March 2013

McClung Hopes Senior Season Is Big Hit

When the Syracuse Post-Standard did a story in November about SU’s hard-hitting safety Shamarko Thomas, they illustrated it with this photo of him leveling Bearcats wide receiver Anthony McClung.

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What wasn’t mentioned in the caption is that McClung made the catch for a Cincinnati first down.

A week later, Temple’s Vaughn Carraway hit McClung so hard that the school’s media relations department immediately sent out the following Tweet:

 

Allow me to point out that McClung held on to the ball for a 29-yard gain with a 15-yard penalty tacked on.

I have no idea if UC’s new head coach Tommy Tuberville has seen video of either of those receptions, but he’s watched enough of McClung at practice to know that the Bearcats wide receiver doesn’t have “alligator arms.”

“He’ll catch the ball across the middle,” said Tuberville.  “That’s what really separates a good receiver.”

“When the ball is in the air, I feel that it’s mine,” said McClung.  “I can’t control what happens after that.  All I try to do is look the ball in and make the catch for my team.”

Unlike Tuberville, McClung has definitely seen the video of his gutsy catches after some gruesome collisions.

“Sometimes you get goose bumps and say, ‘Wow that really happened,’ ” McClung told me.  “But during the game, you have so much adrenaline going that you don’t really feel it.”

McClung TD (440x305)

After having 49 catches for 683 yards and 6 touchdowns as a sophomore, McClung battled a series of injuries last season and saw his numbers drop to 34 catches for 539 yards and 2 TDs.  To his credit, Anthony played with pain and appeared in 12 of 13 games.

“I pulled my quad, hurt my groin, my knee – there were a lot of different things,” said McClung.  “But I’m a tough guy.  I always want to play for my team.”

Now the senior-to-be is healthy again and it shows.  In Cincinnati’s first scrimmage this spring, McClung finished with 4 catches for 151 yards and 3 touchdowns, and in Saturday’s second scrimmage held at Paul Brown Stadium, Anthony led all receivers with 7 grabs for 92 yards.

“He’s deceptive,” said Tuberville.  “He’s one of those guys that doesn’t show up, doesn’t show up, and then all of a sudden makes big plays.

“I’ve been very impressed with him.  He works hard and never says anything.”

McClung might not say much to his new head coach, but he’s very talkative to the less-experienced receivers that Cincinnati will be counting on this season.

“He’s been a great leader in the room,” said receivers coach Blake Rolan.  “The kids listen to him and that makes my job easier.  They’ve been trained well in the past and won a lot of games and he understands what it takes.”

“They ask me a lot of questions,” said McClung.  “When I was younger I used to look up to great receivers like Armon Binns, D.J. Woods, Vidal Hazelton, and Kenbrell Thompkins.  They were leaders to me and now I have to fill that role and be the leader to the younger guys.”

“He’s a quick learner,” said Rolan.  “He studies the game and it means a lot to him.”

Following the departures of Thompkins and tight end Travis Kelce, McClung appears likely to be Cincinnati’s number one receiver in 2013.

“I trust him to get open, and he trusts me to get him the ball,” said quarterback Brendon Kay.  “The more reps we get together, the better we’ll be as a duo.”

“I have a great opportunity with two great quarterbacks,” said McClung.  “Hopefully we’ll win a lot of games.  But even if I’m not the number one guy, I want to play a role and make plays when my number is called.  The bottom line is that we want to win the league title outright this year.”

Well-stated from a guy who will go over the middle to get to the top.

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Can ‘Cats Contain McDermott?

In Division I college basketball history, there have only been seven players who have scored at least 3000 points.  If Creighton’s Doug McDermott returns next year for his senior season, he’s got a legitimate shot to be the eighth.

“He can beat you by himself,” said Bearcats coach Mick Cronin.  “Our guys see a lot of great players, but we have not seen a scorer of his magnitude.”

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Maybe not in person, but the Bearcats say they have seen players that McDermott reminds them of in the NBA.

“I think he’s like Dirk Nowitzki,” said Cashmere Wright.  “You don’t find too many 6’8″ guys with the skill level that he has.  He’s got a nice game.”

“He’s very crafty — like a Larry Bird type,” said Justin Jackson.  “He’s not that athletic, but he knows the game.  He’s the best scorer that I’ve seen in college by far.”

Wait a second.  Wasn’t Jackson one-year-old when Larry Legend played his last NBA game?

“I’ve watched him on film when the NBA Classics come on,” said Jackson with a grin.

This year, McDermott has made more field goals than any other player in college basketball, even though he ranks 17th in shots attempted.  Of his 273 baskets, 124 have been bank shots (45%) and 24 have been scored with the left hand.

“He’s got an old-school flavor to his game,” said Titus Rubles.  “You can tell that his dad (Creighton coach Greg McDermott) worked with him when he was younger.”

“He’s a coach’s son,” said Wright.  “You have no choice but to learn it — especially if you love the game.”

In addition to a wide variety of low-post moves, McDermott is a great outside shooter, draining 74 of 149 3-point attempts (.497).

“He shoots 50% from the three point line at his height — that’s insane,” said Rubles.

“After two days of film, (our players) have tremendous respect for his game,” said Coach Cronin.  “Whenever you’re able to show video of guys making three point shots that don’t touch the rim or the net — with him, you can pick out shots that are so clean that they literally don’t hit anything.

“Finally one of our guys says, ‘He doesn’t even hit the net.’  That’s when you pause and say, ‘You see what we’re dealing with.’ “

Rubles and Jackson figure to spend the most minutes trying to defend the two-time First Team All-American.

“The key is to make him earn every basket that he gets and make him defend too,” said Rubles.  “He’s going to score because he’s a great player, but the key is to make him work for every point that he gets.

“We’ve got to be calm, stay on our feet, and make him shoot over us,” said Jackson.  “And we can’t foul him because he ain’t going to miss free throws.  Keep him off the line, make him shoot over us, and hopefully he’ll miss.”

I told Rubles and Jackson that they could be the Bearcats MVPs on Friday without scoring a point, if they can hold McDermott to his scoring average or less — a notion that I shared with Cashmere Wright.

“I  agree.” said Wright.  “I tell them all the time, ‘We really don’t need you to score too much, but we need you to do everything else.’ “

“This isn’t something that I’m scared of,” said Rubles.  “I’m embracing the challenge.  I wish the game were today to be honest.”

Cronin Surprises ‘Cats With Tourney Goal

After grinding through hundreds of practices over the last several years, Cincinnati’s veteran players figured that they had heard every motivational tactic that Mick Cronin had in his bag of tricks.  But he surprised them on Monday as they began preparing for Friday’s NCAA opener against Creighton.

“I told our guys that we have two goals for this week:  Going 2-0 would be goal number two,” Coach Cronin told me.  “And goal number one, which we can achieve regardless of outcome, is to have more fun that any other team in the tournament.  In practice, in our travel, and with each other.

“They need to have fun.  They’ve earned it.  I want them to enjoy their accomplishments.  It’s an accomplishment to make the tournament and I’m structuring things this week so that they can enjoy it.”

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“What’s gotten into him?” said Sean Kilpatrick when I asked for his initial reaction to Coach Cronin’s remarks to the team.  “We’ve never heard him say that.  It’s good because it makes the players comfortable and reminds us that he’s with us.  Not only does he want us to win, but he wants us to have fun.”

“He says a lot of stuff, so we were like, ‘I wonder how he’s going to act tomorrow,’ said Cashmere Wright with a laugh.  “But it seems like he meant what he said and he’s following through on it.”

One way that Coach Cronin showed the players that he meant what he said was by opening Tuesday’s practice to the public.  It virtually guaranteed a less stressful environment with no tirades from the head coach.

“We knew when the fans were here that practice wasn’t going to be crazy,” said JaQuon Parker.

“I’ve thought a lot about the whole event and I’m trying to make it the most memorable for our players,” said Cronin.  “There’s no secrets this time of year anyway with the film and the scouting — everybody has everybody’s play calls and there’s nothing that’s going to go on at practice that people don’t already know about our team.

“We have to make sure that we’re fresh on Friday, so you won’t see World War III at practice.”

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Of course, there’s a method to his (March) madness.  Coach Cronin undoubtedly hopes that a relaxed team will perform well in Philadelphia.

“I think that’s been our problem,” said Parker.  “We’ve been too uptight around here.  Now in our last few practices, we’ve been loose and having fun.  It feels good.”

“We’re our best when we relax and nobody worries about making mistakes and we’re just out there playing basketball,” said Wright.

But don’t get the mistaken impression that having fun and working hard are mutually exclusive.

“It will not detract from our preparation — I can assure you that,” said Cronin.  “Our guys understand how hard you have to play to win games.  We play in a league where if you don’t play hard you don’t even have a chance.”

“He’s telling you to go out there by any means necessary and get it done,” said Parker.  “Just win and have fun doing it.  That means a lot to us.”

“It’s my last go-round and I’m just enjoying every day, every practice, and getting ready for the game,” said Wright.

Of course, there are limits in the quest to have the most fun of any team in the field of 68.  For example, the players do not expect to have their nightly curfew lifted in Philadelphia.

“We’ve got to have curfew,” said Kilpatrick with a grin.  “That’s mandatory.  If you leave some of our guys with no curfew, they might not come back.”

And while the players would undoubtedly be able to have fun if given free rein on the road, there’s nothing more enjoyable in the NCAA Tournament than advancing.

“At the end of the day, if this is going to be our last hurrah, let’s go all-out,” said Kilpatrick.  “Especially for our seniors.  This is their last shot and they deserve to have fun, so we’re going to try to make a run in this tournament.”

“Once you’re in you’ve got a chance,” said Cronin.  “Now it’s time to win games.”

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A Big East Dream

The following story is not true.  Unfortunately.

September 18, 2011

After initially accepting an offer to leave their current conference for the ACC, Syracuse and Pitt abruptly reversed course on Saturday and reaffirmed their commitment to the Big East.

“The Big East is where we belong,” said Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor in a statement released by the university.  “We simply could not envision a future that did not include playing Georgetown, much less traveling to Greensboro, North Carolina for our postseason basketball tournament instead of Madison Square Garden.”

“While the offer from the ACC was tempting, we are convinced that the Big East can survive and thrive,” said Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg.  “Plus, after spending 20 years in this league without an outright championship in football, we have decided to keep trying.”

The news was a relief to Big East commissioner John Marinatto whose job might have been jeopardized if Syracuse and Pitt had bolted for the ACC.

“The Big East remains a premier conference and will soon improve with the addition of TCU as our 17th member,” said Marinatto.  “Believe it or not, when the Syracuse/Pitt rumor began circulating, I was briefly worried that TCU might decide to leave us before ever playing a game.” 

Other Big East schools admitted that the potential loss of Syracuse and Pitt would have caused them to investigate the possibility of switching leagues.

“We would have been forced to strongly consider a move to the Big 12,” said West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck.  “Thank heavens that didn’t happen.  Not only will our fans still be able to travel to watch the Mountaineers play, but we think that Geno Smith will be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in the Big East in 2012.  I’m not sure that’s realistic if we’re facing the likes of Oklahoma and Texas.”

“The Big East helped put UConn on the map and we are excited about its future,” said UConn president Susan Herbst.  “But in the last nine months, we won our third national championship in basketball and went to our first BCS bowl game in football, so if the Big East undergoes significant changes, we’ll have no problem finding a new home.”

The key to the league’s long-term stability remains its television contract.  After rejecting ESPN’s nine-year, $1.2 billion dollar offer earlier this year, Big East members figure to get a lucrative pay day if they stick together.

“There are strong rumors that Rupert Murdoch and Fox want to start a sports network to compete with ESPN,” said one TV executive who asked not to be named.  “I’ve even heard they would be willing to pay $4 million a year to the Catholic schools just for basketball.  Imagine the bidding war that’s going to result for a football and basketball package that still includes Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia, Louisville, UConn, and Cincinnati.”

Of course, the future of the Big East could still be jeopardized if rumors of Big 10 expansion are accurate and Commissioner Jim Delany targets a Big East school.

“Unless Notre Dame decides to give up its independence in football, I can’t see Delany pursuing a Big East school,” said a Big 10 athletic director who did not want his name used.  “I mean, we’re certainly not going to go after Rutgers.”

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Grans Looks To Help “The Best Man” Win At Cincinnati

So why would Eddie Gran – one of Florida State’s top assistant coaches and one of the nation’s best recruiters – leave such a storied program to join Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati?

“He was the best man at my wedding,” said Gran with a grin.

“I knew I had a chance to hire him because nobody knows him as well as I do,” said Tuberville.

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The two coaches met in 1989 when Tuberville was a defensive coach at the University of Miami and Gran was a graduate assistant at East Carolina under defensive backs coach Chuck Pagano.

“We were at a coaching convention in San Francisco and Coach Tuberville was getting ready to go ski,” Gran told me.  “They had just won the national championship at Miami and Coach Pagano introduced me to him.  I met him and shook his hand and he said, ‘Be there on March the 10th.’  That was the beginning.”

“I raised Eddie from a pup,” said Tuberville.  “I’ve seen him grow up from a young man that wanted to coach to becoming one of the better ones in the country.  I’m proud to be his friend.”

When Tuberville got his first head coaching job at Ole Miss, he hired Gran to be his running backs coach.  After four years there, it was on to Auburn where they coached together for another 10 seasons.

Gran and Tuberville (368x440)

“He taught me what work ethic was, he taught me that technique and fundamentals are the things that win games, and you have to get kids that are smart and willing to work hard,” said Gran.  “If you get that combination and have a great work ethic you have a chance.  And he taught me to make sure that you treat people the way you want to be treated.  It’s not that hard.”

Now Tuberville is giving his long-time assistant his first opportunity to be an offensive coordinator.

“To be a coordinator has always been a dream of mine,” said Gran.

“I’ve watched him grow and work at it and it’s hard to become a coordinator when you’re the running backs coach,” Tuberville told me.  “I’ve always told him that you have to know more than just the running backs.  So over the last six or seven years, he’s really made himself learn the quarterback position, the offensive line position, and all he needed was somebody to give him a chance.  I know what he can do.  He works hard and works well with players.”

Tuberville UC practice

Tuberville’s confidence in Gran’s ability to make the step to coordinator was evident in the makeup of Cincinnati’s offensive coaching staff.

“I let him hire his coaches,” said Tuberville.  “I interviewed them too, but I said, ‘You know these guys…you know what you want to do.  You pick ‘em out and we’ll sit down and interview as many as we can.’  He did a good job and they’re working well together.  This is all new for him, but he’s excited.

“I told him that the number one thing that he had to do was hire a good quarterback coach and you’ve got to lean on him.  Darin Hinshaw (former QB coach at Tennessee) is a good guy and he works well with Eddie and I think it’s going to be a good relationship.”

“He allowed me to hire a staff that I think is as good as any in the country,” said Gran.  “It’s a great unit that works well together and we’re all on the same page.”

In addition to coordinating Cincinnati’s offense, Gran will continue to recruit in South Florida.

“I’m in my 28th season and I have not had another recruiting area – ever – at any school,” said Gran.  “There are high school head coaches in South Florida now that I recruited when they were players.

“The coaches here will all have a Cincinnati area – all nine of us will have 10 schools in this area.  Ohio is where we are going first.  But everybody will also go out into other areas, and for me, that will be South Florida.”

“I made him stay in South Florida all of his life and he’s developed a lot of relationships,” said Tuberville.  “That goes a long way in recruiting.  Eddie has the personality where he can sell, and recruiting is nothing but selling yourself, your school, and your football team.  He’s earned a lot of respect from high school coaches because when he takes a player, he takes care of them.  He makes sure they get an education number one, treats them fair, and those coaches in South Florida understand that.  It’s made him one of the best recruiters that I’ve ever been around.”

Gran is also a man of faith whose life was changed when the third of his four daughters was born in 1999.

“She had a rare brain disease and was given between two and four weeks to live, and she lived almost six years,” said Gran.  “It made me a better father, it made me a better husband, and it made me a better coach.  I really understood where my priorities were.  She gave me and my family the greatest gift that a man could ever have:  We all know where we’re going when this life ends.  We’re very blessed for that.”

“I remember getting that call from him three or four days after she was born,” said Tuberville.  “He said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but she’s not responding.’  I tell you, he and his wife Rosemary were two tough troopers – It’s awfully tough to lose a child.  All of the players there at Auburn rallied around him and I think the kids learned a lot from it.”

Eddie and his wife started a charity called The Sydney Gran Foundation to support children’s hospitals and other families whose children are facing serious illness.

“We would like to raise somewhere between 60 and 80 thousand dollars because that would get us up to $500,000 dollars and then it would be endowed forever,” said Gran.  “Sometime here, I think we’ll have another fundraiser to try to help out the foundation.”

But for now, Gran is busy getting to know his players…and happy to be reunited with his old boss.

“I was away from Coach Tuberville for four years, and to get back together with him is just fantastic,” said Gran.

“He has a lot of enthusiasm and works well with kids,” said Tuberville.  “He’s going to make a great head coach.  He’ll be a head coach in a few years and I think this is the next step.  He’s interviewed for a lot of head coaching jobs, but he’s been turned down because he’s never made his own calls.  Well, now he gets that chance.  Let’s see what he can do.”

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Gruden Has Suit But Wants Ring

Last year when I asked Jay Gruden why he turned down opportunities to interview for NFL head coaching jobs after the 2011 season, the Bengals offensive coordinator joked that his reason was sartorial.

“I didn’t have a good coat and tie,” Jay deadpanned at the time.

Clearly clothes are no longer an issue since Gruden interviewed for head coaching positions in Philadelphia, Arizona, San Diego, and Jacksonville in January.  And while Jay didn’t get any of the jobs, at least he has a new suit.

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“I wore it four times – the same one every time,” Gruden said with a laugh.  “It was exciting and flattering that these teams would even think to interview me.  It says a lot about our offense and how far we’ve come and Coach Lewis and what people around the league think about what he’s done with his program.  It was a great opportunity.

“I knew that it was probably a long-shot.  I think that I had good interviews and felt good about the process and if I am ever fortunate enough to have another opportunity, I’ll feel a lot more prepared.”

Now that he’s back for a third season as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, Gruden is currently working on two things:  Studying skill-position players for the upcoming NFL draft, and reviewing tape of the Bengals from last season.

“We’re very involved as coaches in the draft process, but you also have to take the time to look back at what you did offensively and figure out ways to get better,” said Gruden.  “You have to see if you had any tendencies over the course of the year that you have to correct, but overall, you’re trying to find out what your players are good at and what you had trouble with and get things fixed that you need to fix.  We definitely feel that we have not reached our full potential on offense, and it’s my job as a coordinator to get it out of them.”

With three of the top 53 picks in the draft, the Bengals are obviously in position to boost an offense that ranked 22nd in the NFL in total yards.  So what is at the top of Gruden’s wish list?

“We need another playmaker and we need someone who can take the ball 80 yards on a swing pass, or a hand-off, or what have you,” Jay told me.  “A little bit of speed.  But we’re pretty good everywhere – we need to take our pretty-good players and turn them into great players, and our great players need to be extraordinary.  We just have to keep pushing the envelope and making sure that everybody gets better.”

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One thing that the Bengals are not looking for is a new starting quarterback.  Andy Dalton has started every game in his first two NFL seasons, led the Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances, and has tossed 47 TD passes in 32 regular season games.  But Gruden says that his 25-year-old QB has plenty to work on. 

“In the offseason you work on your arm strength, your footwork – basically your fundamentals of football – and obviously he needs to get better with his deep ball accuracy and touch,” Gruden said.  “There’s not really one part of his game that he can’t improve upon.  Scramble ability, foot quickness, accuracy, deep accuracy, short (accuracy), anticipation – he’s got a long way to go.  He’s done some great things for a second-year quarterback, won a lot of games and thrown a lot of touchdown passes, but we feel that he has not come close to his potential and it’s our job to get it out of him.”

Dalton finished his second season with a passer rating of 87.4, but it dropped to 67.0 in his last six games, and Andy struggled in the playoff loss in Houston going 14-for-30 for 127 yards with 0 TD and 1 INT.  That led to a surge in the number of people questioning whether Dalton will ever be good enough to lead Cincinnati to a deep playoff run.  Gruden says that he isn’t bothered by the criticism of his quarterback. 

“It’s the nature of the position and that’s what he signed up to be,” said Gruden.  “He’s getting paid a pretty good chunk of change to be a quarterback, and anytime you sign up to be a quarterback, you have to take the good with the bad.  One of the biggest strengths that you have to have as a quarterback is being mentally tough.  When things don’t get well, people are going to be all over you.  They’re going to boo you; they’re going to want you out of town and your coaches out of town.  He has to take that criticism and use it as fuel to make himself better.  Hopefully he’s doing that.  He’s a very competitive person – as I am – and we’re going to do the best that we can to make this franchise something to be proud of.”

After all, a new suit is nice – but it pales in comparison to a Super Bowl ring.

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