June 2012

Speedy WR Joins Bearcats After Switching Sports

In 1995 as one of the broadcasters for the Toronto Blue Jays Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse, NY, I got to know a young man who had chosen to play pro baseball even though he had been one of the most highly-recruited high school quarterbacks in the country.  After batting .248 in six minor league seasons, the kid decided to give football a try and enrolled in college at the age of 25.

It turned out to be a wise decision as Chris Weinke won a Heisman Trophy at Florida State, led the Seminoles to a National Championship, and spent seven years in the NFL.

Which leads us to UC newcomer Braxton Lane.

After spending three years as a minor league outfielder, the speedy wide receiver has made the switch to football and recently enrolled at Cincinnati.

“He’s got a confidence about himself and an aura,” said head coach Butch Jones.  “He’s very intense, focused, and goal-oriented.  He knows what he wants and I see that hunger and drive.  I’m excited because when you have an individual that has those characteristics, he is going to have great success.”

After catching 55 passes for 1,072 yards and 11 touchdowns as a high school junior, Scout.com ranked Lane as the #20 wide receiver recruit in the country.  After taking visits to Florida, Georgia, and Auburn, Braxton signed a letter of intent to play college football at Oregon.

But after being selected in the 7th round of the 2009 MLB draft by the Texas Rangers, Lane received a six-figure signing bonus and elected to pursue a baseball career.

“Getting selected in the baseball draft was great for me and getting a chance to play professionally was definitely a dream of mine,” Lane told me.  “But I don’t know if I would say that baseball was my first love.  I always thought that I was a better football player.  Baseball was a sport that I enjoyed playing, but one that I really had to work on to get better.  Football was more of a natural sport for me.”

Lane excelled in both sports at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, GA – the same school that fellow Bearcat receiver Alex Chisum attended.  That connection proved to be significant when Braxton decided to drop baseball for football.

“I talked to Alex when I came out here about the environment and the family atmosphere,” said Lane.  “He loves every bit of it and shared all of his experiences with me.  He was just as big of a recruiter with me as Coach Jones and (wide receivers) Coach T.J. Weist.  He was definitely a big part of me coming here.”

“We have a great relationship with Chip Walker, the head football coach at Sandy Creek, and Alex Chisum is having a great experience here — not only in football but socially and academically as well,” said Coach Jones.  “They are big supporters of our program so when Braxton started thinking about making the switch from baseball to football, we were contacted by them.  We had known of him from back in the day when he had originally signed with Oregon.”

Coming out of high school, Lane was considered one of the fastest receivers in the country after reportedly being timed at 4.31 in the 40-yard dash.  Braxton says that he hasn’t lost any speed.

“The main thing about football is using your hips more,” Lane told me.  “Baseball is really a straight line sport, so now I’m really working on loosening up my hips and getting my side-to-side motion back.  But I definitely still have my speed.”

After spending last summer playing for the Class A Hickory Crawdads and Spokane Indians, Lane is excited to be a Cincinnati Bearcat.

“Playing in the minor leagues for three years with the Texas Rangers was definitely a great time, but coming here there’s a sense of family – Coach Jones and the whole staff really made me feel at home on my visit,” said Lane.  “Once I got on campus I knew that this was the place for me.”

“I know this – he is of the utmost character and I love his maturity,” said Coach Jones.  “He may be the oldest freshman in America.  I think when you look at his previous experiences and the maturity level that he brings, it’s a great fit and we’re really excited about him.”

“I’m 21, so if I hadn’t played pro baseball I’d be going into my senior season right now,” said Lane.  “I think it definitely helps with the maturity aspect.  Me being on my own and learning to manage my finances, finding a place to live, meshing with people of different backgrounds…I think that helps me coming to a big school like UC where I’ll have to juggle classes and different football activities.”

How quickly could he have an impact on the field?

“We’ll know more when we go to training camp, but from a maturity standpoint, we would anticipate him competing for playing time this year,” said Coach Jones.  “Just based off of his character, his competitive drive, and his makeup, we anticipate him playing this year.”

“My goal is to come in and work hard every day and do anything that I can to help the team this fall,” said Lane.  “Whether that’s special teams or offense – whatever I can do to help is my goal.

“He seems like he’s going to work really hard,” said freshman receiver Chris Moore.  “He’s an athlete and had offers from everywhere.  I can’t wait to see him on the field in pads.”

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Candid Collinsworth Likes Bengals Direction

Nobody can say that Cris Collinsworth doesn’t do his homework.

The three-time Pro Bowler and 13-time Emmy Award winner won’t broadcast a Bengals game until October 21st when Cincinnati hosts Pittsburgh on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, and yet Collinsworth was studying Bengals tape just a few days ago as part of his offseason preparation.

“I just got finished watching the playoff game against Houston and they had real opportunities in that game,” Cris told me this week on ESPN 1530.  “They had a back fall down out of the backfield on a little pick play that may have gone for a touchdown – there were just some little things or they could have gone on (in the playoffs).  Then they would have played Baltimore – a team they know very well – and who knows what would have happened out there.”

The Bengals only scored one touchdown in their playoff loss to the Texans, and Andy Dalton was intercepted three times, but Collinsworth came away impressed by the Red Rifle.

“The big question mark about him was his arm strength and how he couldn’t throw the ball that far,” said Collinsworth.  “So I put on the playoff game from last year and about 10 plays into the tape, he throws a ball like 65 yards in the air.  I replayed it because I was thinking that my math was wrong, but when I looked again it was 62 yards and he overthrew A.J. Green on a play over the top.  So I was like, ‘Where does all that talk come from?’”

Like Collinsworth, Dalton was a second round draft pick by Cincinnati who went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

“What he does really well is orchestrate the Jon Gruden-slash-Jay Gruden offense in a way that is pretty darn impressive,” said Collinsworth.  “Most rookies are not that accurate and not that good at making quick decisions.  But he got the ball out of his hands and he looks like an NFL player when he’s on the field.  And he adds that stabilizing force.  I don’t think that I’ve ever even met him, but he seems like a rock-solid, Kenny Anderson kind of guy that you’re going to be able to count on.  I don’t know if it was the fact that he wore #14 or not, but he really reminded me a lot of Kenny Anderson.  He has the understanding that it’s his job not to give up the sack and I thought that he did a really good job of it.”

Collinsworth has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the NFL’s most candid analysts, so Bengals fans will be encouraged to know that he’s optimistic about the future of the organization.

“I’m a believer in Marvin first of all,” Cris told me.  “I think the Bengals have finally eliminated the revolving door thing at the head coaching position and they’ve kind of been rowing the boat in the same direction for a little while.  Mike Zimmer is a tremendous defensive coordinator and I thought the find of the year last year was Jay Gruden.  For Jay Gruden to come in with a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton and a rookie receiver in A.J. Green and a lot of uncertainty and zero expectations a year ago and make the playoffs – I thought that was one of the great untold stories from around the league.  Of course, they got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, but if they hadn’t, I think people would have taken a deeper look at what everybody was predicting for the Bengals at the beginning of the year and just how much they overcame and how good they were by seasons end.

“The thing that I like about them is that while they have some colorful characters, they’re not over-the-top anymore.  I think that, to some extent, the great teams that you see have a way of humbling themselves.  If you look at the teams that are so consistently on top – the Steelers, the Patriots – some of these teams just do a great job of showing up for work every day, getting the job done, not really caring about who gets all of the attention, and playing as a team.  I think to some extent, they had some addition by subtraction last year.  Even though they didn’t have a lot of experience on the field, I just felt that they were in it together in a much larger way then they’ve been in the past.”

It resulted in a playoff game for the Bengals last year, and that means a “home game” for the Northern Kentucky resident this October.

“We’re so excited about it for a couple of reasons,” Cris said.  “One, I get a chance to stay home which is pretty rare, and two, just the fact that the Bengals were back in the playoffs and look like they have a very talented young team.  We’re all kind of pumped up about seeing them on national television.”

Cris will definitely be prepared for it.

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My Pick To Emerge As A Bearcat Standout This Fall

Looking for a sleeper to emerge as a budding standout on the UC football team this year?

My pick is wide receiver Chris Moore.

OK, maybe “sleeper” is the wrong word.  After all, Moore was a Parade All-American two years ago at Jefferson High School in Tampa, FL.  But after redshirting as a UC freshman due to a shoulder injury, the 19-year-old receiver figures that he is not well-known by Bearcat fans – at least not yet.

“I want this to be a breakout year for me and show the fans that I can make exciting plays for them for the next four years,” Moore told me.

Moore’s high school stats look like a misprint.  As a senior in 2010, Chris had 49 receptions for 1,572 yards – an incredible average of 32.1 yards per catch.  After receiving scholarship offers from numerous BCS programs, Moore did his homework before electing to attend Cincinnati.

“My mom told me that I needed to make a spreadsheet,” said Moore.  “She said she wasn’t going to help me because she didn’t want to persuade me to go to certain places – she wanted the decision to be mine.  So she told me to make a spreadsheet and figure out the best school.

“I did a lot of research:  Passing yards, the quarterbacks, the receivers, what the coaches did at other schools, whether they had indoor facilities.  I had a spreadsheet of stuff about every school that recruited me and everything seemed to fit at UC.”

Now Chris is looking to prove that he’s a good fit in Cincinnati’s offense.  In the spring practices that I attended this year, Moore made several long touchdown catches from Munchie Legaux and Brendon Kay.

“You can see the ability,” said head coach Butch Jones.  “He can play the ball exceptionally well in the air.  It’s a great knack that he has and he runs extremely well.  Now it’s just refining the little nuances that go into playing receiver on every down.”

“I’m trying to get better at my route running and I’m trying to get bigger and stronger so that I can take hits without getting hurt again,” said Moore.  “Right now I’m 192 pounds which is a big improvement.  When I came in I was 170, so they’ve put the weight on me, now I just have to keep it on.”

Moore broke his collarbone in the state championship game as a high school senior and then had to redshirt last year after suffering the same injury in preseason camp.

“I’m kind of happy that I didn’t play because I got to learn from everybody else and I still have four more years,” said Moore.  “Now I feel like I have a good chance of getting on the field and making plays for this team.”

“Don’t forget; he was a true freshman this year so there is a lot of room for growth – physically, mentally, and from a technique standpoint,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.  “What is obvious is his ability to catch the ball and his athleticism.  For him, it’s the little things and the mental part of the game – the mental toughness of overcoming adversity and the challenges that you face on a play-to-play basis.”

Chris admits that he had some growing up to do after arriving at UC.

“At first, it was a little bumpy but I’m getting there,” Moore told me.  “Just being on your own is a different experience.  I’m used to my mom waking me up and stuff like that, and you have to learn to do things yourself.  I’m getting better at it every day.”

And that’s an exciting prospect for the Bearcat coaching staff.

“The natural ability is there,” said Bajakian.  “He could be as good as he wants to be.  It’s truly one of those situations where if he puts his mind to it, he can be an outstanding weapon.”

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Jaws And ESPN Crew Heap Praise On Red Rifle

On Friday, ESPN’s Ron “Jaws” Jaworski ranked Andy Dalton at #19 on his daily countdown of the Top 30 veteran quarterbacks in the NFL.  Dalton was one spot ahead of Sam Bradford, and two spots above Carson Palmer.

Perhaps more importantly, Jaworski made it clear that Dalton is likely to climb as he gains experience.

“As I look ahead to the 2012 season, I expect Dalton to improve,” Jaworski said. “The pass game concepts of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden mesh perfectly with Dalton’s skill set. I would not be surprised if a year from now Dalton is approaching my Top 10. He has a chance to make that kind of jump in one season.”

The former Eagles quarterback reviewed extensive game film in analyzing Dalton’s strengths and weaknesses.

“The more I evaluated Dalton, the more I liked him,” Jaworski said. “He does have some arm strength limitations, but he compensates very well with his anticipation and his accuracy. That was particularly evident in the red zone – and that is an absolutely critical measure of a quarterback. The numbers were exceptional: 15 touchdowns, no interceptions.

“Anticipation is an essential attribute to play at a high level.  It’s more important if you are not a power thrower.  Dalton was an outstanding anticipation passer.”

Jaws also praised Dalton’s toughness.

“What stood out was his willingness to look down the gun barrel – to deliver the football in the face of pressure,” said Jaworski.  “You have to do that in the NFL. You will get hit. You still have to make the throws.”

After airing Jaworski’s Top 30 Countdown segment on ESPN’s NFL Live on Friday, studio analysts Tim Hasselbeck and Marcellus Wiley added their thoughts on the Bengals 24-year-old quarterback.

“I think he has the potential to be good enough to help the Bengals win a Super Bowl,” said Hasselbeck.  “One thing that Jaws did not bring up was the leadership aspect of Andy Dalton.  I think that he’s more than capable in that realm.  You combine that with the offense that’s being run in Cincinnati – a west coast offense that’s predicated on a lot of run after the catch – the quarterback doesn’t have to be the creator, he has to be the distributor and Andy Dalton is exactly that.  That’s why I think that they’ve found their man.  That’s the good news for the Bengals.  Now it’s just about making him better.  Right now he looks very promising and the Bengals should feel very good about where he can lead them.”

“This sounds like déjà vu for me, because in 2001, I was a San Diego Charger when we drafted Drew Brees in the second round,” said Wiley.  “He came in with the same attributes – he was accurate, he had great anticipation, but he had some arm strength limitations.  It sounds the same when you hear about Andy Dalton.  But when you watch the film, he reminds me of Drew Brees except that he’s already accelerated the learning curve because he had a better rookie season than I saw out of Drew Brees.  If you look at Drew Brees now – where can Andy Dalton go and what can he become as a quarterback?  I think this is a Super Bowl-bound quarterback one day.  He can lead them to the promised land.”

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Gruden On Tate: “One Of The Best Surprises Of Camp”

At the practices that members of the media were permitted to attend during the Bengals OTAs and minicamp, Brandon Tate typically lined up with the first unit on offensive as the wide receiver opposite of A.J. Green.

Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says that we shouldn’t read into that too much.

“Maybe the other guy was tying his shoes,” said Gruden.  “I don’t really look at who is first team and who is not.  I just expect them to be in the right place and make plays when the ball is out there.”

But make no mistake:  Tate would not have been running with the “ones” if he wasn’t a legitimate candidate to win a starting role this season.

“He’s been one of the best surprises of camp for me,” said Gruden.  “Last year he came in late (after being acquired on waivers from New England) and was mainly a return guy and our fifth receiver and never really got in the flow with the group at wide receiver.  Now I think he’s more confident, he sees that he belongs as an NFL wide receiver, and I think the confidence level that he has is showing.  He’s got all the ability.  He runs all of the routes great, he’s got great feel, and he’s done an outstanding job.”

The Bengals picked up Tate a week before the season opener last year and he set team records for combined kickoff and punt returns with 93, as well as punt return yards with 543.  But the 24-year-old did not have a single reception as he rarely lined up at receiver.

“I got here after they already had things established so I wasn’t trippin’ – I just did whatever the coaches wanted me to do,” said Tate.  “Now I’m just excited about the opportunity to go out there and compete.  I’m just focusing on what I can do to help the team win and help myself get better.”

After tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee as a senior at North Carolina, Tate was selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 2009 draft.  After missing most of his rookie season due to the knee injury, Tate had 24 catches for 432 yards (18.0 ypc) and 3 TD in his one healthy season in New England, and soaked up advice from a veteran group of receivers.

“Randy Moss, Torry Holt, Joey Galloway, Wes Welker – I tried to listen to what they told me and then tried to do it myself,” said Tate.

Now Brandon is trying to show that he’s more than a return man for the Bengals.  In an effort to improve his chances of being one of Andy Dalton’s primary targets, Tate stayed in Cincinnati in the offseason and trained under Clif Marshall at Ignition Athletics Performance Group in Mason.

“I trained really, really hard because I’m excited about the opportunity to come here and play,” said Tate.  “Every day I try to go out there and leave it all on film.  That’s what the coaches are going to look at, so every day I try to go out there and do the right thing.”

Tate and Armon Binns appear to be the early leaders in the battle to start opposite A.J. Green.

“Both of those guys I would anticipate to have significant playing time and production,” said Gruden.  “Whoever starts – great – when you get the starting role you get to have your name announced on TV, but the other guy is going to play a lot too.”

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As Sandusky Trial Continues, Still Focuses On NFL Future

For four days last week, prosecutors in the child-molestation trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky bombarded the jury with horrific testimony from eight alleged victims.

Bengals rookie Devon Still did not soak up coverage of the trial.  He got his fill of those gut-wrenching allegations while playing for the Nittany Lions when the scandal broke last year.

“I don’t really follow his trial, but I do follow how my teammates are handling the situation and whether they are able to push through it as a team,” Still told me.

As one of Penn State’s captains last year, Devon played a big role in helping to steer his teammates through the crisis.

“You never expect adversity when you’re going through life,” Still told reporters at the NFL Combine.  “We were hit so hard, blindsided by it, but we were able to make it through – I think that helped us grow as men and helped us get over challenges that we face in life.”

One of the biggest hurdles that Devon faced was the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno, who died after a bout with lung cancer less than three months later.

“He showed me how to carry myself as an athlete, as a role model, and as a person,” Devon said.  “I was really immature when I first got there, but the values that he instilled in me and my teammates, helped me to mature over the four years that I was there and become a better person.  Being his last All-American and being one of his last captains means a lot to me.  I’m going to try to pay him back by upholding what he taught me while I’m in the NFL.”

Despite the Sandusky scandal that devastated the Penn State community and cost Paterno his job, Still was named the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 and was widely-projected to be a first round NFL draft pick.  But the 6’5”, 305 lb. defensive tackle slipped to the second round where the Bengals selected him 53rd overall.

“That does provide some added motivation for me because I felt like I didn’t get the respect that I deserved and I want to go out and show everybody why I should have been drafted higher,” said Still.  “I plan on proving that.  It’s up to me to go out and show everybody.”

Still was not on the field during last week’s mandatory minicamp because of what he described as a minor back strain, but Devon did take part in previous workouts while beginning to learn Mike Zimmer’s defense.

“I love being a Bengal and I think that I’m fitting in very well,” said Still.  “In the time that I had on the field, I think I started to understand the defense and what they expect me to do and what role I have to play.

“I’ve been through this before at Penn State.  I was injured my first two years there when I was trying to make an impression on the coaches and that helped me understand what I have to do, so that when I do get back on the field I can hit the ground running.  (My back) feels a lot better, but I think they’re just being cautious with me.”

Still figures to play a significant role in the Bengals defensive line rotation as a rookie, adding bulk to one of the deepest and most talented units on the team.

“They are a close-knit group and they bring in the rookies and try to teach them as much as possible,” said Still.  “I think they all bring something different to the defensive line and obviously with me being a three-technique, I watch a lot of what Geno Atkins does.  He’s a Pro Bowler and a heck of a football player.  Hopefully, with me playing behind him, I can learn a lot.  I didn’t know how good of a player he was until I had a chance to watch him on tape.  He’s a great football player.  His quickness really stands out.”

Atkins was a fourth round draft pick who has blossomed into one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in football.  Still hopes to follow a similar storyline.

“I’m motivated because I want to be great,” Devon told me.  “I want to make an impact on the NFL.”

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Bengals Rookie Has Plenty Of Drive…But No Car

We’ve all heard stories about first round draft picks that sign a lucrative contract and immediately go out and spend a huge sum on a flashy car.

Kevin Zeitler isn’t one of them.

It’s been nearly three weeks since the rookie from Wisconsin signed a 4-year deal with the Bengals – reportedly worth $7.5 million dollars – and Kevin still doesn’t have a vehicle.

“I’ve never owned a car,” Zeitler said.  “I do have my license, but I haven’t had time to go look.  It’s going to be weird buying something like that.  It’s not that urgent yet.  I’ll get one eventually, but I’m in no rush really.”

The 22-year-old offensive lineman has been staying at a hotel close to Paul Brown Stadium and says he’s had no problems getting where he needs to go.

“Taxis and the public shuttle – that’s what I’ve been taking everywhere,” said Zeitler.  “There’s no place to park (at Wisconsin) so you just take buses or walk.  So I’m used to walking or taking public transportation.”

Are his teammates aware that Kevin doesn’t own a car?

“Yes, I am aware of that because I have to go pick him up every time that we do something,” said Andrew Whitworth.  “Zeitler is just an old-school guy.  He told me that he didn’t have air conditioning in college.”

Has the former Badger been subjected to some verbal abuse in the locker room for being car-free?

“Coach gives me crap…everyone else gives me crap,” Kevin said with a grin.  “They all give me crap.”

“Once he gets to training camp, I’m sure that he’ll have one,” said Whitworth.  “As long as he has one by then, he’ll be alright.”

While Zeitler lacks an automobile, nobody questions his drive to succeed.

“He’s a passionate guy and very intense about his job,” said Whitworth.  “Getting him to just relax and enjoy himself is probably hard because he wants to do really well…but that’s a good thing.”

One of the reasons why the Bengals selected Zeitler with the 27th pick in the draft is his smarts – he reportedly scored a 33 on the Wonderlic test.  Head Coach Marvin Lewis says Kevin’s intelligence has been obvious during the OTA practice sessions.

“It was evident right away,” said Lewis.  “From the day that we brought him in right after the draft, he was going to be a quick study on what to do in NFL football.  Now we have to teach him how to do it all the time.  Obviously, when you get to training camp after the first couple of days, we have to make the transition of doing it in football pads because there are a lot of offensive lineman that look really good without shoulder pads on.”

“I’ve learned a lot,” said Zeitler.  “It’s definitely a different type of defense that you’re going up against and a different style of athlete.  I’m just getting the playbook and terminology down and doing the techniques to get those plays done.”

The Bengals mandatory minicamp ended on Thursday, but Zeitler plans to continue working out in Cincinnati before attending the NFL’s Rookie Symposium in Aurora, OH at the end of June.  Then he’ll head back to Wisconsin where he’ll finally have time to go car-shopping.

“It will happen – it’s just a matter of finding some time to do it and trying to get a good deal,” said Zeitler.

“He can afford one, but he’s Zeitler man,” said Whitworth.  “He’s pretty detailed so I’m sure he has a plan for exactly when and where he’s going to buy a car.  I think he’s got it handled.”

“I just want a good car that will take care of business,” Kevin told me.  “Maybe if my next contract is a nice one, I’ll go out and get a nice car.  But I’m not going to blow my money right away.”

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Brandon Ghee Wants More Than A Roster Spot

Brandon Ghee obviously knows that he’s battling to earn a roster spot as he enters his third season with the Bengals.  But that’s not how the 25-year-old cornerback looks at his situation.

“I’m not just competing for a spot – I’m trying to play,” said Ghee.  “I’m trying to earn a starting position on this team.”

The Bengals currently have six cornerbacks that were first-round draft picks on their roster, but the former third-round selection out of Wake Forest has been earning strong reviews during OTAs and this week’s mandatory minicamp.

“Ghee is out there competing every day and he’s one of the best corners that we have here,” said Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.  “I feel like this year is going to be his year.  I feel like he’s healthier and he’s playing fast.”

Ghee’s first two NFL seasons have been hampered by injuries, including a concussion as a rookie and a hamstring injury last year.  That helps explain why he’s only been on the field for 13 snaps at cornerback in his first two seasons.

“He’s been in that redshirt mode unfortunately because of injuries,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.  “He obviously has had a good offseason training before he came back to be with us, and he’s really had an outstanding nine practices.”

“I feel like I’ve been doing a good job but there’s always room for improvement,” said Ghee.  “More interceptions, more plays on the ball…I just need to keep getting better every day.  I’ve been in the film room and working on technique in the offseason and now I think that I’m ready.”

Ghee ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and is one of the most athletic cornerbacks on the Bengals roster.  He also has good size at 6’0”, 193 pounds.  But “measurables” only get you so far in the NFL.

“The reason why he’s here is we see the potential,” said defensive backs coach Mark Carrier.  “Now – especially going into your third year which is kind of the year where you sink or swim – this is his chance to blossom.”

“Obviously if you’re here, you have the talent to play in the NFL,” said wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.  “As you get more comfortable, you get more confidence and I think that’s what they’re seeing in Brandon Ghee. That’s part of the maturation of an NFL football player.  He’s had an incredible off-season.  He looks great and hopefully he can continue to build on that momentum.”

“I needed to learn a little bit of everything,” said Ghee.  “Some maturity, some technique…there’s a learning curve.  I got hurt my first few years and it kind of set me back, but now I’m 100% healthy and I think I’m around the curve now.”

And while there is no hitting during OTAs and the current minicamp, Brandon is trying to show that he’s ready to contribute.

“Regardless of what it’s called, this is the beginning of camp,” Ghee told me.  “We know that we get a little break (before training camp in July), but this is camp and you have to show what you’ve got out there.

“I’m trying to play for respect.  We have a lot of guys here who are competing – we have first round picks and a lot of talent on this team but I’m just worried about myself right now.  I’ve been waiting for two years and I’ve been preparing so now I’m ready to go.”

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Bengals DE Michael Johnson Hopes Bigger Is Better

The Bengals current roster lists Michael Johnson at 267 pounds.  That was his listed weight last year, but the 25-year-old defensive end appears noticeably bigger as he prepares for his 4th NFL season.

Recently, I asked the former Georgia Tech standout if he had gained any weight.

“A little bit,” said Johnson.

“How much?” I asked.

“A little bit,” he repeated.

“Are you closer to 270 or 280?” I persisted.

“I’m not saying,” Michael said with a grin.  “It’s over what was listed on the roster last year and we’re going to try to keep it there the whole year.”

While his actual weight remains a mystery for now, it’s obvious that Johnson has worked hard in the off-season to add bulk to his lean 6’7” frame.

“He has gotten heavier and really worked hard in the off-season trying to gain weight, maintain weight, and maintain strength,” said defensive line coach Jay Hayes.  “That’s something that he’s really worked on and you can see it.”

“It will help me hold up,” said Johnson.  “We play in one of the most physical divisions in the NFL and anytime you can add body armor it can’t do anything but help.  That’s how I look at it – I’m putting more armor on.”

Did the added “armor” result from lifting weights or a change in diet?

“A little bit of both, but I’d say mostly diet,” said Johnson.  “It’s a matter of learning how to eat the right stuff at the right time.  I’ve never been a bad eater.  I’m a naturally lean guy and I have a feeling that it’s going to help me when I’m done playing, but right now, I need to keep the weight on.  I’m just trying to eat right, lift, and do the right stuff.”

Johnson is coming off of his best NFL season as he finished third on the team in sacks (6), third in tackles-for-loss (8), and fourth in QB pressures (11).  One of his goals for 2012 is to maintain his level of play over the course of the entire season.

“Just be more consistent throughout the whole year and go from there,” Michael told me.  “I’m going to continue to do what they ask me to do and just improve each day, each week, each year.  If I keep doing that, I’ll be alright.”

“He had a couple of nuisance injuries and it’s tough to play a whole season without anything bothering you,” said Coach Hayes.  “That’s why he’s been working so hard to add the weight and add the strength.  He’s doing everything that he can to be sure that he’s prepared.  That’s what we want.”

“I’m still not where I want to be,” said Johnson.  “I’m sure that I’m never going to be comfortable with whatever I do, but I’m going to continue to keep working.  As a professional athlete, you have to be your toughest critic and I feel like I am.  Each year, I’m going to critique myself and try to become better at the stuff that I’m not good at.  That’s my goal – to find stuff that needs to be improved upon and get it done.”

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 at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1

 

Hansen Changes Tune After Call From Coach

When Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen was not selected in this year’s draft, he immediately started getting calls from NFL teams that wanted him to sign as a free agent.  Oakland made such a persuasive pitch, that Hansen sent out the following tweet.

But 32 minutes later, Hansen changed his tune.

So what happened?

“Marvin Lewis called,” Hansen told me.  “I thought that if the head coach is calling me, that’s something special and that’s saying something.  He was the only head coach that made the first contact and I figured that they really wanted me if he’s calling right after the draft.  I actually committed to Oakland and told them that I was going to be a Raider, but then Coach Lewis called.  I talked to my agent and he said that we hadn’t signed anything yet and nothing was official.  So I decided that Cincinnati was the right place for me to be.”

How did Oakland react?

“It’s a business and they understood, but they weren’t happy,” said Hansen.

With Andy Dalton entrenched as the Bengals starting quarterback, and Bruce Gradkowski back as an experienced back-up, Hansen’s likely role in camp is to compete with Zac Robinson for the number three spot.

“We watched (Hansen) in the East-West Shrine game and I thought he was – by far – the best quarterback in that game,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “He makes quick decisions, he’s accurate, and you can see that he’s tough because he took a beating out there.  He has the ability in the pocket to make people miss and he has a good, strong arm – a lot stronger than you think.  He can really throw it.  He’s done some really good things.”

Hansen was 12-for-17 for 144 yards in that All-Star game after a solid senior season at Colorado under new head coach Jon Embree.  Early in his college career, Hansen had to share snaps at quarterback with Cody Hawkins – the son of the head coach at the time Dan Hawkins.

“He was basically fighting the ‘Coach’s Son’ syndrome,” said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham who was the TV analyst for some of Hansen’s games at Colorado.  “The coach’s son was the quarterback that he always had to beat out and a lot of people felt that Tyler should have played more than he did.  He has the ability to extend and create plays – when a play broke down; he extended it and made something out of nothing.  Sometimes the plays he created ended up being better than the called play.”

Like most NFL teams, the Bengals typically view their third quarterback as a developmental candidate.  Hansen says a key to winning that job will be mastering Cincinnati’s offense.

“You have to be sharp in everything that you do,” Tyler told me.  “You have to know answers to questions and you have to be quick with it.  I think that’s the biggest challenge for me – learning this offense and knowing the adjustments that Andy, Bruce, and Zac already know.  They’re ahead of me so I have to catch up.

“I think there’s a chance for me to make this team.  As long as I keep competing and keep learning this offense every day, I think that I have a shot here.”

Despite going undrafted, Hansen wouldn’t be taking part in the Bengals OTAs if he didn’t have a shot to be an NFL quarterback.

“It doesn’t matter how I got here – just to get here is something special,” said Hansen.  “On my very first day, I looked on the wristbands and saw ‘NFL’ and it was just a dream come true.  That first day you’re like, ‘Wow…I’m here.’  Every day just keeps getting better and better.”

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 at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1

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