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Lefeld Hopes For NFL Shot

Left tackle Eric Lefeld earned first-team all-league honors in each of his final three seasons at Cincinnati, becoming the first Bearcat to achieve that feat since offensive lineman Jason Fabini in the 1990’s.

Fabini went on to spend 11 years in the NFL with the Jets, Cowboys, and Redskins and Lefeld says he’s been dreaming of his own pro football career for a long time.

“When I was a young kid I was always watching the Steelers and the Bengals,” said Lefeld.  “It was a dream then and I think every year that I was at UC and playing in some of the big games that we won; it became more and more of a reality.  It’s an unbelievable feeling knowing that you’re getting looked at.”

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Southern Methodist

On Wednesday, Lefeld was one of 25 players with local ties that took part in a pre-draft workout with the Cincinnati Bengals.  Eric also performed for NFL scouts at UC’s Pro Timing Day on March 11th, but did not receive an invitation to February’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

“I feel like he was cheated,” said Bearcats teammate Munchie Legaux.  “He didn’t get invited to the Combine or the Senior Bowl and I was like, ‘Come on – he was three-time All-Conference.’  That speaks volumes for itself.

“I love Eric Lefeld and I just feel like he should have been at the Combine or something.  That’s my opinion.  I know my opinion doesn’t matter, but I know he’s going to get a chance in the NFL and hopefully he’ll get drafted.”

If Lefeld doesn’t get selected, the 6’5” 298 pound lineman is almost certain to wind up in an NFL camp as a college free agent.

“There’s the potential of being drafted and if free agency is the way I have to go, then me and my agent are prepared to hit the ground running,” Lefeld told me.

Lefeld’s chances of winding up on an NFL roster or practice squad are enhanced by his durability and versatility.  He started his last 43 games at Cincinnati at both left and right tackle and some pro scouts think he also has a shot at playing guard in the NFL.

“I never had to play inside in a game at UC, but I know that I can transfer my tackle skills to guard if I need to,” said Lefeld.  “Getting experience at right tackle in my first season was huge and then going to the left side and never leaving was a great honor and a heck of an experience.”

Lefeld recently spent eight weeks preparing for the draft at Bommarito Performance Systems in Davie, Florida and says his agent has been in contact with several NFL teams about individual workouts.

“It’s a weird time,” said Lefeld.  “All I have to do right now is work out and run.  It’s kind of a nervous time.  I’m ready for the next step and see where it goes.”

Cincinnati vs West Virginia Football

The former Coldwater High School standout came to Cincinnati as a 240-pound defense lineman.  He left school with his degree and one of the most decorated careers of any offensive lineman in Bearcats history,

“There’s nothing I would go back and change,” said Lefeld.  “I really had a great experience at UC and I’m proud to say that I was a Bearcat.”

“Eric Lefeld was one of the first guys to call me when I was lying in the hospital bed,” said Legaux.  “He was actually the first guy to call me and said he felt sorry for me.  I told him, ‘It’s football and these things happen.’  I’m a big fan of Eric.  He’s a great teammate, a great guy, and hopefully he has a great NFL career.”

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Hayden Moore Looks To Snag Backup Role

The year was 2005.

Lance Armstrong won his seventh consecutive Tour de France.

Tiger Woods won The Masters for the fourth (final?) time.

Ken Griffey Jr. was named the Comeback Player of the Year in Major League Baseball.

Carson Palmer took the Bengals to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years (on two healthy knees).

And the UC football team made it through the season without needing its backup quarterback.

That’s right; it’s been a decade since the Bearcats have not been forced to give significant playing time to a second, third, or even fourth-string QB. Yet, the Bearcats have gone to a bowl game in all but one of those nine seasons while winning at least a share of five conference titles.

Cincinnati fans have learned that there’s considerable truth in the old football adage that says, “You’re only as good as your backup quarterback.”

“The strength coach said that exact same thing to me the other day,” said redshirt freshman Hayden Moore. “I’m here, and whenever they need me I’m going to be ready.”

Hayden Moore

Heading into Saturday’s spring football game, Moore is the leading candidate to be Gunner Kiel’s backup next season.

“He’s really made a lot of progress this spring and he’s going to need to because he’s probably going to be our backup,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville.

(Tuberville made that comment before Jarred Evans was found not guilty of an assault charge this week. The senior remains suspended from the football team pending review from the university administration.)

Moore is 6’3”, 193 pounds, and hails from Clay, Alabama where he first heard of Tuberville when he was the head coach at Auburn.

“I was young, but I remember Auburn’s undefeated season (2004) and I remember asking, ‘Why didn’t they go to the National Championship game?’” said Moore. “I was an Alabama fan so I didn’t love him, but I knew he was a great coach.”

But Tuberville was not the only reason that Moore committed to play for Cincinnati in August before his senior year of high school.

“I came to football camp here in late July and loved it here,” said Moore. “I loved the coaches and I loved the campus. We had kind of crossed it off our list because it was a little bit far away, but once I got here I loved everything about it.”

Moore graduated from high school early and enrolled at Cincinnati in January of 2014. He was mostly a spectator in spring football last year, but he’s getting most of the reps with the second team offense this spring.

“I think people are going to be very excited to see Hayden Moore play when he gets in a game,” said quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw. “He’s got exceptional arm strength, makes really good reads, and he’s very athletic.

“He’s making mistakes that freshman make and sometimes I want to strangle him, but we’re getting through that. He’s competing and he’s going to be hungry to get on that football field this season. I can’t wait to see him play and I’m very proud of where he’s at right now.”

“He needs all of the work he can get,” said Tuberville. “You can practice all you want, but we need to put him in live situations where he has to make decisions on his own and doesn’t know what the defense is going to do.”

Moore is also working on tightening his throwing motion.

“I’m working on getting my arm straight back instead of having a little bit of a ‘Tebow action’ I guess,” Moore told me. “I throw every single day, trying to get my arm straight back and over the top.”

“I used to do it, so I know it can be fixed because I fixed it,” said Hinshaw. “And I’ve coached quarterbacks that have fixed it. But it usually takes a lot of time with muscle memory. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s getting better and better. The older he gets, and the more throws that he makes, the more he’ll understand that when you drop the ball down, you’re losing time to get the ball on target. And the defense has a chance to react. He’s getting better with that. He’s not where he needs to be, but he’s getting pretty darn close.”

“I just know that in the long run it’s something that I have to do,” said Moore. “If that’s what my coach says that I have to do, then I’m going to do it.”

Moore also presents a running threat at the quarterback position and the coaching staff raves about his competitiveness.

“The guy has the ‘it’ factor,” said Hinshaw. “You want him in a foxhole when you go into battle because you know that he’s got your back. The kid has been exceptional in his life in terms of how hard he’s worked and everything that he’s done.”

If the Bearcats need their backup quarterback again this season, the coaches sound confident that Moore can get the job done.

“He’s been thrown into the fire, but I think he’s holding up pretty good,” said Tuberville.

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Casseus Hopes To Be Man In The Middle

Remember the old advertising slogan, “With a name like Smuckers it has to be good!”

I guess when your name is the combination of two sports legends; you’re bound to be an athlete.

Like Bearcats linebacker Clemente Casseus.

“I have a unique name,” he told me.  “It’s like Roberto Clemente and Cassius Clay.  It’s a sports name so I’m thankful for it.

“My father got me a big poster of Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay).  It’s in my room and I look at it every day when I wake up in the morning.”

Casseus tackle

This coming season, the Bearcats will be looking to Casseus to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” as he takes over the middle linebacker position from Jeff Luc who led the American Athletic Conference in tackles and forced fumbles last season.

“Those are big shoes to fill – both in terms of production and physically,” said linebackers coach Jeff Koonz.  “Clemente has embraced the role.  He wants this and you can tell that he’s passionate about the opportunity.”

“There have been big shoes to fill at that position for a long time with JK Schaffer, Greg Blair, and now Jeff Luc,” said Casseus.  “A lot of hard work and faith have brought me to this point, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to be the middle linebacker.”

Ironically, he would not have had the opportunity without an injury.

Casseus was four games into his senior season when he suffered a season-ending elbow injury at Miami (FL) last year.  In February he was granted an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA due to medical hardship.

“I guess if it’s ever fortunate to lose a guy in the middle of the season, it’s going to help this team because he got that fifth year,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville.  “He’s been in a lot of games at linebacker and he was one of our best special teams’ players.  It’s good to have him back.”

“I wasn’t really happy that it happened, but I am grateful for the extra year,” said Casseus.  “We prayed about it and got blessed with another year, so it’s an amazing opportunity.”

“He’s was going to be one of the seniors we lost last year and it just kind of worked out,” said Koonz.

Casseus is from Miami and turned down scholarship offers from smaller college programs to attend Cincinnati as a preferred walk-on.

“My father asked me before I came up here if I thought I could play college football and I told him, ‘Yes.’” Clemente told me.  “I was prepared to come up here and earn a scholarship no matter what it took.”

After paying out-of-state tuition for two years, Casseus received a full scholarship before his junior season.

“It was really tough on my family,” said Casseus.  “We stuck through it and prayed about it and it was a blessing when we finally got a scholarship.  I’m thankful to Coach Tuberville and the staff.

“I was emotional.  I called my mom and she cried a little bit.  I called my dad and he was very excited that we didn’t have to pay for school anymore.”

Now the kid with the unique name gets a chance to make a name for himself in the middle of the Bearcats defense.

“Not just on the field, but the leadership part too,” said Coach Koonz.  “Jeff Luc brought a lot to the team and Casseus is trying to step in and be that guy.  He’s the catalyst in the linebacker room right now and that’s going to spread to the entire defense.  It’s been fun to watch.”

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DeBerry Comes Up Huge In Tourney Win Over Purdue

On Friday morning I asked Coreontae DeBerry to draw an outline of his hand on a piece of paper.  Here’s a photo of my normal-sized hand in front of Cory’s outline.

DeBerry hand

“I didn’t know that he had bigger hands than Dr. J until I shook his hand for the first time and said, ‘Oh my goodness,’” said head coach Mick Cronin.  “It’s unbelievable.”

“He has the biggest hands in the world,” said Farad Cobb.

Fittingly, the man with mammoth mitts earned a big hand from Bearcats fans in Thursday’s 66-65 overtime win over Purdue.

DeBerry vs Purdue (293x440)

When Octavius Ellis was ejected early in the second half for committing a flagrant foul, Cincinnati needed DeBerry to stay on the floor for the rest of the game to defend Purdue’s 7-footers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. The 6’9”, 275 pound junior played all but 50 seconds of the final 21:22 (including overtime).

“After we told Octavius, ‘Don’t worry about (getting ejected),’ we turned to Cory and said, ‘Time to step up.  We need some big minutes from you and you’re ready for it,’” said Cobb.

DeBerry played a season-high 26 minutes which was five more minutes than his previous three games combined.

“I was really, really tired but I knew that my team needed me the most when Octavius got thrown out of the game,” said DeBerry.

“I told him that he could worry about being tired after the game,” said Shaq Thomas.

DeBerry didn’t only protect the paint on defense.  He scored a career-high 13 points including a balletic reverse layup with 3:08 left in overtime that gave Cincinnati the lead for good.

“The last time I hit that shot was in high school,” said DeBerry.  “When I got the ball I just looked to score.  I saw an open spot and I went to it.”

“That was sick,” said Cobb.  “I was like, ‘That’s got to be a Top 10 highlight to see a big dude do a move like that.’  I was hyped.”

“He looked like a point guard,” said Jermaine Sanders.  “He looked like he was about 6 feet tall, 180 pounds the way he was moving.”

DeBerry’s performance was undoubtedly a shock for Purdue, but Cincinnati’s players and coaches claim that they weren’t surprised.

“I knew that it was going to come out sooner or later because I practice against him every day,” said Ellis.  “That’s why it was very exciting to see him play like that last night.”

“I knew he had it in him,” said Cronin.  “It’s our job to get it out of him.  That’s what they pay us for.  With all due respect to my buddy Doug Kecman who is out there coaching the Seven Hills girls’ team, he’s an amateur and we’re professionals. We’re well-paid and we have to get it out of him.

“Probably the biggest thing I remember Coach Pitino saying all the time is that you never lament about your players – your job is to find a way to get it out of them.  Cory’s got it in him.  We just have to keep finding a way to get it out of him.”

On Saturday, DeBerry, Ellis, and Gary Clark will have to contend with the biggest team in college basketball.  Kentucky has three starters that are 6’10” or taller and brings a 7-footer off of the bench.

“They need to protect the paint and make them shoot tough shots,” said Cobb.  “And then as a team, we all need to get in there and help them get rebounds.”

“Everybody in this locker room is going to have to rebound,” said Thomas.  “We can’t just rely on Cory, Octavius, and Gary to get rebounds; it’s going to have to come from the guards too.”

“We’re a tough team and we don’t back down to anyone,” said DeBerry.  “We’re just going to go out there and give it our best effort.”

Coreontae has rarely been accused of not giving a full effort.  In fact, in middle school when he couldn’t find a baseball mitt to fit his already-giant hand, he volunteered to play the outfield without a glove.

“I said, ‘I’m just going to go barehanded,’” said DeBerry.  “The teacher said, ‘Are you sure?  It’s going to hurt.’  I said, ‘I’m fine.’ I caught three fly balls in the outfield.  It worked out fine.”

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After Bailing Out His Coach, Gantz Seeks Perfection

Perhaps the most exciting moment in Cincinnati’s 2014 football season was the 47-yard game-winning field goal by redshirt freshman Andrew Gantz to beat ECU under frigid weather conditions.

“Just being able to share that moment with my parents will probably be one of the best memories of my entire life,” Gantz told me after a spring football practice last week.  “You don’t really get many opportunities like that and to have a game-winner my freshman year was a pretty big moment in my life so far.  It’s an indescribable feeling.”

Head coach Tommy Tuberville has no trouble describing how he felt at the time.

Cincinnati had a five point lead with 2:03 left in the game when Tuberville elected to go for a first down on fourth-and-2 from the Bearcats’ 33-yard line.  An option pitch lost six yards and ECU scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:02 remaining.  Fortunately for Cincinnati, Gantz answered with his clutch field goal with 15 seconds on the clock.

“I made an idiotic call to go for it on fourth down,” said Tuberville with a laugh.  “And then there was the bad play call by (offensive coordinator) Eddie Gran to run the speed option.  Even my son Tucker called me from Auburn and said, ‘Dad, that was the worst decision I’ve ever seen.’  I said, ‘I agree.’  But Andrew dug me out of a hole where I didn’t have to spend about three weeks apologizing.”

The field goal was the longest that Gantz made as a freshman.

“I wasn’t as worried about the kick as I was the snap and the hold in 15 degree weather,” said Tuberville.  “And we absolutely blew the protection on the right side. We let a guy come so free that he out-ran the ball and we kicked it over his head.  It was meant to be.”

Gantz FG

The Centerville H.S. grad won the kicking job last year after a nip-and-tuck training camp battle with senior Tony Miliano and went on to have a great first season, making 16 of 20 field goals and earning second-team All-American Athletic Conference honors.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that I had a great season – I had a good season,” said Gantz.  “Honestly, I wasn’t that happy with how I finished.  I think I missed four field goals and I’d like to have a few of those back.  It’s really a job meant for a perfectionist, so it kind of drives me insane to miss like that.”

“He takes it a little bit too tough on the sideline,” said Tuberville.  “I remember after he missed about a 45-yarder at Connecticut, I went over there and he had his head in his hands.  I had to kick him in the tail to get him off the bench.  You’re not going to make it every time, but it’s good to have somebody who takes it personally and seriously.  He works very hard to try to eliminate mistakes.”

“I hate missing a field goal more than I like making one, if that makes any sense,” said Gantz.

“His goal is to have no misses,” said new special teams coordinator Ty Linder.  “He’s a kid that really wants to be great.  He’s got a strong leg, he’s very consistent, and he puts in the work.  I’m excited to work with him.”

One of Andrew’s off-season goals is to increase his range for the upcoming season.

“He’s been killing it in the weight room trying to get bigger and stronger,” said Linder.

“I weighed around 150 pounds my freshman year and last summer I only gained three to five pounds,” Gantz told me.  “But right now I’m pushing between 172 and 175.  I’ve really put in a lot of work this offseason trying to eat right and get in the weight room to get bigger.  When I was a freshman, coach was hesitant to let me kick those long field goals, but I’ve pushed my range out to about 65 yards now.  If he sees me hit those, I think we’ll have a better chance of kicking those long field goals during a game.”

Andrew says his longest field goal in practice is 67 yards – or 20 yards longer than the game-winner that saved Tuberville from having to agonize over a costly gamble.

“I don’t think I really bailed him out – I did my job,” said Gantz. “If that play had worked out it would have been a great coaching decision.  But I think we’re both pretty happy with how it worked out.”

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Davis Deserves Credit For Bearcats’ Success

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the job that Larry Davis has done as Cincinnati’s acting head coach is to turn the clock back 20 years.

Larry Davis on sideline

In 1995, Duke’s roster included two future first round draft picks in Cherokee Parks and Trajan Langdon and the Blue Devils got off a 9-3 start.  But on January 23rd, Mike Krzyzewski announced that he would miss the rest of the season due to severe back pain.  Duke went 4-15 under Coach K’s replacement Pete Gaudet.

When Mick Cronin was sidelined due to a non-life threatening vascular condition on the morning of the VCU game, it looked like the Bearcats might suffer a similar fate.  That day they were routed at home by the Rams 68-47.

“That was a tough day for everybody,” said Davis.  “It was like you were in a fog.  It was surreal.  It was like, ‘Did this really just happen?’”

Two weeks later, Coach Cronin announced that he would continue to lead the program in a general manager’s role but would not take part in on-court activities for the rest of the season leaving his top assistant in charge.

“He’s given me a good life for the last nine years here,” said Davis.  “I texted him and said, ‘I won’t let you down.’  I want to do well for the kids, and selfishly for myself, but most of all I don’t want to let that guy down.  He’s been great to me, and he deserves to have all of us give our very best effort to keep this program rolling until he gets back.  I do feel a great sense of wanting to do it for Mick.”

Mission accomplished.

Davis is 15-7 since Coach Cronin was sidelined, and has put the Bearcats in position to return to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight season.

“I think the mark of a really good coach is when you can take a game that is not going your way and make the right adjustments to win a game that you were not going to win,” said Coach Cronin.  “And on a bigger scale, when the season is not going your way to be able to make the necessary changes to right the ship.  He’s done a tremendous job of that and he’s had to do it multiple times.

“He had to take a team that lost its coach and make sure there was no panic at first.  And then, once you get into the season you’re going to have the normal ups and downs that everybody has.  And he’s done a great job of navigating that along with the rest of the staff.”

Davis has been helped by Cronin’s continued presence around the team.

“Coach Cronin still being around is big,” said freshman Gary Clark.  “I never thought, ‘Oh crap, the season is going to go down the drain.’”

“Coach Cronin has done a great job of being the leader and having the staff follow his lead,” said sophomore Troy Caupain.  “The assistants are basically like mini-Cronins when it comes to making decisions and I think that’s helped us a lot.”

Davis was the head coach at Furman for nine years before coming to Cincinnati, and Cronin had confidence that he could prevent the team from collapsing.

“Larry has tremendous toughness,” said Cronin.  “That’s why I have so much respect for him and that’s why I tried to hire him as soon as I could when I got the job at Cincinnati.  I knew how hard rebuilding the program was going to be and I needed a guy who could be in a foxhole with me.  Trust me, in college basketball there is no more of a ‘foxhole’ guy than Larry Davis.”

Davis and Cronin

Their initial season together tested Larry’s toughness.

“The first year was just crazy – I don’t think people really have a true appreciation for what we walked into,” said Davis.  “We were wiped out.  We didn’t have anybody and had to spend every minute just getting eight guys to be able to practice every day much less win.  There was so much pressure day after day after day after day.  You didn’t get any sleep and were constantly worried and I was exhausted.

“I woke up one day after the season and I literally could barely move.”

Davis had mononucleosis.  As an assistant at Delaware in the 1980’s, Davis was involved in a serious car accident that knocked out two teeth and required more than 60 stitches.  He missed one day of work.  This time his recovery would take much longer.

“My doctor said, ‘You can either listen to me and go home and get in bed and plan on being there for the next two to three weeks, or you can fight it and end up in the hospital for a month,’” said Davis.  “I went from 185 pounds to 155 and thank goodness the boss I work for understood because I was out for almost three months.”

That’s roughly the amount of time that Cronin will miss this season and the Bearcats haven’t missed a beat.

“I couldn’t be happier for our program, our kids, and Coach Cronin that we’ve been able to maintain what he worked so hard to build,” said Davis.  “Throughout all the ups and downs this year, the one thing he kept emphasizing was, ‘No matter what, we can’t lose our culture.’  Our culture is toughness, work hard, practice hard, defend, and rebound.  I think we’ve been able to maintain the culture and that means we can continue forward when Mick comes back.  That part of it is very satisfying.”

“It’s almost the same as if Coach Cronin were here,” said Clark.  “The ‘Bearcat Way’ is to play hard – they basically built the program from nothing by getting guys to play hard.”

On Thursday, Larry Davis was not named the American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year – that honor went to Temple’s Fran Dunphy.  But considering the difficult circumstances he inherited, it’s hard to imagine any coach in the country doing a better job than Davis.

Just ask Duke fans that remember 1995.

“I’d be less than truthful if I said that it hadn’t been very stressful,” said Davis.  “But I’ve worked my whole life to be in position to be with a great program like Cincinnati and this year I’ve had the privilege to move one seat over.”

“He deserves a tremendous amount of praise for the job he has done,” said Cronin.

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RIP Tex Simone

When I learned that my former boss Anthony “Tex” Simone passed away on Friday morning, I was reminded of a great scene from the TV show Mad Men.

After an elderly secretary died, one of the advertising firm’s head honchos gave her the following eulogy:

“She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.”

It was a little bit like that for Tex Simone.

Tex Simone (281x440)

He rose from humble beginnings to become a legendary figure in his beloved home town of Syracuse, NY. Because of his passion for baseball, Tex left a promising career in business to join the grounds crew of the minor league Syracuse Chiefs in 1961. When the athletic trainer suffered a heart attack in the middle of the season, he added those responsibilities despite having no formal training. In 1967 he became the team’s business manager and public relations director. In 1970 he was promoted to general manager and he ran the franchise for more than 40 years. In 2008, Tex was named to the International League Hall of Fame.

On a personal note, I owe Tex Simone and his son John my career. I was a 21-year-old senior at Syracuse University when the Simones gave me the opportunity to be a professional baseball broadcaster a month before graduation. In a business where getting your first job can be a daunting challenge, it was an incredible break and I will always be grateful.

Tex was a very kind man and a joy to work for, but he did call me into his office once to reprimand me.

It was a few games into my first season as the Chiefs’ radio voice. The team had played an afternoon home game on a bitterly cold April day in Syracuse (shocking, I know) and I described the brutal weather conditions in painstaking detail as if I were The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore.

The next day, Tex called me into his office and said, “It is never cold at the ballpark!”

“Excuse me?” I replied.

“I don’t ever want to hear you say that it’s cold at the ballpark,” he said. “You can tell folks to bring a jacket, wear a sweater, and pack their hat and gloves, but don’t say how lousy the weather is. We’ve got tickets to sell!”

It was a valuable lesson. He wasn’t telling me to be dishonest – just to remember that part of my job was to try to make a trip to the ballpark sound enjoyable. I have used that advice ever since.

For years I have also used Tex Simone as something of an “ace in the hole.” When I hosted the Cincinnati Reds pregame show on Fox Sports Ohio, I would often have to get pregame interviews with opposing players and coaches. Whenever I thought the person I was interviewing knew Tex, I would drop his name to break the ice and put the subject at ease. That led to great interviews with Bobby Cox, Bobby Valentine, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, and many others.

Tex Simone at park

Roughly 10 years after I called my last Chiefs game, I returned to Syracuse as the radio voice of the Pawtucket Red Sox. By then Tex was in declining health, but he always made an effort to trek up to the broadcast booth whenever I was in town to say hello and ask me about my family and career. I was thrilled that Pawtucket happened to be the opponent in August of 2008 when Tex was inducted into the I.L. Hall of Fame and I got to be there for the ceremony.

Tex Simone was a one-of-a-kind American success story who enriched the lives of all of us who were lucky to know him.

In the baseball world, he was an astronaut.

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6th Year Puts “Coach Witty” Back On Field

The UC Bearcats are likely to be the only team in college football next year with a former coach in the starting lineup.

Witty pick 6 (330x440)

When fifth-year senior cornerback Adrian Witty suffered a significant groin injury in the season opener last year, it appeared his career was over.

“I tore it up pretty bad,” said Witty. “I thought I was going to be able to come back, but things didn’t go the way I wanted.”

So to remain part of the team, Witty became an unofficial member of the coaching staff.

“He knows so much about football,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “He’s going to make a great coach if he ever wants to do that. Last year he ran some drills for us. I think he learned a lot from standing and watching guys, teaching them, telling them what to do, and watching film with them. He traveled with us, went to every game, and was like another set of eyes for us.”

As it turned out, Witty’s injury was not career-ending. He’s been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after suffering separate season-ending injuries in 2010 and 2014.

“He went from playing, to coaching for a year, and now he’s back to playing,” said Tuberville. “He’s seen all sides of it.”

“God blessed me with another season,” said Witty.

The speedy Floridian is Cincinnati’s most experienced defensive back, having played cornerback, safety, and nickel in 41 career games. Now he has the added knowledge from having spent a season on the coaching staff.

“He learned a lot being on the sidelines and being in the meeting rooms as a coach,” said co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale. “To have him back is literally to have a coach on the field for me. He can definitely control his side of the field, get the calls in, and make adjustments. I love having him back and really appreciate his leadership. He’s going to do a great job for us.”

“It helped me see things from a coach’s view,” said Witty. “They consistently stressed the same things over and over. Now that I’m back on the field, I understand what they see.”

Witty tackle (440x330)

Adrian has been successful on and off the field at Cincinnati. He’s already earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is working toward a master’s degree in health education.

“He was elected one of our team captains last week and it was an obvious choice,” said Tuberville.

“He’s a good mentor on and off the field,” said Clinkscale. “He does a great job in the classroom. You couldn’t ask for a better son, a better player, or a better person.”

“Being named a captain means a lot,” said Witty. “It means the guys believe in me and the coaches believe in me and I’m going to live up to that. I have no problem being a leader. I want guys to follow me and look up to me. That’s just who I am.”

And the former coach is looking forward to playing again.

“I love these guys,” said Witty. “When you’re on the field you want to play for each other, battle for each other, bleed for each other, and do whatever you have to do in order to win.”

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

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Sanders Has Earned Respect Of Teammates And Coaches

In numerous stories about the health issue that’s kept him off of the Bearcats bench this season, head coach Mick Cronin has singled out one player on the Cincinnati roster.

“This is about Jermaine Sanders – he’s our lone senior,” Coach Cronin told Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News.  “That’s the hardest part of this for me.  I’m really close to him.

“So not being able to coach him, it just sucks.  I don’t have a better adjective.”

Jermaine Sanders black jersey

Sanders saw that comment and others like it and appreciates Cronin’s thoughtfulness.

“I was proud that he felt that way,” Sanders told me.  “It’s kind of sad for me that he hasn’t been able to coach me for the final games of my senior year.  It was heartwarming to hear that from him.”

Jermaine Sanders came to Cincinnati as a high-scoring high school star, earning Player of the Year honors in New York City from the New York Post.  But as a Bearcat, he’s been a classic “glue guy” playing solid defense while being unselfish on offense.   

“The one thing that you know about Jermaine is that he’s going to do all of the little things that help you win,” said associate head coach Larry Davis.

“It was a hard adjustment at first,” said Sanders.  “Coming from high school where you’re depended on to score 20 to 30 points a night and then when you get here you try to score when you can but you’re counted on to do things defensively and stuff like that.  But everything happens for a reason and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’m not ashamed to say that I was a glue guy while I was here.

“I always want to put other people before me – sometimes that may hurt me – but that’s just the way that I am.”

Jermaine Sanders (440x266)

Sanders is quiet by nature, but as the only remaining senior on the roster, he’s been thrust into a leadership role on an inexperienced team.

“Of all of the players on your team, the seniors are always the most determined guys because this is the last time they’re going to be playing in a Cincinnati uniform,” said Davis.

“I’ve taken it very seriously and tried to show the guys the way we need to play and the way we should act on and off the court,” said Sanders.  “I’ve tried to be a good example for the younger guys.”

One of those younger teammates is Shaq Thomas who thinks so highly of Sanders that he chose Jermaine to be his daughter’s godfather.

“He’s my best friend and we’ve been through a lot together,” said Thomas.  “I just want to see him do well.”

The same is true for Cronin.

“Jermaine Sanders is everything that’s good about college basketball,” Mick told me.  “He has been all about the program and he has been a selfless player.  And he’s such a good person that I want success for him so badly because of his loyalty to the program.  When he plays well I’m so happy.

“It’s his senior year and he’s always going to remember it.  I feel guilty that I’m not out there coaching him.”

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Four Key Offseason Additions For Bengals

After spending Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine, I am prepared to describe four key players that the Bengals anticipate adding to the roster next season.

  1. A sideline-to-sideline tackling machine at linebacker with a high football I.Q. Plays with an attitude. Prone to excessive penalties. Possible concussion concerns.
  2. A fluid receiver with the ability to stretch the field. Makes tough catches in the red zone. Ideal complement to pair with A.J. Green.
  3. An elite pass-catching tight end. Stands 6’6” with long arms. Has size to beat defensive backs and speed to beat linebackers. Must continue to improve as a blocker.
  4. A road-grading right tackle with surprisingly nimble feet. Must keep an eye on weight.

Those players are Vontaze Burfict, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, and Andre Smith.

Bernard at combine (440x293)

Don’t get me wrong, Cincinnati will undoubtedly add an immediate contributor or two (maybe more) in this year’s draft.  The Bengals are on a run of six straight productive drafts as they’ve placed at least one player on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team in every season.

2014: Jeremy Hill

2013: Giovani Bernard

2012: Kevin Zeitler

2011: A.J. Green

2010: Carlos Dunlap, Clint Stitser (not a stellar group of rookie kickers apparently)

2009: Quan Cosby (as a punt returner)

But regardless of who the Bengals add in the draft, it’s hard to imagine that any of the rookies will have a bigger immediate impact than the return of Burfict, Jones, Eifert, and Smith – assuming that they’re healthy.

Burfict is recovering from the most serious injury after having microfracture surgery on his left knee.  Marvin Lewis told reporters at the Combine that he expects the Pro Bowl linebacker to be back on the field this season.

“Vontaze is working his tail off in rehab and it’s an important offseason for the Cincinnati Bengals and Vontaze Burfict together,” Lewis said.  “He’s one of our dynamic players and he’s a dynamic leader.  We’re a better team with Vontaze on the field, so we hope to get him back full speed and healthy as quick as we can.  It’s important.  He knows the importance of it for us, for him, and for his career.”

Marvin at combine 2015 (440x294)

Coach Lewis added that Jones and Eifert are on good recovery timetables as they return from ankle and elbow injuries respectively.

“(Jones) is fine, healthy, and he’s ready to go,” said Lewis.  “He’s got a lot of prove.  It’s an exciting time for us.  He’s a young player with a lot of ability, a lot to prove, and a lot on the line.  I like guys with a lot on the line.

“Tyler’s development, if you are familiar with him, was a little bit retarded this year because he was injured nine plays into the season.  He’s doing well.  It’s important that we get Tyler back and productive in his third season for us.”

Adding Jones and Eifert to an offensive that includes Green, Hill, Bernard, and Mohamed Sanu would give Andy Dalton as many offensive weapons to distribute the ball to as nearly any quarterback in the NFL.

Two years ago with minimal injuries among running backs and receivers, Dalton set franchise records for single season passing yards (4,293) and touchdown passes (33).  However, he also threw a career-high 20 interceptions.  His INT total dropped to 17 last year, but his rate per attempt slightly increased.

“We’ve got to get Andy to continue to take care of the football all of the time,” said Coach Lewis.  “He doesn’t have to feel pressed.  We know the next down is coming.  The one area where we weren’t quite as good this year was protecting the football.  We have got to do a better job of that.  There were times where he became a little impatient and his patience has to continue to grow.

“To be a productive NFL quarterback, we want that interception number to be down.  That’s the most important thing.  There are going to be some interceptions that happen.  There are going to be some balls that go off hands that are tipped, and so forth.  But the ones that he is directly responsible for – we want to make sure that that number is almost non-existent.”

Over the last four seasons, the Bengals are 40-23-1 despite playing in one of the toughest divisions in football.  That’s the sixth-best record in the NFL during that period behind New England, Green Bay, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.  Despite their playoff failures, the Bengals roster is good enough to contend.

But it’s hard to overcome a rash of injuries that wipe out entire position groups as the Bengals had at times last year at wide receiver and linebacker.

“When you get a lot of injuries at one position, your depth is non-existent,” said Lewis.

That’s why the return of Burfict, Jones, Eifert, and Smith is so important.  It allows the Bengals not to draft for need but to continue their highly-successful approach – particularly in the early rounds – of taking the highest-rated player regardless of position.

“We want to upgrade the football team in general so there’s not one area,” said Lewis when asked about draft priorities.  “We have to upgrade every area.”

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

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