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."
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."
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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