September 2012

Bengals Surge Fueled By Entire Roster

The Bengals Pro Bowlers – Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, and Geno Atkins – each had great stats in Sunday’s 27-10 win at Jacksonville, but this was a win where considerable credit should go to the “other guys.”

Like Cedric Peerman.

The Bengals were sputtering through a penalty-plagued first half when Peerman took a sideways snap on a fake punt and ran 48 yards from the Cincinnati 34 to the Jacksonville 18.

“I can’t do anything without a great snap from Clark Harris and then the guys up front doing a great job of blocking, so hats off to them,” said Peerman.  “My teammates were giving me a little grief saying, ‘You should have scored.’  I probably should have scored, but I’m glad that I put my team in position to score.”

“Oooh, that was big,” said Chris Pressley.  “Cedric did a great job of executing it.  It’s something that we practice for if we see a certain look.  Sometimes those plays don’t work, but to be able to execute it and get a big chunk of yards was huge.”

Pressley was another of the unsung heroes.

The 26-year-old fullback makes his living throwing his body at linebackers in hopes of opening holes in the running game, but against the Jaguars, Pressley scored his first career touchdown in four NFL seasons on a 1-yard pass from Dalton.

“The Jaguars were thinking run and coach called a great play,” said Pressley.  “Green-Ellis did a good job of selling it, the line blocked really well, and I was able to get my first one.  It was really cool.  I live in Tampa so I had my family down here and it was nice for them to see.”

Domata Peko also deserved a pat on the back.

While Atkins, Michael Johnson, and Carlos Dunlap have been getting the headlines, Peko remains a rock in the middle of the defensive line.  He had the first of Cincinnati’s six sacks on Sunday and helped the defense hold Maurice Jones-Drew to 38 yards on 13 carries.

“The key to the game today was to shut down Maurice Jones-Drew,” said Peko.  “I think we held him under 100 yards and that was one of the big things that we were stressing on defense this week.  We didn’t get off to a good start this season on stopping the run, but we’re starting to pick it up.”

Of course, the most unlikely hero of all was Chris Crocker.  After being out of work for 174 days, the 32-year-old safety returned to the Bengals on Thursday to bolster their injury-ravaged secondary and had an interception in his first game back.

“I love it and I’m glad that he got it,” said Leon Hall.  “It couldn’t have happened to a better person.”

“We’ve been missing him and we’re so happy that he’s back,” said Peko.  “It seems like he gets the back-end ready.  He gets everybody in the right spots and communicates very well.  He’s just a savvy veteran that knows how to play the game.”

During their 3-game winning streak, the Bengals have received key contributions from veterans like Crocker, Adam Jones, and Terence Newman as well as newcomers like Armon Binns, Vontaze Burfict, and Mohamed Sanu.  Who’s next?

“There are a lot of guys who weren’t going to be in the thick of the plan who are out there playing a lot of football,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.

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“On Sundays I Get To Be Pac-Man”

Chicago’s Devin Hester holds the NFL career record with 12 punt returns for touchdowns.

Adam Jones ranks second among active players and is tied for 13th on the all-time list with five punt return TDs.

Considering that he has missed 60 games over the last seven years due to injuries or suspensions, does Jones think that he would be close to Hester’s mark if he hadn’t missed so much time?

“I don’t want to assume anything,” Jones told me.  “Devin Hester is a great friend of mine and one of the best returners to ever play the game.  He’s good man – he’s really, really good.  We’re two different types of returners.”

You might say that Adam dodged the question as well as he dodged the Cleveland Browns last week (watch the highlight here).

I did some research into Adam’s success as a punt returner and was surprised by what I discovered:  Statistically he is as likely to return a punt for a TD as nearly anyone that has ever played the game.

Jones has scored five touchdowns despite only returning 94 punts in his career – that’s a touchdown every 18.8 returns.  While that’s not quite as good as Hester (TD every 17.4 returns), it’s far superior to Deion Sanders (TD every 35.3), Dante Hall (TD every 36.0) and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson (TD every 47.0).

“I marvel at his abilities in many ways,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.  “He is amazing with the ball in his hands.  He’s amazing when they do their individual DB drills and they’re doing a tackling drill and he’s the ball carrier.  He’s very, very difficult to get your hands on.”

“Instinct,” answered Jones when I asked him what makes a great return man.  “A lot of people ask me if I remembered what happened after a big return and nine times out of 10, I don’t remember what happened until I go back and look at it and then I’m like, ‘Whoa.’  Instinct has a lot to do with it.”

Considering how explosive that Adam is with the ball in his hands, how did he ever wind up on defense?

“That’s a good question,” Jones said with a laugh.  “I actually went to (West Virginia) to play running back and at the time we had Avon Cobourne.  The coaches were like, ‘Well, you’re not playing running back, so if you want a chance to play this year, you can go to defense and do punt returns and kick returns.’  I was so young and eager to play that I ran over to cornerback.”

With his 29th birthday coming up in less than two weeks, Jones isn’t quite so young anymore, but he remains as eager as ever to take the field every Sunday.

“Sunday is one of the best feelings you can get,” said Jones.  “In life you have to tone things down and live up to standards.  On Sundays, it’s the only day that I can go out and just be reckless.  You have to know when to turn it on and turn it off and that’s the day that I get to turn it on.  That’s the day that I get to be Pac-Man and not Adam.  I love playing this game and I love competing against other guys.”

Jones was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week on Wednesday after returning three punts for 90 yards and one kickoff for 31 yards in last week’s win over Cleveland.  He’s hoping to get as many opportunities to return kicks and punts as the coaching staff will give him.

“When my number is called, I’ll be ready,” said Jones.  “I’m just going to keep working hard and pray that my body stays healthy.  The sky is the limit.”

“He’s dynamic and we’ve known that for a long time,” said special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.  “It’s just a matter of him being healthy and the situation being right.  I’m glad that it finally happened for him.”

“He’s done a wonderful job of becoming responsible with the football, and of understanding the schematics of the return game,” said Coach Lewis.  “He’s come light years in that way.  He really is a good student of it right now.  He’s an exciting guy, he’s electrifying.  He gets everybody excited when he’s back there. Some of the things we were more concerned with him with before, he’s really done a good job of proving that he can make the good choices and the good decisions with that.  It’s a good thing, and it’s a big positive for us.”

**********

Here’s a look at how Jones compares to the 12 players in NFL history that have returned more punts for touchdowns than he has:

Devin Hester:  12 TD in 209 returns (every 17.4)

Eric Metcalf:  10 TD in 351 returns (every 35.1)

Brian Mitchell:  9 TD in 463 returns (every 51.4)

Desmond Howard:  8 TD in 244 returns (every 30.5)

Jack Christiansen:  8 TD in 85 returns (every 10.6)

Rich Upchurch:  8 TD in 248 returns (every 31.0)

Dave Meggett:  7 TD in 349 returns (every 49.9)

Deion Sanders:  6 TD in 212 returns (every 35.3)

Jermaine Lewis:  6 TD in 295 returns (every 49.2)

Billy “White Shoes” Johnson:  6 TD in 282 returns (every 47.0)

Dante Hall:  6 TD in 216 returns (every 36.0)

Darrien Gordon:  6 TD in 314 returns (every 52.3)

Adam Jones:  5 TD in 94 returns (every 18.8)

**********

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NFL’s Smallest Player Presents Big Challenge For Bengals

On Monday of each week, I break out my multicolored pens and begin putting together what play-by-play announcers call a spotting board.  In my case, it’s a chart of every player on both teams in numerical order that includes basic information like their height, weight, and age, as well as other nuggets that I might be able to work into the broadcast.  Here’s a look at a portion of last week’s chart for the Cleveland Browns.

This week when I started working on my board for the Washington Redskins, I did a double-take at something I had never seen before on an NFL roster:  A player who weighs 153 pounds.

That would be Redskins kickoff and punt returner Brandon Banks who – like Andrew Hawkins — is listed at 5’7”, but is nearly 30 pounds lighter than the Bengals receiver.

“I definitely have a little more bulk than he does,” Hawkins told me.  “He’s actually a friend of mine and I’ve known him for a long time.  I actually hosted him on his visit to the University of Toledo.  Small world.”

Emphasis on small.

Banks is in his third year with the Redskins after playing college football at Kansas State where his teammates included Bengals practice squad linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.

“My first impression was, ‘Wow – he’s small.’” said Lamur.  “But to play this game takes heart and that describes him.  Size really doesn’t matter.  He gave us a big return every time we needed it.  He was a big playmaker for us and it was great being his teammate.”

“After the (2010) combine, we were texting back and forth and he told me that he weighed in at 149 pounds,” said Hawkins.  “Imagine that – 149 and he’s not a kicker.  But the guy can play man.”

As a rookie, the diminutive Banks had a 96-yard kick return touchdown against Detroit (you can see it here).  The Bengals were able to keep Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs in check in the return game last week, but Banks presents a different challenge this Sunday.

“He’s the fastest guy on the field,” said Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.  “It’s going to be very important for us to be sound on our field lanes this week.  This guy can get outside of you in a heartbeat and you won’t even know it until he’s already gone.  He’s not big, so we have to be physical and get him on the ground.  It’s a big change trying to tackle him after trying to tackle somebody like Cribbs.  We have to keep him contained.”

The 215-pound Cribbs is known for his ability to break tackles.  In the case of Banks…

“You have to catch him first,” said Lamur.

**********

NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell created a bit of a firestorm in Cincinnati last May when he told Yahoo Sports that there were still questions about Andy Dalton’s long-term potential, even after an outstanding rookie season.

“I can tell you that those in the Bengals organization have a few doubts as to what his true upside is,” Cosell said at the time.  “Because at the end of the day, while I think Dalton is a good player, I think — not I think, I know — that he’s got some arm strength limitations.”

Cosell joined Dave Lapham and me on “Bengals Game Plan” this week, and I asked him for his opinion on Dalton’s upside.

“When you have some limitations, they can be compensated for if you do other things really well.,” said Cosell.  “I think there are two things that Andy Dalton does really well – and I had a chance to study him again this summer for the “Jaws Quarterback Countdown Series” that I did with Ron Jaworski for ESPN.  I think Dalton has tremendous anticipation.  The more film that you watch, the more that you see him make throws before receivers break.  And number two, I would say that he has excellent ball location which I think is a better word than accuracy.  He puts balls in exactly the right spots between people, and gives receivers a chance to run after the catch.  I think you can compensate for not having a gun.  Andy Dalton does not have a gun.  He doesn’t have a weak arm, but he doesn’t have a gun.  I think he can make up for that and has up to this point, and I think that he’s going to be a very good player.”

As for this week’s game against the Redskins, Cosell says that Dalton’s ability to read defenses will be crucial.

“I think the loss of Brian Orakpo is critical for the Redskins,” said Cosell.  “(Defensive coordinator) Jim Haslett likes to blitz and I think you’ll see a lot of blitz this weekend because I think that he’ll feel that he can double A.J. Green and live with one-on-one coverage in the other matchups.”

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Bengals Beat Browns Despite Defensive Concerns

The Eagles beat the Browns by a mere point last week and Philly would have lost if Cleveland linebacker L.J. Fort didn’t drop a potential clinching interception with less than two minutes to go.

The Bengals beat the Browns by seven points this week and it never felt like a Cincinnati win was in serious jeopardy.

So what’s the problem?

Simply put, it’s impossible not to be concerned about the Bengals defense after two games.

Six days after allowing 430 totals yards in the lopsided loss at Baltimore, Cincinnati allowed 439 yards to a Cleveland team that had foundered offensively (210 yards, 0 TD) the week before.

“We’re a little shaky,” said linebacker Rey Maualuga.  “We’re very hard on ourselves.  We don’t like giving up that many points to any team.  It’s the NFL — every team is good, despite their record.  All we can do is keep practicing and trying to get better week in week out.”

The Bengals were unable to get significant pressure on rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden who went 26-for-37 for 322 yards, 2 TD and 0 INT.  After posting an anemic quarterback rating of 5.1 in his NFL debut, the 28-year-old rookie raised it by nearly 100 points against Cincinnati to 114.9.

“We were hoping that he could rattle him,” said linebacker Manny Lawson.  “We were hoping that if we could get around his feet or got close to him, that he would start overthrowing people or come out of the pocket.  He showed a lot of poise in the pocket and he made all the throws.  They ran an offense that he can handle and he did a really good job.”

Then there’s rookie Trent Richardson who served notice that he is going to be a twice-a-year nightmare for the Bengals in the Battle of Ohio.  After gaining 39 yards on 19 carries against Philadelphia, the former Alabama star finished with 109 yards on 19 carries vs. Cincinnati, and added 36 receiving yards on 4 receptions.

“That guy runs very hard and he’s elusive,” said linebacker Vinny Rey.  “I was looking for him after the game to pay my respect.”

In fairness to the Bengals, they are playing shorthanded on defense.  They should get their best pass rusher Carlos Dunlap back from a knee injury as soon as next week, and cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Jason Allen are making progress from their injuries.  But Cincinnati will clearly miss linebacker Thomas Howard — their leading tackler from last year — who is out for the season after hurting his knee at practice on Wednesday.

“At first (Howard’s injury) was very shocking,” said Rey.  “But we realized that we would have to replace him by committee.  You don’t replace a guy that makes that many plays and takes that many snaps with one guy – at least in that week.”

“We’ve got some guys playing that we didn’t necessarily know would be playing when we got started, but they are and we’re going to have to coach them and make them better,” said Marvin Lewis.  “Everybody is going to have to play better.  When you’ve got young guys getting in and playing for the first time, other guys have to play better around them. Defensively I think that’s what we have to focus on right now.”

The Bengals still have most of the key players back from the NFL’s seventh-ranked defense last year along with one of the league’s top defensive coordinators in Mike Zimmer.  They’re bound to get better right?

“Last year is last year and what we have to do is keep on moving,” said Lawson.  “We have to watch the film, learn from our mistakes, and get ready for the next game.”

And while Cleveland’s offensive output leaves the Bengals looking for answers on defense, at least they’ll conduct the search from a first-place tie in the AFC North with Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

“I’m happy to come out of this with a win,” said Rey.  “We know as a defense that we have to play better.  I know that I have to play better.  But a win is a win.  We’re going to learn from this and then we are going to move on.”

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Two Big Surprises In Baltimore…And One Was Actually Good

Even Nostradamus couldn’t have seen that coming.

I don’t mean the loss – after all, the Ravens have won 19 of their last 20 at home and will probably be favored in every game at M & T Bank Stadium this season.  And I don’t even mean the margin of defeat since it was a four point game in the third quarter before turnovers helped turn it into a blowout.

What was shocking wasn’t what happened…

“It was how Baltimore won the football game,” said my radio partner Dave Lapham.  “I mean, Sam Koch only punted the ball twice – once in the first half and once in the second half.  You have got to make more stops than that.  Defensively they got shredded – there’s no other way to put it.  There’s not one thing they did defensively that spells winning football.  Mike Zimmer has to be livid, and Marvin Lewis had to be absolutely shocked that his team played the way it did.”

The Ravens finished with 430 yards on 58 plays – an average of 7.4 yards every time they snapped the football.  And if Joe Flacco were a stock, I’d be investing every penny.  Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to take his team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and yet, he has never gone to a Pro Bowl.  After throwing for 299 yards on opening night and posting a quarterback rating of 128.4, it looks like the 27-year-old could be on his way to a monster season.

“I think it could be his year,” said Lapham.  “He obviously has a very, very strong throwing arm and he was on-point on Monday night.  His accuracy was unbelievable.  He threw the ball in very tight windows and a lot of times he did it just with his arm strength when he couldn’t set his feet and step into the throw.  He’s a big, strong guy with a cannon hanging off of that right shoulder and was amazing against the Bengals on Monday night.”

But as bad as the Bengals defense looked in the opener, there was a pleasant surprise on the other side of the ball:  The patched-up offensive line featuring a just-signed center in Jeff Faine actually functioned pretty well in one of the most difficult environments in sports.

“I think it was a bright spot,” said Lapham.  “If I had to pick a position group that played the best, it was the offensive line.  I thought that Andre Smith was a bull at the right tackle position…I thought that Jeff Faine did a remarkable job in the middle…I thought that Kevin Zeitler held up very well as a rookie…Clint Boling did the job at left guard…and Andrew Whitworth was his solid self.  I think that is the one block in the foundation that you can build off of.”

Faine’s performance was especially encouraging when you consider that it came after five practices and no preseason games.

“I felt good about my play and I didn’t feel rusty at all,” Jeff told me.  “It was the first game that I’ve played since last season and it felt good to get back out there.  I thought our communication was good.  There were a couple of things that we missed assignment-wise that led to a couple of big hits on Andy, but we’ll fix that.

“He’s a veteran and knows what to do,” said rookie Kevin Zeitler.  “It was very impressive that he was able to learn the whole offense in 12 days.”

“I think we did some pretty good things,” said Andre Smith.  “Being a brand new unit with a new middle between me and Whit, I felt like we did a good job of communicating what we had to do.  Jeff did a great job of calling out things, but we can still execute better as a unit.”

That goes for the entire team.

The Cleveland Browns are coming to town on Sunday after nearly upsetting Philadelphia in their season opener.  There’s no time for the Bengals to mourn their dreadful performance on Monday night.

“The won/loss column is what you look at in this league,” said Zeitler.  “We have to improve by next week.”

********

I enjoyed a college reunion of sorts in the season opener.

Mike Tirico called the game on ESPN and Ian Eagle did the play-by-play of the national radio broadcast.  All three of us graduated from Syracuse University between 1985 and 1990 and worked at student radio station WAER.  Additionally, my broadcast partner Dave Lapham and Ravens color analyst Qadry Ismail both played football at the ‘Cuse.

That’s five announcers from one school on the same Monday Night Football game (Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson is also Syracuse alum).

I don’t think Nostradamus could have seen that coming either.

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How Quickly Can Faine Learn The Language?

There’s no point in sugarcoating it.  With a rookie at right guard, a second year pro with minimal experience at left guard, and a just-signed newcomer at center, the Bengals face a huge challenge on Monday night in Baltimore.

“The NFL is full of challenges and if you like challenges you’ll like the NFL,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander.  “If you like REALLY big challenges, you’ll like the one that we have this week.”

Nobody faces a bigger challenge than center Jeff Faine.  The 10-year veteran was the highest-paid center in NFL history when he signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2008, and the Bucs let him go in March largely for salary cap relief.  The Bengals were fortunate that Faine turned down overtures from other teams and was still available when Kyle Cook injured his ankle.

“We have a list of all of the guys that are available on the street and aren’t with a team and he was right at the top of the list,” said Alexander.  “He’s been such a good, solid player for so long and we moved quickly to sign him.”

Faine has 113 starts under his belt and has been a Pro Bowl alternate.  But can he join the team at the end of training camp and pick up the Bengals offense in less than two weeks?

“The only problem that I see is language,” said my radio partner Dave Lapham.  “He understands the concepts and ran this exact offense when he was at Tampa Bay and Jon and Jay Gruden were down there.  The blocking scheme is the same, the protections are the same.  The only thing is, he’s speaking French and everybody else is speaking German in terms of what things are named.  He has to unlearn one language and learn another.  He told me that he’s been in here six to eight hours every single day, trying to get up to speed.”

“He’s really worked hard,” said Alexander.  “He’s a very conscientious guy and he’s put in the time.  We’ve tried to teach him one game at a time and give him the specific game plan for this week’s game against Baltimore rather than teach him the entire playbook because he wouldn’t be able to digest that in a week.”

Of course, it’s not just Faine.  The entire offensive line has to gel quickly for the Bengals to have a chance in Baltimore.

“They have to just about live together here,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.  “I think it will be 12 days from the time that we signed Jeff until we play a game and those guys have just about been living together along with Coach Paul Alexander.  That offensive line is such a chemistry thing and it’s the hand-in-glove theory – all five have to work in conjunction all the time and they have to see it through the same eyes.”

“It’s exciting, it really is,” said Alexander.  “The biggest thing is making a call at the last second.  It’s easy if they just line up in a basic defense and you have time to think about it and make your calls.  But the center is the guy that directs the whole thing.  He sets it all in motion to begin with and then he makes the last-second adjustment right before the ball is snapped, and your mind has to think very quickly and you have to communicate it properly so that everyone can pull it off.”

While the Bengals had Kevin Zeitler penciled in as the starting right guard immediately after drafting him, veteran Travelle Wharton was expected to be the starter at left guard.  His knee injury in the first preseason game moved Clint Boling into the lineup.

“I told Clint honestly last year that I didn’t have a lot of hope for him,” said Alexander.  “But he worked hard in the off-season and improved his flexibility tremendously.  He’s able to play lower, he’s playing with much better technique, and he’s really a different guy.  He’s made as much progress in one year as any player I can remember.”

The line will be tested by the NFL’s third-ranked defense last year under new defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

“It’s the exact same defense,” said Alexander.  “Same techniques, same structure, same everything.  I think he’s going to let those players do the things that they’ve been so successful at.”

“I think that they’ll do their share of blitzing,” said Lapham.  “They’ll try to do some crosses and hit the A-gap between the center and guard and use Ray Lewis in stunts and twists with the lineman.  They’ll test the Bengals and see how they handle it mentally and physically.”

Calling it a really big challenge might be an understatement.

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Orr Soars As Bearcats Approach Opener

There are 65 first- or second-year players on Cincinnati’s roster this year.  At times, they are bound to be a little overwhelmed.

“It’s like sipping water through a fire hose – everything is flying at you,” said head coach Butch Jones.

But several of the least experienced Bearcats will have to play significant roles this year, including cornerback and punt returner Trenier Orr (#2).

“We expect a lot of our redshirt freshman to play, but if you asked me to pick out one who has stood out above and beyond everyone else, it’s Trenier Orr,” said Coach Jones.  “He’s having a spectacular camp and is pushing Cam Cheatham, Devin Drane, and Dominique Battle each and every day.  It’s been great to see.”

Ironically, one of the reasons why Orr chose Cincinnati over Illinois and Colorado State is that he didn’t think he would have to wait until this year to see action.

“I felt like there was an opportunity to come in and play right away, but Coach Jones thought it was best for me to redshirt and now I understand,” Orr told me.  “Last year was rough.  No freshman wants to redshirt but now that I look back on film, I wasn’t ready.  I know that I wasn’t ready.  I look at my progress now and everything is so much quicker.”

Orr needed the redshirt season because he was primarily an offensive player at Ocoee High School near Orlando, Florida.

“I played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, safety, cornerback, and they gave me a couple of snaps at tight end,” said Orr.  “I kind of had the mindset of a receiver because growing up, I usually played receiver.  In my senior year, I barely played defensive back because they had me moving around everywhere.”

After practicing at cornerback for a year at Cincinnati, Orr says he is comfortable at the position.

“Everything has gotten better – my footwork and my technique,” said Orr.  “I can say that I’m a defensive back now.”

“The big thing now is the little nuances and technical details required to play the corner position,” said Coach Jones.  “Trenier has the athletic ability and the competitive nature that you want, and we’re very excited about him.”

Orr appears to be one of Cincinnati’s top three cornerbacks to begin the season, and the coaching staff has targeted him at practice to get him ready to play a key role.

“In our first scrimmage in spring ball, I had four fades thrown on me to test my mental toughness,” said Orr.  “Coach Jones said that he was going to come at me in every practice to make me tough.  I got beat sometimes, but I learned to snap-and-clear and do my thing.”

“We’ve told our older wide outs that ‘You’ve got a freshman out there on an island and you need to go after him and take advantage of the situation.’” said Coach Jones.  “I tell you what, he’s held his own and more.”

“He’s a great talent,” said defensive coordinator Jon Jancek.  “He hasn’t played in a game yet, so we’re excited to see what he can do.  He makes freshman mistakes still and has to mature, but with his talent and intangibles, he can be as good as he wants to be.”

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