August 2014

Burfict Returns To Arizona As One Of NFL’s Best

Vontaze Burfict left Arizona State in a cloud of controversy after a junior season that included too many personal fouls, a benching in his final college game, and a disastrous showing at the NFL Combine that contributed to him going undrafted.

He returns to Phoenix this weekend as one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

“Going back to Arizona is exciting, but that’s not on my mind,” Burfict told me. “This will be the game where the ‘ones’ and ‘twos’ will play a little bit more, so I’m going in locked-in like it’s a regular week. I’m not worried about a homecoming or anything like that – it’s a business trip for me.”

And business is good for the NFL’s leading tackler last season.

Burfict leads defense (440x284)

Despite being the Bengals youngest starter on defense, the 23-year-old Burfict has emerged as the team’s emotional leader on that side of the ball.

“He’s intense and everybody feeds off of his energy,” said defensive end Robert Geathers. “He’s a football-smart guy and when you’re prepared like that and have his energy, it doesn’t matter how old you are.”

“If you don’t want to play with a guy like that next to you, I don’t know what to tell you,” said safety Reggie Nelson. “I love playing next to him.”

“He’s as confident as any player I’ve ever seen at any level, and that’s what really impresses me,” said linebacker Jayson DiManche. “You’ll never know if and when he makes a mistake out there because he’s always going so fast and playing so hard. His attitude and effort level are off the charts. That’s something as a young linebacker that you try to emulate. It’s crazy because Vontaze is actually younger than me.”

Burfict’s intensity level extends to the practice field where he could often be seen jawing with offensive players during training camp as it were the Super Bowl instead of a routine drill.

“You have to have fun,” said Burfict. “In training camp you’re with the guys almost 40 days straight and it gets old around day five. So you want to make it competitive and have fun with it and talk crap. When I talk to Andy, Gio, BenJarvus – it spices things up. You don’t think about the reps, you just think about competing and trying to win that rep. I feel like bringing a bit of an edge and talking a little trash makes us play better and faster.”

“All of the great ones pretty much have that personality,” said cornerback Darqueze Dennard. “Lawrence Taylor…Ray Lewis…you see the passion in all of that barking and hollering and you see that in Vontaze. I love it and I think the rest of the guys appreciate that. He motivates guys and gets them going. When you see a player who is running around having fun and screaming and hollering after he makes plays, it makes you want to go out there and have fun with him.”

Burfict forces fumble (440x314)

Burfict played in his first Pro Bowl last year and intercepted an Andrew Luck pass in his team’s win. His guests in Hawaii included fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

“I wouldn’t be able to make plays without Rey,” said Burfict. “He helped me learn the playbook and now it’s my turn to try to pass it on to other guys.”

“When I heard that he made the Pro Bowl, I almost broke down crying,” said Guenther. “The first time that he walked into my meeting room I said, ‘Just do everything that I ask you to do and be where you need to be.’ He did everything to the utmost. To make the Pro Bowl in his second year after everything that kid’s gone through and to be out there in Hawaii to celebrate with him was such an honor. It’s something that I will always remember.”

Vontaze is entering the final year of his rookie contract and while the Bengals will control his rights next season as a restricted free agent, the team would undoubtedly prefer to sign Burfict to an extension before reaching that point.

Now that the Andy Dalton megadeal is done, does Burfict think he’s next?

“I don’t know,” said Burfict. “It’s not on my mind. If it does come it’s God-blessed. If I just work hard it will possibly come.”

(Shortly after this story was published, the news broke that the Bengals have reached an agreement on a contract extension with Burfict.  It is reportedly a 4 year/$20 million deal that will pay him $7.6 million this year).

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Tyson Fighting For Starting Spot

Bearcats safety Mike Tyson packs a punch…tattoos the wide receiver…will look to take a bite out of the opponent’s passing attack.

When you share a name with the controversial former boxing champ, the one-liners are inevitable.

“Yeah, everybody jokes about his name,” said linebacker Nick Temple.

“I always hear, ‘Are you related to Mike Tyson? Or is your name really Mike Tyson?’” the sophomore safety told me. “Some people think that I’m lying, but I’m telling the truth. It was my dad’s name and it runs in the family.”

Mike Tyson INT

Cincinnati’s Mike Tyson is from the Tidewater region of Virginia and got into nine games for the Bearcats as a true freshman last season, finishing with 18 tackles and two interceptions. This year he’s been lining up with the first team defense in training camp as the safety opposite of Zach Edwards.

“He’s so much more comfortable than he was last year,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “Last year he didn’t have a clue about what he was doing but we had to play him. I think playing last year helped him some. He’s grown up, he’s a lot more comfortable with what we’re doing in zone and man, and he and Zach work well together. It’s going to give us a pretty good one-two punch for the next few years if we can just keep them healthy.”

“Last year I just played on athletic ability,” said Tyson. “I knew some things, but not a lot. My understanding of the defense is much better now.”

“I think he’s really progressed,” said defensive coordinator Hank Hughes. “When you’re a freshman, everything is brand new but he’s doing a good job of catching on to the scheme and playing aggressive and physical.”

The most memorable moment of Tyson’s freshman year was a 95-yard interception return against UConn. Unfortunately, as he neared the goal line, the Cincinnati safety had the ball punched out of his hands and it rolled through the back of the end zone for a touchback (click here to hear the radio call).

“To be honest, I was really tired,” said Tyson. “I was holding the ball wrong and a dude came up from behind and stripped it. I think about that play all the time – every time I play football I think about it. I look at it as a gift and something that I have to build on.”

Tyson says it was a gift because he knows that he’ll never make the same mistake again.

“You got that right,” he said with a laugh.

While UC’s coaching staff is obviously looking for Tyson to intercept and deflect passes, he’ll also be counted on to help stop the run. At 6’2” and a chiseled 200 pounds, the sophomore has the potential to add an intimidation factor to the secondary.

“We could put him at linebacker today and he would play pretty solid for us,” said Tuberville. “He doesn’t shy away from contact – he likes it.”

After all, you would expect a football player named Mike Tyson to hit hard right?

“It’s not a bad name at all for a safety,” said Temple. “It’s a good name actually.”

So what does UC’s Mike Tyson think of sharing a name with the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world?

“I’m more of a Muhammed Ali fan,” he said with a grin.

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Kiel Hopes Long Wait Is Almost Over

When the Bearcats take the field on September 12th vs. Toledo, it will have been 2 years, 9 months, and 25 days since quarterback Gunner Kiel played in a football game that counts – the final game of his decorated high school career at Columbus East HS in Indiana.

“It feels like a decade,” said Kiel. “It’s awful – it’s a terrible, terrible feeling not to be able to play for three years. I’m really excited to get back under center and be able to throw the ball, run the ball, and do whatever it takes to win a football game again.”

Kiel at Higher Ground

When UC opened training camp on Monday, Kiel took the first team reps at quarterback and the 21-year-old sophomore is considered the frontrunner to be Cincinnati’s starter – although Jarred Evans and Munchie Legaux will be given the opportunity to win the job over the next few weeks.

“We’re going to have some competition,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “It’s not a given on who is going to be our quarterback.”

“I know that Coach Tuberville is going to name a starter whenever he is ready to, so it’s up to me to compete, work my tail off, do the right things, and be a good teammate,” Gunner told me.

Kiel says that his confidence skyrocketed after the spring game when he completed 17-of-22 passes for 300 yards despite sitting out the second half. He got another confidence boost in June when he was among 40 college quarterbacks invited to be a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy along with the likes of Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.

“To be invited to the Manning Camp is such an honor and a true blessing.” said Kiel. “To be with the best quarterbacks in the country and a hero of mine (Peyton Manning) was unbelievable. It’s definitely something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

I asked Gunner if he learned anything in particular from the Broncos’ 13-time Pro Bowl quarterback.

“Footwork,” he answered. “For a quarterback, it all begins with your feet – the way you deliver the ball, the accuracy, how fast you can get the ball out. I think that’s something that I definitely have to work on. My footwork is a little slow, but I know that. (Quarterbacks) Coach Hinshaw and I are going to work on that and it’s something that Peyton definitely preaches.”

“The thing about Gunner is that he’s got to set his feet some, and he’s got to get his body in position,” said Coach Tuberville. “Playing quarterback in this type of offense is as much about footwork as it is about the arm. But he’s starting to make more good decisions, he’s more consistent with his decisions on who to throw the ball to, and I think the receivers that we have are really going to help him because he’s going to have a lot of targets.”

One of the biggest things that stood out on the first day of camp was how deep the Bearcats are at wide receiver. In addition to having four productive receivers back from last year’s team in Shaq Washington (team-leading 78 receptions), Chris Moore (45 rec, 9 TD), Max Morrison (29 catches, 3 TD), and Mekale McKay (16 rec, 7 TD), UC adds two receivers with NFL size and speed in Johnny Holton and Casey Gladney, gets Alex Chisum back from an ankle injury, and will use Ralph David Abernathy IV more frequently as a slot receiver.

“It’s amazing – we have eight guys that can fill a spot,” said Kiel. “They’re fast, they run crisp routes, they go out and get the ball, and you can throw it anywhere.”

“We’re going to have some weapons,” said Tuberville. “Now we just have to be able to get it to ‘em.”

After redshirting for a year at Notre Dame and sitting out last season after transferring to Cincinnati, Kiel hopes that his long wait is almost over.

“I haven’t played a game, so I have to come out and prove myself,” he said.

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Hewitt Opening Eyes In First NFL Camp

In East Lansing, Michigan it’s known as “The Stop.”

With 1:46 remaining in last year’s Rose Bowl, Michigan State led Stanford 24-20 when the Cardinal went for it on 4th-and-1 at the 34 yard line. As soon as the ball was snapped, Spartans linebacker Kyler Elsworth made a flying leap over the line of scrimmage to nail the Stanford fullback for no gain to seal the victory for Michigan State.

Elsworth flying (440x293)

“They’ve got pictures everywhere in East Lansing of Elsworth jumping over the offensive and defensive lines,” said Bengals rookie and former MSU star Darqueze Dennard. “It was crazy. It’s a big play in Michigan State history.”

Ironically, the Stanford player who was stopped on 4th-and-1 was Bengals rookie Ryan Hewitt.

“It was a great play,” said Hewitt. “I think my neck might still be a little sore from that one.”

NCAA Football 2014: Rose Bowl Michigan State vs Stanford JAN 01

Three of Hewitt’s fellow rookies played for Michigan State in that game – Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, and Dan France – but Ryan says they haven’t busted his chops about “The Stop” or the final score.

“We’re on the same team now, so this isn’t the time to do that,” said Dennard. “But if Michigan State and Stanford actually play again, I might bring it up.”

While Dennard is a lock to make the Bengals 53-man roster after being drafted in the first round, Hewitt is also making a strong bid to stick despite being signed as an undrafted free agent. Ryan is being used as an H-back (fullback/tight end hybrid) and has frequently lined up with the first string offense.

“He’s earned it – we’re not giving anybody anything,” said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. “He’s earning an opportunity to play with the first group and that’s kind of where he is right now. But he has to fight like heck to stay there.”

“I think Ryan has really done a nice job for us,” said Marvin Lewis. “He’s handled things well. He’s playing tight end/H-back/fullback whatever you want to call those positions we have and he’s handled it well both physically and mentally. I think as a receiver he’s done a nice job. As an interior blocker he’s done a good job. I really think he’s got a bright future.”

Hewitt vs Chiefs (440x278)

Hewitt began his college career as a tight end but switched to fullback and started at that position for his final three seasons. He was frequently used as an outlet receiver out of the backfield and finished his college career with 59 catches for 473 yards and 6 TD.

Bengals west coast scout Steven Radicevic liked what he saw of Hewitt at Stanford and Cincinnati reportedly gave Ryan a $10,000 signing bonus – the most of any of the team’s college free agents this year. Hewitt knew that the Bengals didn’t have an established fullback, but didn’t realize that he would be used in a dual role.

“It was kind of a transition that came out of the blue – I wasn’t really expecting it – but it’s something that I embraced and I’m thankful for the opportunity,” said Hewitt.

Ryan says that he elected to go to Stanford for academics more than football, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he’s been able to quickly learn the Bengals’ playbook at multiple positions.

“We ran a very similar offense at Stanford with a lot of the same terminology, so that’s helped the transition,” said Hewitt. “But it is difficult. You have to spend a little extra time studying to make sure that you know both positions so that when you get put in at either spot you know what you’re doing.

“But I pride myself in knowing what I’m doing and making sure that I’m in the right spot and right alignment. That’s something that I work on every day.”

“He’s a smart kid and I think he has a burning desire to be good,” said Jackson. “He has the characteristics that we look for. He needs to continue to grow and play well within our system and we’ll see where this thing goes.”

The 23-year-old from Denver is a sturdy 6’4”, 254 pounds and Coach Lewis says he expects Hewitt to get more powerful.

“I think as he grows and he’s fortunate enough to stay around here, I think by next year we’ll have a real, real big physical man,” said Lewis. “He’s going to be a big person.”

Ryan may have been stopped last January in Pasadena. But it appears that he’s just getting started in Cincinnati.

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Miliano Thinks Mystery Is Solved

There was no bigger mystery on the UC football team last year than kicker Tony Miliano.

Miliano

After making 34 of 47 field goal attempts (72%) in his first two seasons, Miliano slumped to 7-for-17 (41%) as a junior.

Miliano thinks the mystery has been solved.

“I went back and watched the film after the season and found out that I was leaving my hips open and everything was missing right,” said Miliano. “I don’t know if you even noticed, but every miss went right except for the one at UConn. I think that I was trying so hard to pinpoint the problem the whole year that I overcorrected things that didn’t need to be corrected. Then you get into a funk and it goes into your head. I don’t think that I’m a head case, but when you’re trying to fix something like that, it’s not going to go too well for you.”

If you’re a golfer, you can probably identify. If you start to struggle and suddenly have a million swing thoughts, the problem usually gets worse.

I asked Miliano if kicking is more mental or physical.

“I’d say it’s 50/50 really – if not more mental,” he said. “We come out here and do this all the time and know how to do it. It’s just that you have to come out with the right attitude, and you have to be able to do it on a regular basis.”

Miliano worked with kicking gurus Tim Williams and Brandon Kornblue in the offseason, and enters his senior year in a battle for the placekicking job with redshirt freshman Andrew Gantz. On the first day of training camp, each kicker made all six of his attempts in 5-yard increments from 20 to 45 yards.

“The young kid was ahead over the summer, but we’ll base it pretty much on handling pressure out here,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “Both of them hit all of their kicks today, but it’s a little bit different when they turn the lights on and we start scrimmaging. That will pretty much tell the tale. I’d say it’s neck and neck right now.”

“Andrew had a great spring and a great summer as well, so it’s a really good competition,” said Miliano. “Andrew is a good kid, so it’s good that we’re pushing each other and making each other better.

“When I went out there today, it’s unbelievable how comfortable I felt. I felt so relaxed – the way that I felt two years ago and the year before that. Comfortability is a huge factor when you’re out there before all of those fans and I can’t wait – I really can’t.”

What he can’t wait for is another chance.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t even describe how happy I am,” Tony told me. “Seriously, I’m really lucky – not just to have another season, but to have all the guys around that support me after what happened last year and the coaches that are still hanging in there with me. I’m super happy and I can’t wait for September 12th.”

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Burke Is Bengals Journey Man

Film study with players is a big part of an NFL coach’s job. But Cincinnati’s new linebackers coach Matt Burke doesn’t strictly put X’s and O’s on the screen. At one point this spring, his players saw Burke take a 134 meter leap off of the Nevis Highwire Platform in New Zealand – the third highest bungee jumping platform in the world (you can see the video here).

Nevis bungee (322x440)

“I made all of the rookie linebackers introduce themselves to their teammates and show a video clip, and since I’m a new guy here I showed them that,” said Burke.

“That was kinda scary,” said Emmanuel Lamur. “I couldn’t do it. He has a lot of guts – that’s for sure.”

The Dartmouth-educated Burke has a wide variety of adventures to share with the Bengals’ linebacker corps. Since becoming an NFL assistant under Jeff Fisher with the Titans in 2006, Matt has traveled all over the world including stops in Belize, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Finland, Guatemala, Honduras, Iceland, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Sweden, and Thailand.

Burke with monk (440x293)

“We took vacations and camped out when I was younger, but the first time I left the country was actually after my first year in the NFL,” said Burke. “It was the first time I had any money after college and I went to Ireland with a buddy. That’s all it took. From then on, I’ve taken one or two trips every year now.

“That’s about my only expense for the year. We’re here 90 hours a week during the season, so you really don’t have any time to spend money. So I spend my money taking a big trip and seeing the world.”

“He’s a lot braver than I am,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “It’s his free time and as coaches we don’t get a lot of it.”

The coaches’ best vacation opportunity comes between the end of OTAs in late June and the start of training camp in late July. This year, Burke grabbed his backpack and headed nearly 8,000 miles from Cincinnati.

Burke at altitude (330x440)

“I went to Nepal for two weeks to hike along the Everest Trail,” Matt told me. “I went by myself, but it was through an outfitting company so there were four other guys and we had about 10 Sherpas with us.

“It was definitely one of the more strenuous trips that I’ve taken, but I can’t sit still for too long. I just really like getting out and seeing things and sometimes you have to work to see the good stuff. For me it’s about getting away. There’s not a lot of cell phone reception up in the Himalayas.”

Burke says that his exotic excursions have helped him as a coach.

“Our profession at a base level is understanding people, motivating players, and being able to relate to different types of people,” he said. “If you look at the linebacker room, they’re from all over the country and have different backgrounds. I find that when I’m out traveling, I meet all sorts of people from different parts of the world and you get a better understanding of human nature.

“But honestly for me, it’s a reset as much as anything. It helps my coaching because I can come back here for the season a little bit more refreshed mentally than I normally would be.”

There have been a few scares along the way including the time in Cambodia when he thought he was being kidnapped by a cab driver. It’s probably also safe to assume that Burke is the only Bengals coach who has been inches away from a live Bengal Tiger.

Burke with tiger (440x330)

“When I was in Thailand, I actually got to go into the cages with some of the tigers there,” said Burke. “They have a zoo-type setup where you can go in and pet the tigers and stuff. I had to do it. I got my heart rate up a little bit there. I just like trying that stuff.”

So what’s next on his itinerary?

“When the season ends and things have settled down and we get our calendar for the offseason, I’ll start looking at it,” said Burke. “Things start popping into my mind and I decide what kind of craziness that I want to get into.”

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

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