April 2014

Annen Sprinting Toward NFL Shot

Who is the fastest tight end in this year’s NFL draft?

Would you believe UC’s Blake Annen?

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The 6’4″, 247 pounder is not even among the 29 TE prospects listed in the USA Today’s NFL Draft guide, but after running the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at UC’s pro day, the former Bearcat is definitely attracting interest from NFL teams.

“There’s a difference sometimes between playing speed and timed speed,” an NFL scout told me. “As a receiving tight end, the question will be, ‘Can he play to that timed speed?’ He hasn’t always done that on tape. But now you know he’s capable of it so that’s intriguing.”

“That obviously opened everybody’s eyes,” said UC head coach Tommy Tuberville. “He’s a little undersized but there are not a lot of tight ends out there like him. He’s physical, he can block, and you can also flex him out and play him as a receiver. He did great in almost everything that he did as his pro day so his stock went up. I’m excited for him.”

Annen showed good speed on a 49-yard grab against Northwestern State last year and a 41-yard touchdown catch vs UConn. Still, despite seeing nearly every game he played at UC, I’ll admit to being a bit stunned when I saw his 40-yard dash time.

But teammate and fellow NFL hopeful Brendon Kay says he was not surprised.

“Not at all because I was training with him for two months so I would have been surprised if he didn’t,” said Kay.

OK, so he’s fast. But 4.41? That’s faster than the 4.43 posted by top wide receiver prospect Sammy Watkins of Clemson at the NFL Scouting Combine. I asked Annen how he did it.

“I’ve heard that question a lot,” Blake said with a laugh. “Part of it was training and being around nutritionists more and learning different ways to take care of your body.”

Annen finished last season with 16 catches for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns (you can listen to his first TD catch here). But his stats suffered when the Bearcats changed their offense following a loss at USF in the fifth game of the season. For the rest of the year, UC emphasized a 4-wide receiver attack with limited use of the tight end.

“I think it was a great decision by the coaching staff and we won nine games which is nothing to complain about,” said Annen. “Obviously you want to contribute as much as you can, and that means finding ways to be a team player. If that means catching 100 balls then I do. If that means making 100 blocks, then I make 100 blocks. When you win nine games you can’t complain about it.”

“He was a team player and he was a professional about it,” said Kay. “My hat’s off to him. I’m close to Blake – we’ve spent a lot of time training together – and we’ve been tight for the last five years. It was definitely tough for him when we made that change and he didn’t get many opportunities. I still think he made the most of the opportunities that he had. He can do it all – he can run, he can catch, and he can block. He has a bright future.”

Annen recently had a private workout with the Philadelphia Eagles and last week, took part in the Bengals’ annual workout for draft-eligible players from area colleges and high schools. If he is not selected in the late rounds of the draft, Blake stands a good chance of winding up in an NFL training camp as an undrafted free agent.

“That’s the goal and all I need is a shot,” Annen told me. “Obviously if that comes on draft day I would be ecstatic, but just being able to have an opportunity is more than a lot of people can say. If you do get that opportunity, it all comes down to what you do with it.”

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

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Bengals Move On Without Johnson And Zimmer

Last year the Bengals knew that they would probably lose Michael Johnson to free agency at the end of the season. For several years, they’ve known there was a decent chance that Mike Zimmer would leave for a head coaching opportunity.

Johnson and Zimmer (356x269)

But when the players returned to Paul Brown Stadium last week to begin offseason workouts, they faced the stark reality that Johnson and Zimmer are gone.

“It was pretty sad,” said Carlos Dunlap. “Mike (Johnson) was my guy. We had a great thing going, but he got a great opportunity down in Tampa and couldn’t pass it up. It’s part of the business.

“And losing Zim is most definitely going to be different. It’s probably going to be quieter.  Obviously Zim got a head coaching job which he’s worked hard for and was well-deserving of, but now (Coach Guenther) gets a great opportunity to step up and try to fill the role of the guy he coached with.”

In Johnson, Cincinnati is losing a defensive end who was productive and durable. ProFootballFocus.com ranked him 4th among NFL defense ends in 4-3 schemes last year. Fortunately, the loss comes at a position group where the Bengals have Wallace Gilberry, Margus Hunt, Devon Still, and Brandon Thompson waiting in the wings and Geno Atkins and Robert Geathers returning from injury.

“We’re going to miss Mike a lot, but it is part of the business,” said Geathers. “We figured it was probably going to happen after he got the (franchise) tag. We attack it by committee anyway. We have a good group of guys and really good depth so I’m pretty sure there’s going to be even more competition.”

“Geno Atkins is the best defensive lineman in the league and to get him back healthy will make our rotation second to none,” said Dunlap.

In Zimmer, Cincinnati is losing a coordinator that guided the Bengals’ defense to top 10 finishes in yards and points allowed in four of the past five seasons. But the players say they’re confident that former linebackers coach Paul Guenther is ready to take over.

“It’s definitely going to be weird,” said Still. “Zim was our defense and taught us basically everything that we know. But Paul studied under Zim and he’s a helluva coach himself. I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like to be coached by him this year.”

“Experience is the only difference,” said Dunlap. “I feel like Paulie G. has been with Zim for so long that he knows his X’s and O’s. He just hasn’t been a defensive coordinator and being ‘the guy’ is different from being one of the guys.”

“He’s very confident and knows what he’s talking about,” said Gilberry. “They definitely passed the torch to the right guy.”

The changes in personnel haven’t changed the bottom line: To get back to the playoffs and finally get over the hump in the postseason.

“It’s a new year and you have to do it all over again,” said Geathers. “It doesn’t matter what we did last year or how it ended. It’s a new season and nobody cares what we did last season. Nobody cares that we were undefeated at home or none of that stuff. We have to start all over and get back to where we want go.”

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Cobi Hamilton Says He’s On Right Track

It’s not unusual for NFL players to work out at their former colleges in the offseason, but in Cobi Hamilton’s case, there’s a bit of a twist. When the wide receiver returned to Arkansas after his first year with the Bengals, he worked out with the Razorbacks’ track team, not the football team.

Hamilton vs Dallas (440x315)

“With the new football coaches at Arkansas, I guess I’m more comfortable with the track coaches because I ran track for two years and those coaches are still there,” said Hamilton. “I drop in on the football coaches every now and then, but there are a lot of new faces so it’s kind of weird. So I work out and lift weights with the track team because there’s a comfort level.

“Some of the same guys that I ran with my freshman and sophomore years are seniors now, or may be going into the pros. Two or three of those guys are really fast, so I work out with them and it benefits me a lot. It’s not the same as football conditioning, but it keeps your legs in shape.”

Hamilton was listed at 6’2”, 205 pounds last year and says that he’s probably dropped some weight as a result of the track workouts.

“I stay in contact with the fellas during the offseason, so I knew what his plan was,” said wide receivers coach James Urban. “We talked about how important this offseason was going to be for him.

“He had to get himself in a little better shape which he’s done. He looks great now and really embraced it in the offseason.”

The Bengals drafted Hamilton in the sixth round last year after a prolific senior season at Arkansas in which Cobi finished with 90 catches for 1,335 yards. After making seven receptions in the preseason last year including a 4-yard TD catch against Dallas (watch it here), Hamilton spent the regular season on Cincinnati’s practice squad

“Cobi made as big of strides from the beginning of training camp to the end of the season as anyone I’ve ever been around,” said Urban. “It was learning the system…learning how to practice…learning how to compete daily…just learning how to be a pro. There are some guys that come ready-made for it and some guys that take a little while. We’re excited about him.”

“It took a lot of reps, but things started coming a little bit easier for me towards the end of the season and I started to make more plays,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton in rain (440x297)

With the loss of Andrew Hawkins to Cleveland in free agency, Hamilton will be looking to break into the wide receiver rotation this season under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

“Hue pulled me aside last year when he was the running backs coach and encouraged me to get better,” said Hamilton. “He was always whispering in my ear, ‘Do you know how good you can be?’”

Cobi received similar encouragement from his position coach.

“He just wasn’t quite making the plays that I saw him make at Arkansas during training camp and the early part of the year,” said Urban. “So I kept saying, ‘What do we have to do to get you to make the plays that I know you can make. I know you can make them.’”

Now the former 200-meter runner at Arkansas says that he’s on the right track to contribute at wide receiver in Cincinnati.

“Now I know what it takes to be an NFL player,” Cobi told me. “I’m excited for this season and I’m ready to get going.”

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Gunner Comes Out Firing In Bearcats Spring Game

The Bearcats annual spring game began with an 8-yard pass from Gunner Kiel to Mekale McKay. Followed by a 7-yard strike to Max Morrison. Then a 47-yard bomb to Chris Moore. And then another 15-yard bullet to Moore.

Four plays, four passes, and four completions for 77 yards. Not a bad way for Gunner Kiel to make his unofficial Bearcats debut in front of roughly 5,400 fans at Paul Brown Stadium.

“A lot of people kind of bash me and hadn’t really seen me play,” said Kiel. “I haven’t played in three years. So to come out here and silence the critics is definitely one thing that I wanted to do.”

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The bashing resulted from Kiel’s struggle to choose a college as one of the nation’s most heavily-recruited high school quarterbacks. Gunner changed his mind after verbal commitments to Indiana and LSU and eventually enrolled at Notre Dame. After a redshirt season with the Fighting Irish, he transferred to Cincinnati last spring.

“I know what I did some people say was dumb – and I agree with them 100% — but that doesn’t change the person that I am,” said Kiel. “I’m a good person and I’m going to do what’s right. I’m going to be a good teammate and I’m going to come out here and work my hardest.”

His hard work appears to be paying off.

Kiel played only the first half of Saturday’s scrimmage and directed the first team offense to three touchdowns and one field goal on six drives against the first team defense. He finished 17-for-22 for 300 yards, with one touchdown run and one interception.

“That’s amazing and this probably wasn’t even his best practice,” said wide receiver Shaq Washington.

“Gunner’s got a quick release, he understands football, and he’s usually going to throw it to the right guy,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “The problem that he’s had this spring is that he’s had ‘happy feet’ because we have had three starting offensive lineman out.”

That was a factor last Sunday in a scrimmage that was dominated by the defense. Kiel was 9-for-20 for 44 yards and Tuberville did not pull any punches afterward.

“Offensively, we looked as bad as I’ve ever seen.” he told reporters.

“To hear your head coach make comments like that sets a fire under your butt,” said Kiel.

So the sophomore quarterback was determined to end spring practice on a positive note.

“I treated it just like a game,” said Kiel. “Last night I watched tape, I went over our plays, I went over the protections and coverages, and I treated it just like a regular game. I woke up early and had breakfast, and came out with a chip on my shoulder to get better and play hard.”

“There were a lot of questions marks at quarterback after last week,” said Tuberville. “The big thing about college is being consistent. We haven’t been very consistent this spring. The defense won most of the time during the spring, but today the defense didn’t win. The offense came out with a different frame of mind and played a lot better.

“I can sleep a little bit better now. Last week we were just awful on offense, but today we threw it and caught it well.”

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Tuberville will not name a starting quarterback until fall camp, saying that Jarred Evans will compete for the job and possibly Munchie Legaux as he continues to rehab from the gruesome knee injury he suffered last year vs. Illinois.

But Kiel appears to be the man to beat.

“Obviously Gunner looked really, really good today,” said Tuberville.

“I got the ‘ones’ reps, but I am not the number one quarterback right now,” said Kiel. “That doesn’t mean anything. You still have to come out each day and work hard and compete and do your best. At the end of the day, the coaches are going to make their decision and I understand that, but I’m going to do whatever I can to get the team’s respect, and learn as much as I possibly can because I know that I have to learn more and accomplish more. The sky is the limit and we’ll see what happens.”

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Bearcats Have One Of Nation’s Best Recruiters In Prunty

Cincinnati’s associate head coach Robert Prunty has been named the Recruiter of the Year in his conference in each of the last four seasons by Scout.com.

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“Robert Prunty is one of the best recruiters in the country,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “If you look at our (signing day) list this year, he probably had something to do with half of them. He has that gift.

“He’s outgoing – he’s never met a stranger. That’s what it’s all about. You have to be able to turn it on in any environment and he does a great job in the home and with parents. He understands the need for recruiting 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There’s not a day that goes by where he doesn’t do something in recruiting.”

But the key to Prunty’s recruiting pitch isn’t his mouth, it’s his ears.

“Listening,” Robert answered when I asked what makes him a good recruiter. “I was reading an article about a month ago about psychiatrists and how much money they were making, and one of them said, ‘Basically I just sit there and listen to people’s problems.’ I think when you’re dealing with teenagers and young men; they just want somebody to listen to them. They’re so used to people telling them everything that I form a bond by simply listening to them.

“My mother had 10 kids and my father died when I was 10 years old. I’ll never forget when I was about 15, my mother said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to listen to what you have to say.’ So that came from my mother.”

Prunty’s ability to bond with young people was honed during his eight years as head coach at Hargrave Military Academy where many of his players originally signed with Division 1 schools before needing a year of prep school to improve their grades.

The job required Robert to be more than a football coach.

“Educator…father…preacher…mentor…psychiatrist,” said Prunty. “Remember, everybody that came there had a problem because they didn’t qualify. So they were all sad and depressed and we had to try to build them back up.”

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At Hargrave, Prunty coached 27 players that made it to the NFL including Pro Bowlers Ahmad Brooks, Brandon Flowers, and Jay Ratliff.

“At one point, they did an article where the players who had played at Hargrave were making close to $400 million dollars,” said Prunty.

Tuberville got to know Robert while recruiting players at Hargrave and offered him an opportunity at the college level when he became the head coach at Texas Tech in 2010.

“There were a lot of big-shot coaches that had a chance to hire him, but he was from a prep school and they didn’t give him a chance,” said Tuberville.

“For Coach Tuberville to give me a job when I was at Hargrave – I’m just thankful to God,” said Prunty. “My brother and sister go to factories 12 hours a day and I get to coach football. I grew up in an industrial area where people worked hard, so I’m driven by the fact that I get to coach football and I love it.”

Prunty’s loyalty to Tuberville is a key reason why he has turned down some lucrative opportunities.

“I just had an offer last week from an NFL team as a defensive assistant and I had about five offers before that, but Coach Tuberville gave me a shot when nobody else would and I like Cincinnati,” Robert told me. “I like the people here, my wife likes it here, my kids go to a great school, and that has a lot to do with it. I’m just thankful.”

“He’s been offered all over the country but he’s been loyal and he wants to stay,” said Tuberville.

In addition to his recruiting ability, Prunty is the Bearcats co-defensive coordinator and coaches the defensive line.

“Coach Prunty is a helluva guy,” said junior Silverberry Mouhon. “He demands so much of us because he brings energy every day at practice. You never see a day where he’s down or moping.”

“He’s tough on them,” said Tuberville. “He’s hard-nosed, he’s disciplined – he’s one of those guys that understands how to get it out of guys that maybe did not know how to give 100% effort.

“He was a good coach when we got him, but he’s a much better coach now because works at it like he does in recruiting. He wants to learn, he wants to get better, he doesn’t stay the same, he studies, he goes to other colleges, he goes to high schools, he spends a lot of time with the Bengals, and he’s as good of a coach as he is a recruiter. I’m just excited about him being on our staff and being a good friend.”

“Everybody has respect for him – from the defensive line to the offense,” said Mouhon. “He works hard for us and that makes you want to work that much harder for him because he gives us his all.”

“Growing up with no father and my momma raising 10 kids, all I know is hard work,” said Prunty. “That’s all I know. There’s no substitute.”

That work ethic helps explain his four year streak of being named Recruiter of the Year in the Big 12 (twice), Big East, and AAC.

What does that recognition mean to Prunty?

“It means that I have to try to win it again this year,” he said.

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

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