April 2012

Zeitler Makes Good First Impression On Whitworth

It’s safe to say that my partner on the Bengals radio broadcasts did not expect the team to select an offensive guard with one of its two first round selections.

“I’m not sure that Mike Brown values a guard at 17 or 21,” said Dave Lapham on our draft preview show on 700 WLW.  “I’m not sure that he values a guard at 117 or 121.  I think the guard position is going to be addressed, but I’m not sure that it’s going to be addressed in that first round.”

But while Lap was stunned – and thrilled – when the Bengals traded down in the first round and selected Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler with the 27th overall pick, the current leader of the Bengals offensive line says that he was not surprised when Cincinnati selected a guard in the first round for the first time in franchise history.

“It wasn’t really a shocker to me,” said left tackle Andrew Whitworth.  “From everyone I’ve talked to, the guy is very impressive – as a person and as a player.  Anytime we get a guy in the locker room that is a great person and player, I’m excited about it.”

Zeitler – and fellow first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick – arrived in Cincinnati for an introductory news conference on Friday and met Whitworth shortly after meeting the media as they had dinner together at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse.

Whitworth informed Zeitler that he hosts the offensive lineman at an annual mini-camp at his home in Louisiana and said that his new teammate made a good first impression.

“I see a guy who is serious about what he is going to have to do,” said Whitworth.  “He’s not overwhelmed and seems pretty determined.  I like that.  He’s definitely a guy that has a lot of character – that’s the first thing that you realize after a short conversation with him.  I’m excited about his future here and I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help be a part of him being successful.”

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander has made it clear that Zeitler will be a candidate to start at right guard, and Whitworth says he would not be worried about having a rookie start on the offensive line.

“I think it needs to be a realistic expectation for any player that is picked that high,” Whitworth told me.  “That needs to be your goal.  You don’t set the bar low – you set it high.  When I was a rookie, I can remember telling the media whenever they asked me that I was not trying to play like a rookie – I was trying to play like a veteran.  That’s what he has to do – set the bar high and go after it.”

Picking a guard in the first round might have been out of character for the Bengals, but the team is confident that it selected the right one.

“He fills a major need for us,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “He’s one of the top guards on the board, in our opinion.  He’s tough, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’s smart — guys like that can only help your football team. It’s not a popular pick sometimes to take an offensive guard, but last time I checked, they play a lot of snaps on Sunday.”

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Bearcats Embrace Twitter With Caution

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.

Geno Atkins Dubbed “Sophomore Superstar”

For most of his life, Gene Renard Atkins Jr, has been known as “Geno,” but in January, the Bengals defensive tackle picked up a new nickname:  “Pro Bowler” Geno Atkins.

“Some of my teammates call me that as a joke, but most people still just call me Geno,” Atkins said with a grin.

The 24-year-old from Pembroke Pines, FL had two tackles in the AFC’s 59-41 win and raved about the opportunity.

“I got to bring my family to Hawaii and it was a great experience,” Geno told me.  “I learned a lot from the older vets like Richard Seymour, Antonio Smith, and guys like that.”

Atkins earned the trip to Honolulu – and the new nickname – with a spectacular second season in the NFL.  In fact, the website ProFootballFocus.com calls Geno a “Sophomore Superstar” and said that only Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski is coming off of a better season from the 2010 draft class.

“He had a season very comparable to Ndamukong Suh’s 2010, only for some reason he didn’t have the same hype machine working for him,” said Pro Football Focus analyst Sam Monson.  “In 2010, Suh notched 11 sacks, 6 knockdowns and 24 hurries from 547 pass rushing snaps. This season, Atkins posted 8 sacks, 15 knockdowns and 26 hurries from only 475 pass-rushing snaps. Atkins was easily the most effective pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL last season, and the surprise to me was that he learned how to use his skills to his advantage in the run game as well.  Rather than waiting and reacting and often getting washed out by bigger linemen, he attacked against the run too, and was far more proactive that way.”

Atkins was a big reason why the Bengals finished seventh in the NFL’s total defense rankings last year.  Defensive lineman Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene left as free agents, and safety Chris Crocker was released, but the nine of the team’s top 11 tacklers are back.

“We lost Frostee and Fanene and they were two key guys for us,” said Atkins.  “But being in this league, you know that it’s ‘Next guy up.’  We brought in two good guys (Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey) that are going to take up the slack there.

“We know the potential that we have, where we can go, and what it takes to get there.  We’re all excited to get back to work and build on that success.”

In addition to his Pro Bowl trip, Atkins went on a 7-day cruise to the Caribbean last winter, but Geno sounded happy to return to Cincinnati last week for the start of the Bengals off-season conditioning program.

“It feels good to come back and see all of your teammates and friends,” said Atkins.  “We know that we’re going to build on something very important and try to get to the next level.”

Wouldn’t “Super Bowler” have a nice ring to it?

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Bajakian Brings Unique Background To Bearcat Football

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

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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Carlos Dunlap Aims To Join Young Pro Bowl Nucleus

Here’s my favorite stat about Cincinnati’s talented young nucleus:  The Bengals sent four players to the Pro Bowl last year and Andy Dalton was the oldest. 

Here’s a look at the Bengals’ four Pro Bowlers that are all under the age of 25.

Andy Dalton:  24-years-old (birthday October 29th)

Geno Atkins:  24-years-old (birthday March 28th)

Jermaine Gresham:  23-years-old (birthday June 16th)

A.J. Green:  23-years-old (birthday July 31th)

But that’s not all.

There’s another potential Pro Bowler on the roster that is nearly seven months younger than A.J. Green – defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

Dunlap, who turned 23 on February 28th, was among the most dominant pass rushers in the NFL last year before injuring his hamstring in week eight at Tennessee.

“Carlos Dunlap was on fire before that hamstring injury,” said ProFootballFocus.com analyst Sam Monson.  “At that point in the season he had racked up only three sacks, but he had 10 QB knockdowns and 24 pressures in only eight games. Essentially before going down with the injury, Dunlap was as devastating a force as there was in the league at rushing the passer.”

 

“I feel like I need a whole season that was like the way that I started last year,” Dunlap told me this week.  “I’m starting fresh and making sure that I am doing everything that I can to stay healthy.”

Prior to last season during the NFL lockout, Dunlap returned to the University of Florida to take classes toward finishing his degree.  But this off-season, he eschewed the classroom and went to the gym.

“I went down to Pete Bommarito (Performance Systems) where I trained for the combine,” said Dunlap.  “It was continued maintenance on my hamstring and I concentrated on training a little bit harder.  It was unfortunate that I had an injury and I want to make sure that I do everything in my power to prevent that from coming back.  I postponed school and focused on training because this is my job.”

Dunlap finished with 4.5 sacks in 12 games last year after setting a Bengals rookie record with 9.5 in 2010.  In 2012, Carlos aims to lead the NFL in sacks.

“That’s always been a childhood dream,” said Dunlap.  “As a competitor, you want to be the best at whatever you do.  I’m labeled as a pass rusher and I want to change that too.  I want to be known as an all-around defensive end, but I do want to lead the league in sacks and be ranked up there with the elite pass rushers.”

That’s not his only lofty goal.  Dunlap wants to join fellow 2010 draft pick Geno Atkins at the Pro Bowl.

“Carlos congratulated me before I went and said, ‘This year, I’m going to go with you.’” said Atkins.  “I’m rooting for him.”

“I’m jealous – I ain’t gonna lie, I’m jealous man,” said Dunlap.  “Geno earned it.  He had a great year and I don’t know why he wasn’t voted on to the first or second team (Atkins went as a first alternate because New England’s Vince Wilfork made the Super Bowl) .  But Geno is a Pro Bowler – they’re not going to say how he went.

“That’s a goal as well – to get there with Geno.  I’ve been telling Geno the whole off-season that we have to get there together this year.”

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NFL Draft Approaching For Pead and Wolfe

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.

“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.

“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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Shipley Progressing As Bengals Return To PBS

The Bengals returned to Paul Brown Stadium for off-season conditioning on Monday, but two key players got a head start last week in Texas.

“I went up to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and threw the ball around with Andy (Dalton) a couple of times,” said wide receiver Jordan Shipley.  “It felt really good and I went back-to-back days which was big for me.  I wanted to see if I could do it two days in a row.”

Since Andre Caldwell signed with Denver as a free agent and Jerome Simpson remains unsigned (there is no name plate above his locker, but it hasn’t been given away yet), the Bengals are missing two of their leading receivers from last season.  The team is obviously hoping that Shipley can make a speedy recovery from the torn ACL and MCL that he suffered in week two last year against the Broncos.

“He’s done well,” said quarterback Andy Dalton.  “Unfortunately, he had the ACL and all of that stuff, but he’s put in the work and you can see it.  He’s running around really well, so I’m excited for him to get back out there working with us.”

“I’m planning on doing all of the workouts with the guys,” said Shipley.  “I’m excited about the opportunity to get back.  I think – if anything – I come back from those injuries stronger than I was before.  I’m just looking forward to getting out there and playing around a little bit.”

Shipley also tore an ACL in his knee as a freshman at Texas and missed the 2004 and 2005 seasons, before setting the school’s all-time record for career receptions.

“This time has been a little bit tougher because I had a little more going on,” said Shipley.  “Trying to balance a little more scar tissue and trying to get it loosened up, but I think it’s doing fine.”

While a healthy return by Shipley would give the Bengals a skilled slot receiver, they do not have an obvious outside threat to pair with A.J. Green.  Marvin Lewis says there are candidates to fill the spot on the current roster including Brandon Tate and Armon Binns, but it is a position the Bengals appear likely to address in the draft.

“I think we have a lot of guys here that were pushing for playing time last year,” said Dalton.  “But I think if we can get another one that would be great.  We feel like we have a lot of weapons now, but if we can add another skill guy that would really help us out.”

Regardless of how the Bengals address the need at wide receiver, the offense should benefit from having a normal off-season that is not interrupted by a lockout.

“It’s going to be big,” said Dalton.  “We’re going to start over – back to square one – and make sure we have all the ins-and-outs.  It comes down to our comfort level.  Now I’m not learning a new offense in my second year, so I feel really comfortable and excited to get out there.”

“Obviously, we kind of know the offense already, but we’ll be so much farther ahead this year I think,” said Shipley.  “Last year, we had a new quarterback and with the season that he had, I think we’re going to have a lot more confidence.”

And while Shipley hopes to play a major role, he’s been cautioned not to take things slowly.

“I was informed today that I’m still in the rehab process, so it just depends on what they want me to do,” said Shipley.  “If it’s up to me, I’ll be out there.

“I expected them to say that, but I think they just wanted me to understand that I don’t need to do too much.”

**********

One of the most interesting experiences of Andy Dalton’s off-season was representing the Bengals when the NFL unveiled its new Nike uniforms at a gala celebration in New York.

If you look closely at the group photo of all 32 uniforms, you’ll see Dalton in the upper right-hand corner.

“I was standing on a little ledge and (the photographer) was like, ‘Step more to the left,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to fall off this thing if I go any more to the left.’” said Dalton.  “It was just an honor.  There were guys that have been in the league for a long time and have played very well and gone to a bunch of Pro Bowl, so it was just an honor to be there with all of them.

“It was pretty cool.  Nike was all for it and said it was one of the biggest openings for a company.  It was a cool experience and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.”

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Kay Battling For Starting QB Job

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

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 ½ 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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Late Night Grub Helps UC Grow Beard

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.

“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.”

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

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Frey Gives Bearcats Sixth Sense

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.

“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 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 fired up 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.

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

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

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