looking at everybody right now and he's a guy that has some physical tools," said defensive coordinator Hank Hughes.  "We'll see how everybody progresses in terms of learning their assignments and techniques.  He's a guy that we're looking forward to being a good player for us."   

"I think we've got good speed at linebacker," said Tuberville.  "I think the whole key for us is to get the right guys in the right spots in spring practice." 

After starring at Treasure Coast HS in Florida, Luc was rated as the nation's top middle linebacker prospect by multiple recruiting services and originally enrolled at Florida State.  Although he transferred to Cincinnati after two seasons, Jeff was excited when his former FSU teammates won the national championship last season.

"I've been keeping up with them since I left," said Luc.  "I still have a lot of boys there and in my mind they're still like my brothers.  That's who I came out of high school with, I was there for two years, and I still speak to those guys like three days a week.  They're still a big part of me and that friendship and brotherhood is not going to change."

In a Sports Illustrated story about Florida State's victory over Auburn in the BCS Championship, Luc is referred as the "Pied Piper of FSU's turnaround," as writer Andy Staples described how Luc's commitment to Florida State helped head coach Jimbo Fisher build a contender:

Fisher, in one of his first acts as head coach, hosted a group of top recruits on official visits. One of them was Jeff Luc, a Bunyanesque linebacker from Port St. Lucie, Fla. Fellow recruits in the class of 2010 treated Luc like a rock star. They delighted in his slobberknocker-heavy highlight video and shared it on social media. They marveled at his 6'1", 240-pound physique, which resembled that of a five-year NFL veteran's. Fisher wanted a grown-ass man, and Luc fit the bill. When he committed to the Seminoles while in Tallahassee on Dec. 5, the other recruits noticed.

"I'm not going to say that it was just because of me," said Luc.  "Lamarcus Joyner and I sat down and said that we should go to school together and see if we could bring some more boys in.  I guess he wanted me to make my move first, so when I committed to Florida State he committed and it started rolling.  It was a whole bunch of great athletes coming together and wanting to play on the same team."

Luc was a leader of that highly-touted recruiting class and is expected to be one of Cincinnati's primary team leaders in 2014.

"I just feel like I have a different role," Luc told me.  "Usually people say that they lead by example, but I think it's time for me to be more vocal and I'm working on that."

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And in addition to his new role, Jeff has a new number switching from 48 to 1.

"I just wanted something different," said Luc.  "It's a new year, I'm at a new position, and it's a new beginning. 

"It's a whole different point of view for me because I'm in the middle of everything and that's where I want to be."

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