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Bearcats Embrace Twitter With Caution

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On April 6th, the website NBAdraft.net started a mild panic among some UC basketball fans when it listed Sean Kilpatrick among the current college players who are likely to leave school early this year for the NBA draft.

Kilpatrick quickly put out the fire on his Twitter account.

It was a savvy use of social media as Kilpatrick quickly defused the rumor by communicating directly with the nearly 6,000 people that follow him on Twitter - many of whom promptly re-tweeted his message to thousands of others.

"I love Twitter and the fact that you get to speak to people across the world every day," Kilpatrick told me.  "For example, I communicate with former Bearcat Kenny Satterfield nearly every day.   I'm happy that I have people like him constantly in my ear about staying focused.  That's big."

Former UC football star JK Schaffer (@Schaff37) is also a fan of Twitter who sends frequent tweets to more than 2,000 followers.

"It's fun to reach out to people," Schaffer said.  "You get to show fans your appreciation and you get to show your love for your team.  There are a lot of things that I really like about it."

But social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are obviously an area of concern for Cincinnati's head coaches.  According to a recent story in USA Today, Boise State, Mississippi State, and South Carolina are among the universities where coaches have banned or limited tweeting.

"In the age that we live in today, all it takes is one bad decision or choice of words and that lives forever with you," said UC head football coach Butch Jones.  "It's the age that we live in, so you try to educate them and make policies, just like you would with your own kids.

"One of the most powerful things that we did was bring in the National Football League's Director of Player Development Troy Vincent.  He posted all of our players Tweets and knew how many of them were on there, and I think our kids were amazed at how much was out there."

"Coach Jones definitely spends a lot of time teaching about social networking and how it can definitely get you in trouble," said Schaffer.  "You can't post things about your team that you shouldn't be talking about - there are things that stay within the football family.  You have to learn to censor yourself and hold back your personal feelings on some things." 

"We don't let anyone know what's going on the locker room or what's going on with the team, period," said Kilpatrick.  "I think everyone has done a great job with that."

While Kilpatrick does not share locker room secrets, he does keep followers informed about his daily activities and frequently states his love for the Cincinnati fan base.

"I appreciate all of the people that follow us on Twitter, because they come to our games and support us throughout the season," said Kilpatrick.  "Besides being a basketball player, I'm just a person at the end of the day and I try to show everyone that you might know the Sean Kilpatrick that you see on the court, but you don't know him off the court." 

Thanks to Twitter, we know that Kilpatrick will be back for his junior season, but if he does eventually become a professional athlete, he'll already have experience in dealing with social media.  It's one of benefits that Bearcat athletes receive by being taught to use Twitter and Facebook responsibly while they are still in school. 

"What you have to make sure is that your players understand the ramifications that go along with Twitter," said Coach Jones.  "There's nothing private about any of that, and they have to understand the repercussions of their choice of words."

"When you post things on social networks, you're representing your university, your team, your coach, and yourself," said Schaffer. 

Before becoming a Hall of Fame college basketball head coach, Jim Boeheim was the varsity golf coach at Syracuse University.

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Mike Bajakian, the offensive coordinator for the UC football team, has a similar line in the early portion of his resume.

"I almost don't want to admit this," Bajakian told me with a laugh, "but in addition to coaching football and baseball, I was a head bowling coach at the high school level."

Hey, it's a sport where you throw the ball on every play right?

All kidding aside, when you look at Bajakian's history as a football coach, it's easy to see why he's held in such high regard by UC head coach Butch Jones.

In 2001, Mike helped coach the punt rush at the University of Michigan.  The Wolverines blocked a school-record eight punts that year.

From 2004 to 2006, he was on the offensive staff for the Chicago Bears, culminating in a trip to Super Bowl XLI in his final season.

Since 2007, Bajakian has been the offensive coordinator under Jones at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.  More than 30 school records were set during their tenure at CMU, and at UC, the Bearcats have ranked in the top two in the Big East in scoring in each of the last two seasons. 

"There isn't anyone that I trust more than Mike Bajakian handling our offense," said Coach Jones.  "We share the exact same beliefs and it's a comfort level where we always know what the other person is thinking.  I think that comes with time spent working with each other.  He is of the highest character, he's extremely competitive, and I can't say enough about him."

"Coach Bajakian doesn't like to lose," said Isaiah Pead.  "He's not a big guy, but when he speaks, we all listen.  We all respect him and know that he wants to win just as bad as we do."

Bajakian was a Division III quarterback at prestigious Williams College in Massachusetts - George Steinbrenner's Alma mater - where he led the team to an unbeaten streak of 22 games (21-0-1).

"I think they accidently let me in," said Bajakian.  "Small college football gives 5-foot-10; 165 pound backup high school quarterbacks a chance to play at the college level.  A 0-0 tie was the very anticlimactic end to my college playing career."

In 2010 and 2011, Forbes Magazine ranked Williams College as the best undergraduate institution in the United States - ahead of every Ivy League university.  Bajakian majored in history but knew before graduation that he wanted to pursue a career in football.

"Since the day I realized that I wasn't going to play for a living, I knew that I wanted to stay involved in the game and always thought that I would be a teacher and a coach," Bajakian told me.  "Late in my college career, I got the itch to get into coaching at the college level and pursued it after two years in (high school) teaching.

"People often ask me why I coach and I tell them that I'm not qualified to do anything else.  But the reality of it is, I love the relationships.  There are so many emotional highs and lows that you go through as a coach that you develop really close relationships.  It's not something that you can get in the everyday workforce - I truly believe that." 

Bajakian's relationships with the players go beyond football.

"We get the opportunity to mentor young men who are still very impressionable and who are still developing their character and world view," said Bajakian.  "I try to talk to them about quite a bit more than football and academics.  I gave a physics lesson in our meeting the other day to try to illustrate a point."

"He's well-rounded to say the least," said Coach Jones.  "The great thing about Mike is that he is a student of the game.  We are in a CANI Principle business - Constant And Never Ending Improvement.  He is always doing that."

"If you spend two minutes with him, you know that he is a very intelligent guy," said Pead.  "Spend another two minutes with him, and you can tell that he knows a lot about football.  We're blessed to have him and hopefully he can stick around."

Bajakian says that becoming a head coach is one of his goals, but he appears to be in no hurry.

"For me, every day is about learning and growing professionally," Mike told me.  "Honestly, I could be in no better place than right here in Cincinnati because I'm learning from the best coach in the country - I honestly mean that.  When it comes to motivating a team and getting so much out of players and coaches, I really believe that Butch Jones is the best in the country."

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Draft Day Approaches For Pead and Wolfe

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The NFL draft begins in nine days and UC might have the necessary funds to renovate Nippert Stadium if head coach Butch Jones had a dollar for every phone call he's received about the Bearcats' pro prospects.

"NFL teams have left no stone unturned," Jones told me.  "I've talked to just about every scout and a number of head coaches and general managers.  So have our position coaches, (strength coach) Dave Lawson, and right down to Keri Thoman who heads up our academics.  Teams have done their due diligence and it's going to be a fun time for Bearcat Nation to see where they land."

Isaiah Pead and Derek Wolfe are locks to be selected this year.  Pead boosted his stock by being named the MVP of the Senior Bowl and was among the fastest running backs at the NFL Scouting Combine when he clocked a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash.

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"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder from team to team, and I'm hearing anywhere from second to third round with Isaiah," said Coach Jones.

"He was under the radar until the Senior Bowl and he really blew up there," said ESPN's Todd McShay.  "He's versatile, quick, and I think he has a chance to be in that third round range and a steal for an NFL team that's looking for a versatile back."

McShay's fellow ESPN draft expert - Mel Kiper - recently tweeted that Pead would be a good choice for Tampa Bay if he is still available early in the third round.

What does Pead think of the speculation?

"I live in a bubble," Isaiah told me.  "I'm still a college student and I don't have cable or internet at home.  I just hang out with the guys and stay away from that.  You can't get caught up in it because nobody really knows what goes on in the meeting rooms of NFL teams.  I used to have butterflies early in this process, but now my emotions have calmed down and I'm just praying for the best."

While Pead is widely projected to be the first Bearcat selected, Kiper's latest mock draft shows New England selecting Wolfe with the next-to-last pick in the first round.

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"I love the versatility he can bring," said Kiper.  "I projected Wolfe as a surprise first-round pick by the Patriots because a scheme-versatile team can use a guy like him, who can be a one-gap guy in a 3-4 or easily flip to a 4-3 defensive tackle up front.  I've seen him on some boards as low as the third round.  He should go higher."

"I think Derek Wolfe's stock is rising daily, which is a tribute to how hard he's worked," said Coach Jones.  "The thing I keep hearing is that he has the reputation for being the hardest-playing defensive lineman in college football last year.  I think that's a tribute to (UC defensive line coach) Steve Stripling and to Derek for buying in."

The other Bearcats who are most likely to be picked are defensive lineman John Hughes and tight end Adrien Robinson who clocked a 4.56 40-yard dash at 264 pounds at Cincinnati's pro day. 

"After about game four, John Hughes really came on," said Jones.  "I think that he's worked himself into a position of possibly being drafted.  And Adrien Robinson is really gaining great momentum going into the draft."

J.K. Schaffer and Zach Collaros are generally not projected to be drafted, but could wind up in NFL training camps as free agents.

"I'm really proud of all of these individuals and how far they've come," said Jones.  "We take great pride in our players being NFL-ready and I think you see that.  I think it's a compliment to them, I think it's a compliment to Dave Lawson, and I think it's a compliment to our program."

Connor Barwin, Brent Celek, Trent Cole, Kevin Huber, and Jason Kelce are among the former Bearcats who are playing big roles on their NFL teams and Pead hopes to join them.

On Saturday, I asked Isaiah where he will be during the draft.

"I'll be in Columbus at my grandparents' house with my family and friends and it's an open invitation," Pead said.  "You can come if you want to."

I appreciate the offer, but I'll proudly watch on TV.  Along with thousands of other Bearcat fans.

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Brendon Kay Battling For Starting QB Position

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Nobody at UC will ever question the toughness of quarterback Brendon Kay.

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As a true freshman in 2008, Kay suffered a devastating knee injury...and kept playing.

"It was a bye week during the Orange Bowl year," said Kay.  "As the scout team quarterback, I got hit by Ricardo Mathews and I hyperextended it.  It was a grade two and they put me in a brace for a couple of weeks.  I came out of the brace and scrimmaged a few days later and just planted on it and blew everything out...ACL, MCL, both meniscus.  I actually played the next play and probably hurt it worse.  It was an outside zone running play so I had to move.  After that, it was bad."

Kay has been battling back from that injury for the last 3-and-a-half years and now as he prepares for his final season as a Bearcat, the 5th-year senior is not even wearing a knee brace.

"If I'm going to go out there, I want to feel normal and I don't want to be thinking about my knee," Brendon told me.  "I just want to go out there and play.  My knee feels great and I'm 100 percent."

"It's come a long way - you don't see a limp or any effects of the knee injury," said head coach Butch Jones.  "His knee is actually stronger than it has ever been which a tribute to his work ethic."

"He's moving very well, and everything that we ask the quarterback to do, I feel confident that he can execute it," said quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian. "He's a tough son-of-a-gun.  He's taken some licks out here on the practice field that he pops up from and you're like, 'Wow.'  There's nobody that questions his toughness."

Heading into Saturday's Bearcat Bowl VI, Kay is battling junior Munchie Legaux to be Cincinnati's starting quarterback next season.  A few weeks ago, Coach Jones told me that Legaux was number one and Kay was 1-A, but following the team's final practice before the spring game, Jones said the two QBs are running even.

"I would say now that they are 1 and 1," said Jones.  "Brendon Kay has done a great job of getting himself back into playing shape; he's a great student of the game, and a great competitor.  They will continue to compete and I think that competition is extremely healthy."

"The competition will continue to exist into the summer and into training camp," said Bajakian.

"That has pushed me every day to keep working," said Kay.  "I think spring ball has gone great and we'll see what happens.  I'm just going to keep playing ball and keep working every day."

Kay is 6'4", 237 pounds and has a powerful arm.  In the practices that I've attended this spring, he's completed more deep throws than Legaux, but isn't as big a threat in the running game.

"He has had a good spring and has stepped up his game in a lot of ways," said Bajakian.  "He has mentally mastered the offense.  There is not a question that I am able to ask in the meeting room that stumps him - and I mean that.  He is really sharp mentally, he has worked his butt off, he has earned the respect of his teammates, and he is battling."

"I'm very comfortable and I know the offense inside-and-out," said Kay.  "I just stick to the progressions and do what the coaches are saying.  Whenever my number is called, I'll be ready to go - it's that simple." 

Even if Kay is not Cincinnati's opening night starter in September, the odds are that he will get meaningful playing time in 2012.  UC's starting quarterback has missed at least one start due to injury in each of the last six years and Brendon is eager to prove himself.

"I want to play - I want to show everyone what I can do," Kay told me. 

"He has worked extremely hard to put himself into a position to go into training camp competing for the job," said Coach Jones.  "As we all know, you can never have just one quarterback."

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Speaking of young Sam, here he is proudly wearing his first baseball uniform.

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Late Night Grub Helps UC Grow Beard

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I have something in common with UC sophomore Camaron Beard:  Both of us spent our college years chowing down late at night.

In my case, the motivation was a combination of gluttony and procrastination.  I would put off my studies and happily trek from Syracuse University's Watson Hall dormitory to the nearby Wimpy Wagon food truck where I would indulge my late-night craving for a "cheese jaw."

(The cheese jaw was basically two extremely greasy cheeseburgers sitting side-by-side on a toasted sub roll.  I would give a year's salary for one right now).

In Camaron Beard's case, the late-night feasts are not delaying his schoolwork and are much healthier than mine were as he tries to become a dominant defense tackle at the college level.     

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"I was probably about 235 pounds when I committed to UC in high school, so I've definitely packed on a few pounds - I'm around 275-280 now," Beard told me.  "Me and teammate Eric Lefeld would wake up in the middle of the night and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  That was our secret.  We had to eat regularly to keep our weight up.  At times we even set an alarm.  I've definitely gone up a couple of sizes in clothes."

The Bearcats are hoping that bigger clothes will help Beard fill gigantic shoes - he and Jordan Stepp are expected to replace tackles Derek Wolfe and John Hughes in UC's starting lineup.

"They are big shoes to fill, but if there's anyone capable of doing it, it's Camaron Beard," said head coach Butch Jones.  "I like what I've seen so far."

"What separates John and Derek from Cam is their FBI - their football intelligence," said defensive line coach Steve Stripling.  "They kind of knew if it was run or pass before the play and Camaron is getting to that point.  I'm going to tell you this - he's a treat to coach because he has a great attitude, never says 'boo,' and is a wonderful kid from a wonderful family."

Derek Wolfe will be especially difficult for Cincinnati to replace.  Last year Wolfe was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East as he led the conference and ranked fifth nationally in tackles for loss (21.5) and tied for 16th in the nation in sacks (9.5).

"Watching Derek was definitely a great learning experience," said Beard.  "He really taught me how to play and set the standard for how the position should be played.  When you watch him on film, you see how physical he is.  I just want my play to replicate that."

"Camaron is a big body and has a great frame," said Coach Stripling.  "I think he's going to continue to grow and be a Wolfe-style player.  He's been in the program for two years and right now, I'm really excited that he's here.  We put kids in high pressure situations today and some guys get the 'big eyes' on their face, but he doesn't.  He's maturing and I'm really excited about it."

At 6'5", Beard is just as tall as Wolfe and gives the Bearcats a commanding presence in the middle of the defensive line.

"I originally came here as a defensive end, but I feel like I am a tackle at heart now," said Beard.  "I like being in the trenches and I wouldn't have it any other way." 

"People don't appreciate the life of a tackle," said Coach Stripling.  "You get two 300-pounders banging on you on every play.  That can wear you out, and the coaches are still yelling 'run to the ball.'  To me, defensive tackles have the tough world in football."

It is a tough job, but at least Beard gets to reward himself with those late night PB & J sandwiches.

"It's helped me play the position better," said Beard.  "I couldn't play inside at 250 pounds."

"I'll tell you what, he's one of the most improved players this spring," said Coach Jones.  "I love his mentality and his work ethic, and I'm very excited to see where he is come August."

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Frey Gives Bearcats Sixth Sense

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As a true freshman in 2007, Drew Frey dislocated his shoulder during preseason practice and missed the entire season.

As a redshirt freshman in 2008, Frey broke his right arm in week four and missed the rest of that year.

Since Frey suffered separate season-ending injuries, the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility which he will use in 2012.  That means the 23-year-old from Wilmington might be the most experienced active player in college football.

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"I think this is spring practice number five for me, so I'm probably setting a record," Drew said with a laugh.  "Every single guy that I came in with is long gone now and moving on to bigger and better things, but I feel like I'm just as much a part of the team as the young guys.  Age-wise I don't feel older, but I don't know how many guys in the country are working on their fifth spring practice."

I expected Frey to be a bit jaded about going through spring practice drills for the fifth time, but instead, he sounds like a freshman who is trying to make his mark.   

"This is the strongest that I've ever been, the heaviest that I've even been, and I don't think that I've lost any speed, so I'm really excited," Frey told me.  "You're always working to get better, so this is just another opportunity for me to improve.  It's awesome to be with the guys and work to get better every day."

Frey has been a starter at safety for the last three seasons (36 career starts) and earned first team All-Big East honors last year.  He also earned Academic All-Big East honors after finishing the winter quarter with a 3.667 GPA in Architectural Engineering.  Drew excelled on the field, despite having to miss considerable practice time due to his academic load.

"I loved math and science in high school and I wanted to come to Cincinnati because they had a great engineering program," said Frey.  "It's pretty demanding, but it's bearable and as long as I have the support of the coaching staff and they're willing to work with me, it all works out." 

"He's seen it all," said head coach Butch Jones.  "The sacrifices that he's made with his schooling and the internships - lifting weights on his own and doing the little things - it's been great to have him back this spring on a day-to-day basis.  He brings so much to the table for us.  I think he's a great resource for a lot of our younger players." 

Frey's study of architecture has given him a unique appreciation for 89-year-old Nippert Stadium.

"I'm intrigued by how certain things can stand and withstand the elements and last for 50 or 100 years," said Frey.  "It's right in the middle of campus and they've built all of these huge buildings around it, but it's still standing right there as the centerpiece.  I'd like to be part of the team that puts an addition on it.  I think that's something that is in our near future here at UC and that would be awesome."

But first, Drew is getting ready for his sixth and final season.  After losing seniors JK Schaffer, Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, and Wesley Richardson from last year's starting defense, Coach Jones is counting on Frey to be one of the Bearcats leaders this fall.

"He has to be," said Jones.  "We've challenged him - along with Walter Stewart, Maalik Bomar, Jordan Stepp, and Dan Giordano - all of those individuals need to step up and they have.  They've embraced that role and done a great job to date."

"I want to be one of those guys that the team goes to when we're in a sudden change environment or a backs-against-the-wall environment," said Frey.  "Especially in the secondary.  We need a guy who is going to step up and take charge and I want to do that." 

He's certainly had plenty of training.

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Let's face it; the last six years haven't been easy for Mick Cronin.

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The program was an absolute mess when he took the job.  A huge portion of the fan base was still pining for his former boss.  And steady progress didn't satisfy many people who had grown accustomed to Top 25 rankings and annual trips to the NCAA Tournament.

Mick's critics were vocal and often vicious.  But if that bothered him, Coach Cronin never let it show.   

"People are going to be skeptical - it's only natural," Mick told me.  "That's the nature of the beast and if you let that bother you, then they're right.  You should have never been appointed the head coach if you're not tough enough to stay focused on what's important. 

"I knew everything that was going to happen when I took the job.  People in Cincinnati knew me as a young guy from the west side or as an assistant coach.  They didn't know me as a head coach.  It was interesting when I went to Murray State - I was immediately accepted as a head coach because nearly every young assistant that has gone to Murray State has been wildly successful.  So there wasn't a big barrier of people saying, 'Can this guy be a head coach?'  Cincinnati had a great coach that had resurrected the program in the modern era who didn't leave on the best of terms.  Who was happy about that?  I wasn't happy about it in Murray, Kentucky."

When Mick took the job in March of 2006, some of his friends in the coaching profession thought he was nuts to take on the challenge and destined to fail.  But Cronin reasoned that getting his dream job was worth the time and effort required to rebuild the program.     

"The Cincinnati job was obviously in a bad spot at the time, but what if I would have passed on it?" said Cronin.  "What if somebody would have come in and done a good job and rebuilt the program and I would have never had the chance again?  In life, you can't always have everything.  If you get a chance to get the job that you've coveted your whole life since you realized that you're a midget and your playing days are over - you can't also want it to be in great shape. 

"Sometimes you have to take a chance and believe in yourself.  It hasn't been easy - I'm not going to lie - but at the same time, I think that sometimes in coaching, to get what you want, you have to be willing to take a chance and find out if you're cut out for it.  I don't want to talk about how tough it's been too much because it's also been the opportunity of a lifetime.  No matter what happens for me, I'll always get to say that I was the head coach of the Bearcats." 

Over the last two seasons, Mick Cronin has led his Alma mater to 52 wins, two NCAA tournament trips, a Sweet 16 appearance, and a runner-up finish in the Big East Tournament.  Additionally, he was widely praised for his postgame reaction to the Crosstown Shootout brawl.   

If my e-mail inbox is any indication, Mick has turned many of his former critics into supporters who are now thrilled that Cincinnati has a young, successful head coach that wants to stay here. 

But Coach Cronin's reaction to acclaim isn't much different from his reaction to blame.

"It's a constant proving ground - it doesn't matter who you are," Mick told me.  "You have to focus on doing your job.  You have to ignore criticism and deflect praise and just try to get better every day. 

"You can't take that stuff personally.  You just do your job and in time, everything will work itself out.  But you have to get your job done and my job is far from done."

Not as far as it was six years ago.

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Munchie Looks To Make His Case

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When Butch Jones became the head football coach at Central Michigan, he didn't have to worry about finding a quarterback.  Dan LeFevour led the Chippewas to a MAC title the previous year as a redshirt freshman, and Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian helped him develop into the only quarterback in NCAA history with more than 12,000 passing yards and 2,500 rushing yards.

When Jones left CMU for Cincinnati, he inherited quarterback Zach Collaros who had excelled in limited action the previous year as a back-up to the injured Tony Pike.  Under Jones and Bajakian, Collaros earned All-Big East honors in his two seasons as the Bearcats' starter.

That got me thinking.  As Jones prepares for his sixth season as a college head coach, is this the first time that he's held spring practice without knowing who his starting quarterback is going to be?

"That's a great question and you're the first person that has asked me that," said Jones.  "The answer is yes.  We've always had competition, but you kind of knew who the guy was going to be.  I think it makes for an exciting and extremely competitive spring."

When I attended practice this week, junior Munchie Legaux took most of the first team snaps at quarterback, but Jones says the position is up for grabs.

"Right now, Munchie is number one and I would say that Brendon Kay is 1-A," said Jones.  "Both of those individuals are doing well and competing while helping each other out.  We're bringing Patrick Coyne along as well, and you can see him starting to grow each and every day.   I've been encouraged by all of our quarterbacks, but it's still the little things, the small details - taking care of the football in the red zone, not making catastrophic mistakes - that's what it's all about."   

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The favorite to win the job would seem to be Legaux for the simple reason that he is the only candidate who has started a college game.  The Louisiana native replaced an injured Collaros in the second quarter of the West Virginia game and nearly led the Bearcats to a dramatic come-from-behind victory.  Then after struggling in his first start - a 20-3 loss at Rutgers - Legaux guided the Bearcats to back-to-back victories to end the regular season.

"The encouraging thing about Munchie is the game-speed reps that he received," said Jones.  "On top of that, he had to play in meaningful games last year, and the mark of a great quarterback is leading their team to victory on the road in a hostile environment.  He did that at Syracuse in a must-win situation against a very physical football team who dominated us the year before.  Then he came home in a must-win situation to earn a league championship against UConn."

"Being the number two guy last year, Coach Jones would always tell me that you never know when your number is going to be called and when it's called you have to respond," said Legaux.  "In that West Virginia game it was called.  I felt like I was prepared, but I wasn't ready.  I knew the offense and things like that, but when I went in, things didn't flow the way they were supposed to."

Legaux looked very comfortable at the practice that I attended this week, completing most of his intermediate passes and breaking off a couple of long runs.

"He adds another dimension to the offense," said safety Drew Frey.  "It's hard as a defensive back and you really have to be on your game because when they do zone-reads, is it a run by the running back or is a zone keep with the quarterback?  That element of surprise is going to add a lot to our offense because Munchie is not slow by any means. He's an athlete and he's shown that he has definitely worked on his throwing ability as well.  I'm excited to get the ball rolling."

"There are so many things that he brings to the table offensively," said Coach Jones.  "You can really be creative with him and put stress on the defense."

Since Legaux played wide receiver as a freshman, he's working hard at mastering the offense in his second season as a quarterback.

"I'm trying to learn the playbook inside and out, knowing the intentions of Coach Bajakian - why he's calling certain plays, what he's trying to get accomplished," said Legaux.  "Not turning the ball over, leading my team to victories.  Just being 'that guy.'  Being the leader on offense."

Leadership ability is a key element that Coach Jones will consider when choosing his next starting quarterback.

"We have some tapes of Trent Dilfer on what it is to be a quarterback that they listen to," said Jones.  "You have to be the alpha male.  You have to be the guy that's in control when you walk in the room.  You're their leader.  It can be overwhelming at times, but I think that all three of the quarterbacks are embracing the expectation that comes with that position."

"Coach Jones preaches to us every day that leadership is not a sometimes thing - it's an all the time thing," said Legaux.  "Every day you have to wake up with your mind set on how you're going to lead your team today.  I wake up saying that I'm going to have a great practice.  If the quarterback is down, then everybody is down.  I try to have energy every day and when people are down at practice, I try my best to pick them up.  That's a leader."

Does Legaux consider himself to be the front-runner in the battle to win the position?

"Yes, but you don't want to get too comfortable because somebody is always out there to take your spot," Munchie told me.  "I don't want to get too relaxed, because the guys behind me are good.  You never know, they might have a great day and I might have a bad day and the tables could turn.  So I want to come out here every day with the mentality that I'm going to be the leader and it's going to be my team.

"I'm ready.  I wish the first game was tomorrow."

I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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No Binoculars Needed

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The UC Bearcats began the season ranked 21st in the country, but after eight games, Cincinnati appeared more likely to play in the CBI than the NCAAs.

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"We were so far from the NCAA Tournament that we couldn't see it with binoculars," said head coach Mick Cronin.

Here is Cincinnati's resume after eight games (with opponent's final RPI rating):

Wins:  Alabama St. (308), Jacksonville St. (220), Northwestern St. (217), Miami (248), and Georgia (100).

Losses:  Presbyterian (245), Marshall (43), Xavier (41).             

That's how things looked on December 11th.  Oh yeah, the Bearcats had also just been in a little brawl that you might have heard about.

"I told the staff that we have to forget about anything other than practice today," said Cronin.

While Mick knew that the season was on the verge of spiraling down the drain, he never shared that fear with his players.

"I didn't want my players thinking that we were dead in the water and you can't have them panicking," Mick told me.  "They had enough pressure on them at that point of the season."

But the players don't live in a hermetically sealed vault.  They knew how bleak things looked.

"We knew that our backs were against the wall," said Cashmere Wright.  "Either your season goes downhill, or you go after what you want."

Coach Cronin was able to turn the season around by relying on lessons learned during his first few years on the job.

"The one thing you learn when you rebuild a program is that you just have to control today," said Cronin.  "You can't worry about February in December.  On December 11th, you have to worry about December 11th.  If your leader is worried about other things, than the players are going to worry about other things.  You have to worry about the things that you can control, work hard, stay positive, and block out outside influences.  That's how you improve."

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Since the Xavier loss - and brawl - the Bearcats have gone 21-7 with eight wins over Top 25-ranked opponents.  Statistically, their biggest improvement has been on offense where the Bearcats have gone from averaging 62 points to 70 points, but Coach Cronin says a commitment to playing defense saved their season.

"That was the metamorphosis of our team," said Cronin.  "It had nothing to do with a fight.  It was Yancy, Cash, SK, and Dion - those four guys had to change their basketball personality.  Their basketball personality was offense player - and good offensive player.  We lost five (seniors) that had a defensive personality.  Those four guys had to change their basketball personality or we weren't going to win.  And it took time to do that.  We were soft early in the year."

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"Coach Cronin kept telling us that defense wins," said Wright.  "Early on I think we were more worried about our offense, but he told us that we're not going to win games because of our offense.  The better we play on defense, the easier the game is going to get.  We just bought into it."

As a result, the Bearcats are one of 16 teams still alive in the tournament.  That's the NCAA Tournament and not the NIT, CBI, or CIT.

"I was always confident because of the players that we have - even off the court - everyone on this team is competitive and I always had it in my mind that we weren't going to let the season slip out of our hands," said Sean Kilpatrick.  "We are a lot stronger than that."

"We just figured that sooner or later it was going to click," said Wright.  "The core group that we had from last year to this year is totally different.  We went from seniors to a lot of freshman, so we really didn't jell that well at first.  But we knew that the more and more that we played together, we were going to get better.  We kept grinding and knew the goal that we wanted to accomplish this year."

The goal now is to survive and advance against the heavily-favored Ohio State Buckeyes.  If any team is prepared for the win-or-go-home crucible of March Madness, it is Cincinnati.

"We've been in must-win games since December 14th at Wright State," said Coach Cronin.

I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Speaking of young Sam, here's a recent photo of a very happy Bearcats fan.

Sam Bearcat shirt.jpg

Why UC Needs Cash To Be On The Money

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Yancy Gates is Cincinnati's biggest and most well-known player.  Sean Kilpatrick is the Bearcats' leading scorer.  But if you had to identify one player who needs to play well in order for the Bearcats to advance in the NCAA Tournament, it's point guard Cashmere Wright.

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"When he plays well, we are at our best - I don't think there's any question about that," head coach Mick Cronin told me.  "My biggest challenge is to get him to realize that he has tremendous talent and that he truly can be a great player.  He has to come in with that mentality every game.  I don't think he realizes how good he is at times."

"We tell him that all the time," said Yancy Gates.  "We try to motivate him and pump him up and let him know how good that he is."

Wright was outstanding in Cincinnati's 65-59 victory over Texas, with 11 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 turnover.  Foul trouble limited the junior guard to 26 minutes of playing time, and the Bearcats outscored the Longhorns by 13 points while he was in the game.  Cashmere will need to avoid foul trouble in Sunday's game against Florida State.

"In the Big East, you can grab people while they're running and when they try to get away, you can hold them," said Wright.  "There's not too much of that right now.  You actually have to stay away from them because every foul is a foul."

"Dion Dixon can play the point for us, but that's what Cashmere Wright is - he is a point guard," said assistant coach Larry Davis.  "When he plays well, we are going to play well.  It's no knock against Dion, but Cash understands that position the best."

Coach Davis has known Wright for nearly 10 years and played a key role in getting the Georgia native to sign with Cincinnati in 2008.

"I actually saw him when he was a freshman in high school," Davis told me.  "I was the head coach at Furman University and I was down there looking at another kid and the principal of the school said, 'We have a freshman here who is really good.'  Cash was a skinny, long-armed, wide-eyed little guy.   You can ask him - the first recruiting letter he ever got was from me at Furman." 

Wright was part of the same recruiting class as Gates and Dion Dixon but had to sit out his freshman year after tearing his ACL in a preseason workout.  Even though Cashmere has another year of eligibility to look forward to, he shares a bond with the seniors who are trying to extend their college careers.  

"I posted a thing on Twitter today about the original '08 class," said Wright.  "When we came here, our goal together was to go as far as we can go.  We feel like this isn't as far as we can go.  We came here with a goal of at least getting to the Final Four and that's what we are trying to achieve right now.  It ain't about next year.  It's about the original '08 class and what we are trying to do for this team."

Cincinnati's destiny could depend on Wright's intensity.

"He always plays hard - it's not that - it's more about being mentally intense," said Coach Davis.  "When he does that, he is a very good player.  A very good player."

"The thing about Cash is, when he is intense, he stays focused and makes the right plays," said Gates.  "Sometimes he kind of fades away and makes plays where you think, 'What's he doing?'  When Cash is intense, he is just as good as anybody."

**********

I talked to Wright on Saturday about the third-round matchup against Florida State.  Here's a link to the video

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If you haven't seen Florida State play this year, the Seminoles are HUGE.

FSU big guys (550x435).jpg

Their five starters are 6'5", 6'5", 6'5", 6'10", and 6'11", and two of their top four subs are 6'8" and 7'0".

That's a gigantic reason (no pun intended) why Florida State ranked 5th in the country in field goal percentage defense this year after leading the nation in each of the previous two seasons.

"It's really hard to get a basket in the paint," said Coach Cronin.  "That's what Florida State is great at - they don't give you anything easy.  Fundamentally, they are as good as you are going to see.  They can suffocate you.  We have to understand that when we are struggling to score, it is time to get fouled...it's time to get a lay-up...it's time to get Yancy the ball down low or beat our man off the dribble - it's not time to settle for another jump shot.

"Hopefully our quickness can be an advantage for us.  We have to spread them out and try to make them play individual defense and not team defense.  They are a great team defensive team and we have to try to get some guys in some space where we can beat Florida State off the dribble.  But then we have to make the right pass, because when we did that against Louisville, we took bad shots because we didn't make the right pass.  Our offense is going to be put to the test."

I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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