August 2012

A Big…Make That VERY big addition for Cronin’s Bearcats

In college basketball, athletic seven-footers are hard to come by.

“Usually their last name is Plumlee and they’re all on Duke’s team,” joked UC head coach Mick Cronin.

Mick wasn’t able to sign Miles, Mason, or Marshall Plumlee, but for the next two years, 7’1″ 230-pound David Nyarsuk will play for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

Nyarsuk spent the last two seasons playing for NAIA powerhouse Mountain State University in Beckley, WV, but the school was stripped of its accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission in mid-July.

“We would have been ranked preseason number one in all of the polls,” said former Mountain State head coach Bob Bolen.  “We had 10 players returning from a Final Four team and we signed four players that were ready to come in and play.  David wasn’t planning on leaving until all of this happened.”

When the word got out that Nyarsuk was available for this season, Division I coaches swooped in.

“I got over 450 calls in 96 hours,” Bolen told me in a recent interview on 700 WLW.  “A lot of the calls were about Dave and a 6’9″ kid who was a Third Team All-American.  That’s who the majority of the calls were about.  They would start at seven in the morning about Dave.  I only made one call for Dave and I called Bob Huggins, who is a really good friend of mine, to see if he needed him or had any scholarships available and he didn’t.  From that point, Cincinnati jumped in there quickly and I think it’s a good decision for him.”

As it turned out, UC assistant coach Larry Davis had a relationship with one of Nyarsuk’s high school coaches.

“Larry Davis was on top of it and did a great job and there was a trust level there,” said Coach Cronin.  “I think that what probably separated us from other people was that we told David and his coach that we wanted him.  I think a lot of people were inquiring about David and from the first time that we spoke to him, we told him that we wanted him, we needed him, and we were willing to take him that day.

“We got out in front of it and beat some people to the punch and sometimes you’re first in line and sometimes you’re not.  On this one, Larry Davis did a great job.”

In two years at Mountain State, Nyarsuk averaged 10.2 points, 8 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks, helping the Cougars go 59-15.

“He changes the game on the defensive end,” said Bolen.  “He’s a great shot blocker, runs the floor well, and is a lot stronger than he looks.  He has skinny legs, but he has a lot of fight in him.  I had calls from schools in the ACC, Big East, Big 10 – I had calls from about everywhere for him.  His offensive game has improved tremendously over the past two years and I think he’s a great addition for Cincinnati.”

“I think David is definitely going to be able to help us,” said Cronin.  “He has played college basketball for two years and he’s played at the highest level of NAIA which is better than junior college basketball.  He’s got a chance to help us right away – how much I don’t know yet because I haven’t had a chance to get him out there.  I can tell you that we’re excited to have him.”

Nyarsuk was ranked as the 19th-best center in the 2010 recruiting class and originally signed with West Virginia.  However, the native of Juba, Sudan was still learning English at the time and failed to reach the required test scores.  David has been cleared to play immediately at Cincinnati by the NCAA.

“(His English) is a lot better than it was two years ago,” said Bolen.  “He barely missed on the SAT score and he’s a great student and very conscientious.  He’s a great kid, he’s a Christian, and they can’t get a better kid.”

Following the departure of 6’9″ senior Yancy Gates, Nyarsuk joins 6’10 Cheikh Mbodj and 6’10″ Kelvin Gaines to give the Bearcats three centers on this year’s roster.

“It definitely adds to our depth if David is able to come in and help us the way that we think he can,” said Coach Cronin.  “Cheikh Mbodj is a guy that’s going to get some fouls with the way that we want to play – playing pressure defense and being a shot-blocker.  He looks great right now, but he’s going to get fouls.  Kelvin Gaines has been a work in progress and this buys him some time to get more ready to play since he’s only a sophomore.  Our biggest question mark was if we had enough at the five spot, and David definitely helps us solve that problem.”

The jump from NAIA basketball to the Big East is obviously steep, but Nyarsuk’s former coach says that he can handle it.

“He’s ready,” said Coach Bolen.  “We only had one Division I game last year and that was against Morehead State and we beat ‘em by 15 and he dominated the game.  He’ll surprise a lot of people because he’s ready to play at that level.”

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A Stanford Reunion And A Big Night For Ryan Whalen

Bengals wide receiver – and Stanford grad – Ryan Whalen has a personal connection to one of the biggest recent newsmakers in sports.

But I’m not referring to his former college teammate and current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

One week ago, former Secretary of State –and Stanford professor – Condoleezza Rice accepted an invitation to become one of the first two female members of Augusta National Golf Club.  When Whalen was a Stanford student, he had the privilege of having dinner with Rice.

“One of my teammates had scholarship donors who were friends with her and knew her from the Hoover Institute at Stanford,” said Whalen.  “Once or twice a year, scholarship donors were allowed to have their players over for dinner, so he invited a few of us to attend.  There were maybe 10 people sitting there having dinner with her and it was great to take part in the conversation and ask her whatever.  She is a great woman and it was definitely a great dinner.”

Rice is a big Cleveland Browns fan and was briefly engaged to former NFL wide receiver Rick Upchurch.  So did she ask Whalen and his teammates football questions at the dinner table?

“I think it was more a case of us asking her questions,” said Whalen with a laugh.  “But she is a big football fan.  She had been our honorary captain a few times and came to all of our games and I believe that her father was a football coach.  You would see her on the sidelines – that was really neat to see.”

This Thursday, Whalen is looking forward to seeing three of his former Stanford teammates – including Luck – when the Bengals face the Colts in Indianapolis.  All three play on offense and Ryan says he’ll attempt to watch from the sidelines when the Colts have the ball.

“I’ll try to follow it as much as I can,” Whalen told me.  “Coach Simmons is always getting us ready on the sidelines for special teams, and you’re catching a break during that time, but I’d like to watch Andrew, and Coby Fleener, and Griff Whalen (no relation).  They’re good friends and great players so it should be really fun.”

Before the Colts selected Luck with the first overall pick in this year’s draft, one NFL scout told me that the rookie quarterback was the best college prospect that he had ever seen.  Did Whalen realize he was playing with a potential superstar when they first met at Stanford?

“Yes I did,” said Whalen.  “Not based on any expertise that I have because I’m not a quarterback expert, but it was just based on the way that our staff at Stanford spoke about him.  Between what Coach Harbaugh and Coach Shaw said about him and what I saw at practice, I could definitely see that in the making from the time that he walked on campus.”

After making four catches in the regular season as a rookie and two more in the Bengals playoff loss at Houston, Whalen is battling for a roster spot in his second year in Cincinnati.

“You can’t let yourself start thinking about those things because some of those things are out of your control,” said Whalen.  “All I can do is focus on my effort, how I’m going to execute the plays, and going out and making plays.  I trust God with what’s going to happen and I’m going to go out and do everything that I can to help myself and help the team and then let the chips fall where they may.”

“Any time that you want to show somebody how to run a route, you’re going to watch Whalen run it,” said quarterback Andy Dalton.  “He runs it perfectly every single time.  He has a great understanding of leverage and where to attack.  He’s put a lot of time in and understands route running really well.  I think that’s why he’s able to do the things that he’s able to do.”

Ryan has practice squad eligibility, but the Bengals fear that he’ll be claimed by another team off of waivers if he is not kept on the 53-man roster.  So while the final preseason game is not crucial for established veterans, it is important for Whalen.

“In the position that I am in, this is a huge game,” Ryan told me.  “We have a ton of depth and the receivers are having a really great camp and there’s a lot of competition.  It’s a last chance for this team to see what we can do and what I can do – as well as any other teams that may be looking.  It’s important for guys in my position to go out and put it on film in that last game.”

With four former Stanford players in action in Thursday’s Bengals-Colts game, perhaps Condoleezza Rice will be looking for highlights or checking the box score to see how they did.  As a matter of fact, another famous female golfer could be doing the same thing.

“One of my friends and teammates who was in my class is dating Michelle Wie, so I was friends with her and would see her around campus,” said Whalen.  “It was great to meet these people.  It wasn’t like anyone was treated like they were famous or a superstar – you could be who you are around campus and people like that felt comfortable.  That was a really cool thing to be able to see people in their own skin.”

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Toughness Runs In Family For Bearcat LB Blair

When Yancy Gates was a freshman at Cincinnati, the coaching staff had him study DVDs of Pitt strongman DeJuan Blair in action.  Mick Cronin wanted Yancy to use his bulk like the Pitt All-American did, as Blair averaged 15.7 points and 12.3 rebounds despite being two inches shorter than Gates.

Fast-forward three years later and one of Yancy’s classmates at UC was none other than DeJuan’s younger brother – Bearcat linebacker Greg Blair.

“I talked to Yancy about that once when we were in class,” Greg told me.  “He said, ‘Man, your brother used to a beast in the Big East.’  When Yancy was a freshman, my brother was a sophomore and Yancy said he was too much for him to handle.

“I used to tell my brother that he wasn’t going to be as big as his opponent so he had to outwork him.  It’s crazy because now, that’s what DeJuan says to me.  He says, ‘You ain’t going to be the fastest, you ain’t going to be the strongest.  You just have to outwork your opponent.’”

DeJuan Blair is currently a key member of the San Antonio Spurs, and Greg Blair is emerging as an important part of the Bearcat defense.  In recent days he’s moved to the top of the depth chart as JK Schaffer’s replacement at middle linebacker.

“It was my goal to get with the ‘ones,’ said Blair.  “That was one of my main goals that I wrote down before camp and I achieved it.  After position meetings they tell us the rotation and one day they said, ‘Blair – you’re with the ones.’  Now I’ve got to work to stay there because I know that I could get bumped down just as fast.”

“We’ve really challenged him and he’s done a great job,” said UC head coach Butch Jones.  “He has a long way to go, but he’s really watched his weight and shown great diligence in his physical conditioning.  Now we’re working on his mental conditioning and to get him to play through things when he’s tired.”

Like his 6’7″, 270-pound older brother, Greg Blair is 6’2″ and solidly built – a bit too solidly last year after transferring from Lackawanna Community College.

“He puts weight on when he’s sweating,” joked Coach Jones.  “But he’s doing a great job.  When we get off the field, he’s in the weight room riding the bike.  He’s really shown a commitment level this offseason.”

“I don’t know what it is with my metabolism,” said Blair.  “(Strength coach) Dave Lawson says that he’s never seen anyone like me.  I’ll come in and gain seven pounds in one day and then lose eight pounds the next day.  I can’t control it.  That’s why I try to watch what I eat and when I eat.  I’m 243 right now so I’m in good shape – I just have to maintain it.”

The Blair family lived within the shadow of the Pitt campus, so potentially making his first Division I start on September 6th against the Panthers is an exciting prospect for the UC senior.

“That’s a huge deal,” Greg told me.  “I just thank God for the opportunity.  If I have the opportunity to start against Pitt, that will be a really emotional day for me.”

And not only because Pittsburgh is his hometown.

Last Tuesday, a 25-year-old childhood friend of Greg’s named Robert Murphy was shot to death in a Pittsburgh suburb.

“Over the summer when we had a break and I was back home, he was saying that he couldn’t wait to see my first game and to be there,” said Blair.  “He had purchased my customized jersey and it just came in.  I have a heavy heart right now and I have to go home for the funeral.

“They said it was a drive-by shooting and he died shortly afterward.  It’s messed up.  He was probably the closest friend that I had – he was one of those friends you just do everything with.  It’s hard to lose him but you just have to move on.”

Staying strong runs in the Blair family.

“He’s had some trials and tribulations since he’s been here and he’s just kept fighting through them,” said Coach Jones.  “He’s shown great perseverance.”

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Loss Doesn’t Matter, But Lessons Do

So what should we make of Thursday’s 27-13 loss to the Packers?

Beats me.

I learned my lesson in last season’s preseason opener.  After the Bengals got stomped 34-3 in Detroit, I remember people joking that Cincinnati was “on the clock” to select Andrew Luck with the first pick in the 2012 draft.  Instead, the Bengals went to the playoffs and sent rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to the Pro Bowl.

In other words, there’s no reason to panic after a preseason loss.

But the Bengals have to learn from it.

Perhaps the biggest lessons were provided by Green Bay’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers who did not go with a “vanilla” game plan for week three of the preseason.  Capers hit the Bengals with a wide variety of looks and blitzes that limited the Bengals first team offense to two field goals and five first downs in seven possessions.  Capers’ 3-4 defense is similar to what Cincinnati will see in the regular season opener at Baltimore.

“They have a lot of young guys defensively and (Dom) is trying to get those guys playing,” said Marvin Lewis.  “They have the whole gambit going right now in order to evaluate players and get them going for the season.  We have to do a better job of protection and make sure that we give our quarterback an opportunity.”

“In a 3-4 defense they have a lot of options and they played well,” said rookie Kevin Zeitler.  “I give them a lot of credit. Their scheme was good and we have a lot of work to do as a team.  It’s nice to see the weaknesses now so that we can improve for the regular season.”

One of the Bengals weaknesses last year reared its ugly head again vs. Green Bay – the inability to score touchdowns in first-and-goal situations.  Last year, Cincinnati only scored a TD on 14 of 26 (54%) first-and-goal opportunities to tie for 24th in the NFL.  In contrast, the Packers scored touchdowns on 80% of their first-and-goal chances.  That’s one of the reasons why the Bengals signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis as a free agent and his imminent return from a foot injury should help, but that’s no excuse for having it first-and-goal at the one yard line and losing 11 yards in three plays.

“What we’re doing is different from what we would do in the regular season, but we still ought to be able to score a touchdown from the one yard line,” said Coach Lewis.

“As an o-line, you always feel like you should be able to get at least one yard,” said Zeitler.  “Stuff happened and we have to figure out how to improve so we can get it next time.”

The other valuable lesson on Thursday was provided by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers who gained 52 yards on six scrambles, including a pair of rushing touchdowns.  With games against Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick, and Ben Roethlisberger on the regular season schedule, the Bengals will have to be able to contain mobile quarterbacks.

“It’s tough to win when you allow the quarterback to run,” said Terence Newman.

“We needed that as a defense,” said Taylor Mays.  “We’re trying to figure out what we need to get better at and that’s something that we definitely need to get better at as a whole. We’ll watch the film and find out how we can get better at that, because we can’t win if we don’t get better when the quarterback runs the ball.”

“We did a good job in coverage, but we have to do a better job in containing the quarterback,” said Coach Lewis.  “We were making him put it down and run it, but we weren’t put together well enough in the back to do that.”

After dropping their first two games, including an embarrassing 35-10 home loss to Cleveland last week, the Packers responded with their best performance of the preseason on Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium.  We’ll see if the Bengals bounce back from their first loss with a solid showing next Thursday at Indianapolis.

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Anderson Gets Reminder Of His Skinnier Past

While the NFL replacement referees have not been receiving rave reviews for their work during the preseason games, one ref did provide a fond memory for Bengals defensive end Jamaal Anderson.

“Last week when we played Atlanta, one of them actually came up to me and said that he was one of the refs when I was playing wide receiver in high school,” said Anderson with a laugh.  “He remembered when I was 205 pounds.  It’s so funny that it’s such a small world that you’re able to run into guys like that.”

At 6’6”, 280 pounds, it’s hard to picture the 26-year old as a wide receiver now.  But according to his 2004 Scout.com recruiting profile, Jamaal ran a 4.6 40-yard dash in high school and was the “big, physical, and quick type of wide receiver that both college recruiters and NFL scouts are looking for.”

“I thought that I was going to be a receiver in college,” said Anderson.  “When I stepped on to campus at Arkansas, they told me that I was a defensive end.  I had to go to the equipment manager and change my shoulder pads, my facemask, my low-top cleats, and prepare for a whole new transition.  I had my rough patches, but I had a great supporting cast around me that kept me motivated.  I had to binge eat and eventually I put on weight and got comfortable at the position and was able to become an NFL defensive end.”

After having 13.5 sacks for the Razorbacks as a junior, Anderson entered the NFL draft and was selected eighth overall by Atlanta.  Jamaal started 46 games in four years for the Falcons, before spending last year with the Colts where he recorded a career-high three sacks.  In March, he signed a two-year, $5.5 million free agent contract with Cincinnati.

“It made perfect sense for me to come here to Cincinnati,” Anderson told me.  “I had a great relationship with (defensive coordinator) Mike Zimmer and because of that familiarity and where this team seem to be headed, the arrow was definitely pointed up.   There is a great feeling around here in Cincinnati from what they accomplished last year and I definitely wanted to be a part of something special.”

Anderson was signed to help the Bengals maintain their defensive line depth after the departures of free agents Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene, and his value quickly become evident after preseason injuries to Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers moved Jamaal into the starting lineup.

“It seemed to be a type of a curse on us when four guys (Dunlap, Travelle Wharton, Rey Maualuga, and Taylor Mays) went down in the first preseason game within five to seven minutes,” said Anderson.  “But the NFL motto is ‘Next Man Up.’  There really are no backups in this game with the type of injuries that occur and the brutal force that we face each week.  You have to be prepared for that.  I’ve been a starter in this league before so I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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Lefeld Gaining Confidence On Offensive Line

Last year’s win over Louisville is best remembered for a spectacular performance by Isaiah Pead who ran for 151 yards including a 50-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped rally UC to a 25-16 victory.

Offensive tackle Eric Lefeld remembers it for a different reason.

Lefeld made his first college start that afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium as a redshirt freshman in place of an injured Sean Hooey.  Just one year earlier, Lefeld arrived at Cincinnati weighing nearly 50 fewer pounds as a defensive end.

“It was unbelievable,” said Lefeld.  “I had senior Alex Hoffman to help me and he was constantly giving me tips on technique.   I was nervous as heck getting to play in the Bengals stadium in my first game.”

“He was a little nervous at first,” said junior Austin Bujnoch.  “I can’t say what happened during the pregame, but he was pretty nervous.”

Does that mean there was some pregame spewing?

“There was some spewing, but he did a great job for us,” said Bujnoch with a laugh.  “That was for the Keg of Nails and we always talk about Louisville as being one of our bigger rivals.  He knew going into the game that he needed to step up and I think he did because the offense didn’t skip a beat.  He did really well.”

The 6’6”, 291 pound sophomore started seven of the Bearcats’ last eight games at right tackle last season, and now that Hooey has recovered from an ankle injury, Lefeld moves to left tackle to replace Hoffman who earned Second Team All-Big East Honors last season.

“The left tackle protects the blind side of the quarterback and that’s probably the most critical spot on the offensive line,” said head coach Butch Jones.  “Eric Lefeld is one of the great success stories from last year that wasn’t told.  I believe that he started seven games for us at the tackle position and a year before he was a defensive lineman who was about 240 pounds.  He came in and really held the rope, and now you can see with that experience that he is a rock of stability.”

Lefeld is from Coldwater, OH, a town of about 4,500 people that is roughly 70 miles northwest of Dayton.  According to the school’s website, the Coldwater Cavaliers have won more games (145) than any program in Ohio since 2000 and have been to the playoffs 15 straight times.  Playing for a small school powerhouse helped Eric make a rapid conversion from defense to offense.

“I think my class graduated with about 120-130 students,” said Lefeld.  “When you transfer that over to the football field, we had guys playing on both sides of the ball.  I had the opportunity to be a little more versatile and understand a little bit more about the game.  I had great coaches in John Reed and Chip Otten and it gave me a great background.”

“He’s committed and he comes from a great high school program, so he had a great foundation coming in here,” said Coach Jones.

Still, Lefeld admits to being a bit shocked when he was asked to change positions.

“I think it was the first couple of days into my first camp and it was a big change to be honest,” said Lefeld.  “Coach Jones grabbed me and said, ‘Come on.  I want to see what you can do over here.’  He threw me into the fire and I haven’t turned back.”

And Lefeld has quickly developed into one of Cincinnati’s best offensive lineman.

“He cares about the game and is a student of the game,” said Bujnoch.  “He always wants to get better.  He’s physical and I wouldn’t want to have anyone else playing next to me.”

“This football program and his teammates mean everything to him,” said Coach Jones.  “That’s his nature.  He’s competitive, and it’s like he has a fire burning inside of him every day.”

“When we talk about ‘Representing the C,’ what really comes to my mind is that it’s on the field and off the field,” said Lefeld.  “I come from a great family where we stress grades and competing to the best of your ability every time you’re on the field, and I believe in having a good balance.”

It sounds like the Bearcats won’t have to feel nervous about the left tackle position for the next three years.

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Mohamed Sanu Looks To Answer Call

Remember the cruel prank call that Mohamed Sanu received during the first round of the NFL draft from someone pretending to be from the Bengals?

Well, Sanu’s phone was blowing up again after Thursday’s win in Atlanta, but this time the calls were appreciated as friends and family reached out to congratulate him on his touchdown catch against the Falcons.

“I got something like 70 to 80 text messages,” Sanu told me.  “Everybody was happy for me and just saying, ‘Keep up the good work, and keep working hard.’  It feels good to know that you have a lot of people pulling for you and supporting you.  I just want to thank everybody back home.”

The 12-yard touchdown catch (you can watch it here) was Sanu’s second reception of the game and his first TD in NFL preseason action.  The pass was thrown by seven-year veteran Bruce Gradkowski who also tossed A.J. Green’s first regular season touchdown grab in week one at Cleveland last year.

“It was a beautiful pass by Bruce and I was in the right place at the right time,” said Sanu.  “He put it where it needed to be and I went up and made the play.”

“A.J. said, ‘You like throwing the young receivers their first touchdown pass don’t you?’” Gradkowski said after Thursday’s win.  “I just laughed.  Those young guys do a great job.  Mohamed and Marvin Jones are doing a great job as rookies and we have a lot of talent at receiver.”

The emergence of Sanu and Jones obviously played a role in Friday’s release of Jordan Shipley.  Jones has hauled in catches of 40-plus yards in each of the Bengals two preseason games, and Sanu’s ability to play multiple spots gives the Bengals a solid compliment to slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.

“Hawkins right now is our inside guy,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “But you’re going to need more than one.  He gets gassed sometimes.  He’s up and down on the kickoffs, he’s on punt return, and we need another one and a different body type.  That’s Sanu – he’s a great fit.”

“It’s up to coach to figure out where he can use me the best, and I’ll play whatever he wants me to play,” said Sanu.  “I have to step up to make sure that I help this team in any way possible.  If they need me to play inside, I’m definitely happy to play inside and I’m going to do everything that I can to be the best that I can be.”

Last year, the former Rutgers star made 115 receptions to shatter Larry Fitzgerald’s Big East record of 92, but a poor 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine (4.67 seconds) caused some scouts to question Sanu’s NFL prospects.  Mohamed ran much faster at Rutgers’ Pro Day (4.41 and 4.48), and the Bengals grabbed him in the third round.

“Here’s what the Bengals are getting,” Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood told me recently at Big East Media Day.  “They’re getting an elite-level character person first.  I said this before the draft to a number of NFL people that asked me questions about Mohamed:  ‘I’m telling you right now that for all the reasons you love Ray Rice, you’re going to say the same things about Mohamed Sanu in a couple of years.’  I think the Bengals are really going to love the person and I think they are going to be excited about what he can do for them on Sundays.  And I think he’s going to be a positive part of that community for a long time to come.”

“The Bengals got a steal in the third round,” said Sanu’s former Rutgers teammate Mark Harrison. “They are getting an animal, a monster, and a go-getter.  He is just an awesome guy with a great personality and he knows how to attack that ball.”

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Jones Shows Good Touch In Recruiting

You never know what makes the difference in recruiting elite football players.  Even free throw shooting could be a factor.

An explanation is in order.

One of the most highly-touted players in UC’s freshman class is wide receiver Nate Cole from Memphis, TN who chose Cincinnati over Alabama, Ole Miss, Stanford, Tennessee, West Virginia and others.

“I felt the family vibe when I came here,” Cole told me.  “I saw a game at Nippert Stadium and it felt like home.”

After playing for his father Nathan, Sr. at Mitchell High School, it was important for Cole to sense a close connection to his college head coach.

That’s where free throw shooting comes in.

“His pride is probably going to be wounded here,” said UC head coach Butch Jones with a grin.  “We were in the gym (on a recruiting visit) and he was having a great senior year in basketball.  He was feeling really good about himself, so we made a friendly wager over who could win a free throw shooting contest.  We squared off in front of his gym class and Coach Jones came out victorious.”

“He beat me fair and square in front of the whole gym,” said Cole, “My dad, all of the basketball coaches, and some students.  He challenged me to a best-of-ten and beat me by one.”

In case you’re wondering, the stakes of the friendly wager were not a commitment to Cincinnati.  The free throw contest was strictly for laughs, but it did reinforce Cole’s belief that Butch Jones was the right college coach for him.

“It showed me that he relates to us and we can relate to him,” said Cole.  “I knew that if I needed to come to him about anything, he would be there.  If you can’t relate to the head coach and if he can’t relate to you, you’re not in the right place.  It’s not going to feel like home, you’re not going to like it, and you’re not going to play up to your potential.  You have to have that kind of relationship with your coaches to play up to your highest potential.”

“It was a great environment, it was all in fun, and I can’t say enough about his character,” said Coach Jones.  “He’s a coaches’ son and has a tremendous family.  We’re very fortunate to have him in our program and he’s doing exceptionally well right now.”

At Tuesday morning’s practice at Camp Higher Ground, Cole was working with the second unit on offense and Nate appears to be a solid bet to play as a true freshman.

“I think his chances are very good,” said Jones.  “Right now it’s still relatively early, but I see a lot of Alex Chisum qualities in him in terms of maturity and learning the playbook.  He’s kind of a quiet-natured young man, but he’s extremely competitive inside.  He’s very driven and I could see him playing for us.”

“I have to get into the playbook and learn the plays,” said Cole.  “It’s really complicated.  There are different routes, different concepts, and different names for routes.

“My goal is to pick things up fast, and if they do throw me into the game to do my job.  My job is not to win games; it’s to help to win games.”

And part of Butch Jones’ job is to convince talented high school football players with numerous scholarship offers to choose Cincinnati.

“With where our program is now, we’re able to go compete against the traditionally-rich football programs around the country,” said Coach Jones.  “I think that speaks volumes for what we have to sell in our football program, our city, and the job that our coaches are doing.”

Not to mention his free-throw shooting ability.

“Hey whatever it takes right?” said Jones.

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

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Jones Looking To Make Name For Himself With Bengals

When the Bengals named Marvin Lewis as their head coach in January of 2003, it caught the ear of a 12-year-old kid in California named Marvin Lewis Jones.

“I was really small and I was watching TV and they said, ‘Marvin Lewis,’ and I was like, ‘What?’ said the Bengals wide receiver.  “That was the first time that I heard his name.  It’s kind of ironic now.  I get ‘Marvin Lewis Jones’ a lot now that I’m with Cincinnati, so I’m never going to hear the end of it.”

The rookie out of Cal is off to a solid start in his first NFL camp.  Jones led the Bengals in receiving yards in Friday night’s win over the Jets, finishing with two catches for 48 yards.

“It was definitely a thrill,” said Jones.  “When you go through rookie minicamp and OTAs, you just want to go out there and cut loose on the big stage.  It was definitely a good start to have two catches in my first game – it doesn’t get much better than that.”

“I thought Marvin went out and played in that game kind of how he’s practiced,” said Coach Lewis.  “We know that he has great physical tools out there.  He plays fast and he’s been able to exhibit that on the field.”

When the Bengals drafted Jones in the fifth round this year, NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock called it a steal since he had Marvin graded as a third round pick.  Rob Rang from CBSSports.com, wrote that Jones could pay “surprising dividends.”

“At least partially due to poor play at the quarterback position, Jones didn’t generate a great deal of buzz a year ago in the Pac-12,” wrote Rang.  “Given an opportunity at the Senior Bowl, however, Jones was spectacular, demonstrating the straight-line speed, balance and quick feet as a route-runner, body control to contort to poorly thrown passes, and soft hands to develop into a legitimate NFL starting receiver.”

“It was a little bit frustrating,” said Jones when asked about the draft.  “I expected to go higher than I did, but once I got the call that all changed.  It’s not how you get here, it’s all about the opportunity that you have and trying to capitalize on it.  That’s how I took it – I’m here and I’m trying to make the best of my opportunity.”

The battle for wide receiver spots on the Bengals 53-man roster is one of the most heated at training camp.  Jones is trying to avoid playing the numbers game.

“When you get up here, you’re just thankful for the opportunity to be in the NFL,” Marvin told me.  “You just control what you can control – that’s going out on the field and doing what they expect you to do.  That’s making game-changing catches and making big gains to help out your team.  Once you do that, everything will fall into place and that’s what I’m trying to do now.”

In other words, he’s trying to catch the eye of the coach whose name caught his ear.

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

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Tears For Binns…Cheers For Burfict

One of the most interesting sights in Friday’s preseason opener against the Jets occurred during the National Anthem.

As a TV camera panned the Cincinnati sideline, it zoomed in on Armon Binns who appeared to have tears in his eyes and he approached his first game in a Bengals uniform.

“It was such a big moment,” Binns told me after the game.  “I’ve been through so much the last couple of years and to be here with this opportunity – nobody would have thought that I would have been here.  It felt great man.  I’m so blessed to be out here with this team and to compete for a spot on the roster.”

The former University of Cincinnati star had not appeared in a game since last preseason when he went to camp with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent.  Armon had two catches for 24 yards in his Bengals debut, and also had a 19-yard grab wiped out by a holding penalty.

“It took me a couple of series for the game to slow down,” said Binns.  “It was great to be out there and I had so much fun.  It was cool.”

“I thought Binny came in and did what we expected him to do,” said Marvin Lewis.  “He did a nice job on third down catches and routes.  You know, when they run certain coverages, you have to have other people that can beat the coverages.  I thought he and (tight end Jermaine) Gresham did a nice job on that drive to keep the drive alive and keep it going.”

Binns and Brandon Tate are the leading candidates to start opposite of A.J. Green at wide receiver.  Tate also finished with 2 receptions for 24 yards against the Jets, and rookie Marvin  Jones led the team with 48 receiving yards on two catches.

“We’re really deep at this position,” said Binns.  “Tate is a great player and brings a whole different dynamic to the position.  The more guys that we have – the better our team is going to be.

“We’re only going to get better.  It’s so early.  It was the first preseason game and we were really vanilla with our play-calling.  The more we’re out there working together and the closer we get to the opening game, I think we’re going to hit the ground running.”

After spending last season on the Bengals practice squad, Binns appears to be a lock to make the active roster this season.

Does he feel like he’s clinched one of the wide receiver spots?

“I don’t ever want to feel like that,” Armon told me.  “I just want to keep chipping away.  When the regular season hits and I’m here, that’s when I’ll feel like I’ve made the team.”

Don’t be surprised to see a tear rolling down his cheek during the Star-Spangled Banner on September 10th in Baltimore.

*******

If any football fans outside of Cincinnati were wondering whatever happened to former Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict, they ought to know now.

After all, there probably isn’t a better way for a defensive player to be seen repeatedly on ESPN than to intercept a pass thrown by Tim Tebow.

“Man, it’s amazing,” said Burfict.  “I have the ball right there in my locker and I’ll probably treasure that for the rest of my life.  (Tebow) is on Sportscenter every time that you turn it on, so this is wonderful.”

Burfict also intercepted an Andy Dalton pass in the Bengals mock game last weekend, and the undrafted free agent has had a very solid training camp.

“Coach Zimmer always says bust your tail to the ball and good things happen,” said Burfict.  “He’s always on us in the film room to read your keys and go where you’re supposed to go.  Just handle your job and everything else will work out.  That’s what I did – I handled my job and got an interception off of Tim Tebow.”

My radio partner Dave Lapham noted on Friday’s broadcast that Vontaze has an instinctive “nose for the ball” that all great defensive players have, but Burfict does not agree.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Vontaze told me.  “Coaching is key to me.  Listen to what the coaches tell me to do.  A lot of people say that I was uncoachable and I’m trying to prove them wrong.   I’m listening to what the coaches tell me to do and I bust my behind to get to the ball and try to make plays for my defense.”

That certainly doesn’t sound like the guy whose disastrous performance at the NFL combine and history of personal fouls at Arizona State caused his stock to plummet among NFL scouts.  The Bengals elected to give Burfict a second chance, and so far, he’s quieting his skeptics.

“The past is the past and I don’t even look back anymore,” said Burfict.  “I just want to get better as a football player.  There are always going to be haters so it doesn’t really bother me.  People talk and most of the time it isn’t true, so I’m just trying to go day-by-day and be a better player and teammate.”

Vontaze cherishes one of his critics:  Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

“I’m very comfortable here,” said Burfict.  “Sometimes I mess up in practice and I’m kind of scared to go into Coach Zimmer’s meeting because I know that he’s going to get on me, but he’s just trying to make me better.

“That makes me want to play harder – knowing that I have to do my assignment because I have him on my tail and if I don’t do it, he’s going to yell at me.  That makes me a better player.”

Burfict is off to a good start in Cincinnati.  He has a football in his locker and a Sportscenter highlight to prove it.

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

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