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Zampese Takes Charge

Preseason predictions obviously don’t mean much.

Prior to last year, Sports Illustrated picked Baltimore to beat Seattle in the Super Bowl (neither team qualified) and had the Bengals finishing 6-and-10.

This year, I will not be surprised if most prognosticators expect the Bengals to win fewer than the 12 games they captured last season – after all, it’s hard to win that many – but I must admit I was stunned when one writer from NFL.com predicted that the Bengals will go 4-and-12.

His reasoning for the drop of eight wins is connected to the departure of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

For the record, I think Hue did a tremendous job in Cincinnati and was an excellent hire by the Cleveland Browns as their new head coach. But let’s take a look at some numbers.

Last season, the Bengals finished 7th in the NFL in scoring with 419 points. In 2013, Jay Gruden’s final year as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, the Bengals finished 6th in the NFL in scoring with 430 points.

In other words, Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and one of the league’s best offensive lines should help any coordinator have success.

“It’s the quarterback and the players all the time,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “Good players make smart coaches.”

Ironically, “smart” is among the first words mentioned when Cincinnati’s offensive players are asked about their new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.

“He’s really smart,” said Dalton. “I think that’s one of his best traits. He understands by certain ways that guys line up how teams are attacking us and how we can attack them.”

“Coach Z is a real energetic guy,” said wide receiver Brandon LaFell. “He’s always upbeat and preaching this and that, but everything he says is gold as far as football.”

Maintaining continuity on offense was a key factor when the Bengals elected to promote Zampese from quarterbacks coach to coordinator. But will fans notice a significant difference now that Ken is calling the plays?

“They won’t notice anything different,” said Zampese. “We’ll do the same things that got us to this point. There will be some things that show up that may be different and highlight particular players. The offense is always driven by the skills of players and it’s a matter of how you get it to them.

“We have a couple of new pieces offensively, and I need to find out what those guys are, their skill set, and how to get them the ball.”

“He knows the type of players that we have and he knows what’s been successful here so there’s no need to change things drastically,” said Dalton. “There will be some new stuff and he’ll have his own twist on things – that’s just all part of it.”

While the X’s and O’s aren’t drastically different, there is a change in the offensive coordinator’s personality from the boisterous and extroverted Jackson to the analytical and businesslike Zampese.

“With every coordinator that I’ve had, there’s always a learning period where you learn them and they start to understand you,” said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. “That won’t be any different. But what I know about Ken from being around him for 11 years is that he’s going to give us everything that he’s got. He’s extremely bright and extremely talented.”

Hue Jackson has a unique ability to connect with the wide variety of personalities in a football locker room. Zampese says that’s just as important as anything found in the playbook.

“It’s up to you to reach them,” he said. “And whatever that means is what it means. It’s different with each guy. Guys are coming from many different backgrounds. It used to be that guys wanted to be like everybody else. You wanted to do what everybody else did and wear what everybody else did. It’s different now and that’s a good thing. And it’s up to us to find the good in it and not the other way around. Everybody has something to offer and it’s up to us to find it. The guys are here for a reason. They put something on tape and did something when we talked to them that made them exciting to us and we need to put it together in such a way that we get the best out of each guy and the best out of the group in the process.”

Zampese has been an offensive coordinator once before at Northern Arizona in 1985. Three years later he began his NFL career as an assistant in Philadelphia and now, after 18 years with the Eagles, Packers, Rams, and Bengals, he finally gets his chance to run an offense at the highest level.

“I am very happy that it’s here,” Ken told me. “I love being here and I appreciate the way the organization has treated me and my family – particularly in recent years. I enjoy our head coach a lot. I like his style and his delivery. He allows us to coach and do our thing and then he oversees it all. I really like the players that we bring in here and I think all of those things suit me. I like family loyalty and I would rather do this here than anywhere else.”

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Alford Is Getting Up To Speed

When the Bengals used their seventh round draft pick on wide receiver Mario Alford last year, the reason was obvious.

“We just couldn’t pass up his speed,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.

Alford was timed at a blistering 4.27 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his West Virginia pro day, but his transition to NFL football wasn’t as fast.

“When you come in as a rookie it’s a little complicated to adjust,” Alford told me. “Everybody goes through it.”

But it was even more challenging in Alford’s case because he had not been a wide receiver before his two seasons at WVU. Mario was a quarterback in high school and played running back for two years at Georgia Military College.

So when his first season as a pro ended, the 24-year-old went back to college.

“I trained in West Virginia back at my school and did stuff that I need to work on like route running and getting in and out of my breaks,” said Alford. “Little stuff like that.”

Mario Alford

Alford spent his rookie season on the Bengals 53-man roster, but only saw action in one game making a 15-yard reception at Cleveland. During the Bengals’ OTAs and minicamp, he showed flashes of his big-play potential.

“Mario needs to continue to be consistent,” said receivers coach James Urban. “As I tell him all the time, he’s like a tease. You see, ‘Hey look what you can do.’ And then the next (play) it’s, ‘Ahh.’ He needs to make the ‘Ahhs’ go much more away.”

“Mario Alford has been a 50-50 proposition,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “They’ve figured out ways to feature him – sometimes he’s delivered and sometimes he hasn’t.”

Following the departures of free agents Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the 5’9”, 180 pound speedster is clearly in the mix to be one of the receivers on the Bengals’ 53-man roster.

“We have bigger guys, we have smaller guys, we have guys that can really run, and we have guys that are really crafty,” said Urban. “We’ll put ‘em all in the pot, stir it up, and see what the best ingredients are.”

“I’ve got a great opportunity,” said Alford. “I’m not worried about what number I am (on the depth chart) right now, I just have to go in and work my tail off. We’ll see. It’s going to be interesting.”

After returning two kickoffs for touchdowns as a senior at West Virginia, he’s also a candidate to return kickoffs and punts.

“I feel 100% confident going into this season about what position I’m going to play and what role I’m going to have on this team,” Mario told me. “I feel very good about the upcoming season.”

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Iloka Gets Contract But Wants Ring

When George Iloka signed a 5-year, $30 million dollar contract extension with the Bengals in March, he checked off one of his goals as a professional football player.

“I think every player’s goal when he gets to the NFL is to win the Super Bowl and get paid,” George told me. “Honestly, that’s everyone’s goal.”

One down, one to go. He’s got the contract in hand, but lacks the ring on his finger.

“The Super Bowl is the highest team accolade that you can achieve and that’s everyone’s goal on this team,” said Iloka. “When you’re done with this game you want some type of hardware that you can keep for the rest of your life. Trophies and rings are with you forever.”

Iloka INT

Iloka is entering his fifth NFL season and the long-term contract extension was a definitive statement that the Bengals view him as a defensive cornerstone in their efforts to win a championship.

“George is a young player with still a big upside,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “He has size and length and speed and we expect his contributions to keep growing.”

Iloka has started 47 of a possible 51 games over the past three seasons and has a skill set that allows the Bengals to be flexible in how he’s used.

“Safeties are increasingly valuable in today’s NFL, and he’s one who can play centerfield or in the box,” wrote Andy Benoit from Sports Illustrated’s MMQB website. “At 6’4”, 225 pounds, and with arms so long he can practically tie his shoes without bending over, Iloka has the innate physical traits to be elite.”

The 26-year-old will be the Bengals most experienced safety following the departure of NFL interception co-leader Reggie Nelson as a free agent.

“I think now that Reggie is gone I’ll try to do a better job of communicating and making sure that everybody is on the same page,” said Iloka. “I’ve been in this system for four or five years and if I don’t know it by now I’m doing something wrong. So I’ve been trying to communicate better, but I’m still trying to be myself. If there’s a time where I need to be vocal I’ll do that, but I’m not going to be something that I’m not.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is how the former fifth round draft pick views himself.

“I went to a small school and think I was a two-star recruit coming out of high school,” said Iloka. “It was actually zero stars – they only gave me two because I committed to Boise State and they said, ‘I guess he’s decent; give him two stars.’

“I just have to keep that mentality and continue to build on it and get better because I don’t think I am where I can be. The only person that can get me there is me. I have to put the work in to get where I want to be.”

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Opportunity Beckons For Clarke And Hunt

Last season, defensive end Wallace Gilberry was on the field for 669 of the Bengals’ 1,156 defensive snaps (58%). Now that Gilberry has signed with Detroit as a free agent, Margus Hunt and Will Clarke are the most obvious candidates to get a bump in playing time.

“What we’re looking for them to do as players is break through to be productive guys – game changing players,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “We’re going to put it out there and let them go that way. It’s a good situation to be in – hopefully for them and for us.”

“I don’t want that workload to go to Carlos (Dunlap) and Mike (Johnson) – they already are in for enough plays as is,” said Clarke. “There’s definitely an opportunity for myself and Margus to get those reps and get out there and help the first team guys – whether it’s playing inside or outside.”

Clarke, a third round draft pick in 2014, was on the field for 139 defensive snaps (12%) last season and is eager to earn more.

Will Clarke

“It’s not how I planned for it to be,” Will told me. “I definitely would have liked to be more of a help to the team and played more of a pivotal role. The best way to do that is to keep your head down, keep working, and keep moving forward. Don’t try to do anything crazy or different, just keep listening to the coaches, follow the older guys, and stay on the path.”

Hunt was only on the field for 57 defensive snaps (5%) last season. The second round pick in 2013 was coming off of back surgery and did not see action in the first seven games.

“It’s good now,” said Hunt. “I’ve been able to do power lifting and that puts a lot of pressure on your back and it’s been feeling awesome. It was really bad last year. In the beginning when I was able to start doing football drills, my back felt weak and it took a while to get the strength back. After that I needed to get the flexibility and the movement back and a lot of different things went into it.”

Margus Hunt vs Colts

In addition to a more rigorous weightlifting routine this offseason, Hunt worked privately with one of the NFL’s all-time leaders in sacks Kevin Greene. The 5-time Pro Bowler will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.

“Marvin put us together,” said Hunt. “He wanted me to work with him last year but the back issue came up. This offseason Marvin called me up and said, ‘Can you get three days out of your schedule to go work with him?’ I said, “Absolutely. I’d be happy to.’ Thankfully Kevin had enough time in his busy schedule with the Hall of Fame and everything going on to work with me.

“We worked out in his front yard. He had sleds and cones and everything set up and he walked me through what he did for 16 years and why he was so successful. It was a really great trip.”

Greene was undersized at 6’2”, 245 pounds but managed to have 10 years with double-digit sacks, including 12 in his final season at age 37.

“Little things end up being big things,” said Hunt when asked what he learned from Greene. “He taught me how he did the pass rush for 16 years and how he got 160 sacks. Then we watched film of it. We put him on and he taught me and showed me how he did it. Marvin sent him film of me and we had a similar look but I wasn’t able to utilize the rush.”

Hunt is entering the final year of his rookie contract while Clarke has two years remaining. Do they view 2016 as a critical season?

“Every year is critical in this line of business,” said Hunt. “I’m just trying to keep it simple. I’m not worrying about whether it’s a big year or a small year, I’m trying to have fun and the rest of it will take care of itself. If I take care of the small things day after day, they’ll add up to bigger ones.”

“I think that every year is important, but I believe that taking another step forward is the important part,” said Clarke. “Stepping up to a more pivotal role and being able to help this team out more on defense, special teams, and the team as a whole.”

The Bengals brought 36-year-old free agent Dwight Freeney in for a workout in May and could still sign the seven-time Pro Bowler. But regardless of that possibility, Clarke, Hunt, and other young defensive lineman like Brandon Thompson, Marcus Hardison, DeShawn Williams, and Andrew Billings will look to grab some of snaps that Gilberry received last season.

“In the decade-and-a-half that Marvin Lewis has been here as a head coach, he just wants to see you perform,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “There’s no prejudice to when you were drafted, how you were drafted, or even if you were drafted. When you get here, what are you going to do? It doesn’t matter that Margus Hunt was a second round pick and Will Clarke was a third round pick, they have to step up and perform. I know that if I were in their situation that I would feel pressure to take full advantage of every opportunity I get. When you’re in competitive situations like that, it raises the level of performance. Competition breeds excellence.”

“There’s always a battle between us, but at the end of the day it’s all of us working together,” said Clarke. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re a first team guy or a second team guy because we’re rotating. There could be a game where it’s Carlos and Margus out there. It could be Domata (Peko), myself, Andrew Billings, and Mike (Johnson). There’s always a battle to make ourselves better, but at the end of the day we’re all helping each other.”

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NFL Peers Recognize Dalton’s Growth

The NFL Network’s annual Top 100 players list is not exactly a scientific poll, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

Dalton Seattle

When Andy Dalton was recently named the league’s 35th-best player in a survey of his peers, it was evidence that his stellar play in 2015 resulted in increased respect for the Bengals quarterback throughout the NFL.

“It’s obviously cool to be selected to the Top 100,” Andy told me. “It’s the first year that I’ve been in it so it’s definitely a cool thing to know that the other guys in the league view you that way. It’s cool to know that other people around the league see what you’re doing and think that you played at a high level.”

Although the entire list has not been revealed yet, we do know that Dalton will be the 8th highest-rated quarterback. Drew Brees (#30) and Ben Roethlisberger (#21) appeared on the list this week, and I’m guessing that the top five QBs still to come (listed alphabetically) will be Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson.

“I think he’ll be excited about it, but I don’t think he’ll be satisfied with it,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “I think if he had been able to play the entire season and had the playoffs that I think he might have had based on the way he was performing, he may have finished even higher.

“He was as good as there was in the NFL when the Bengals started out 8-0. He was in the conversation for MVP and rightfully so. I do think it was a year where he definitely grew.”

Dalton ranked first in the AFC in passer rating and set a Bengals record at 106.3. He also established career highs in completion percentage (66.1%) and yards per attempt (8.42) and had a touchdown/interception ratio of 25 to 7.

“You just see his maturation over the years,” former Steelers safety Will Allen told NFL Network. “From him changing the play calls to looking off defenders and NFL safeties – I think that’s what he’s evolved to over the years. The coaches are putting more in his hands and more on his shoulders and he’s taking it like, ‘I want it. Let’s go.’”

Dalton in cast (440x248)

In addition to his outstanding stats, the Bengals were 10-2 when Dalton broke his thumb. Cincinnati was the top playoff seed in the AFC at the time and shared the best record in the conference with Denver and New England.

“I felt like it was the best year of my career,” said Dalton. “I never lacked confidence, but it gives you more confidence and shows other guys that you’re doing the right things and trying to give your team the best possible chance to win.”

This season, the 28-year-old from Katy, TX will have to deal with significant changes including the elevation of Ken Zampese from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after Hue Jackson left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

“I love Hue and everything about Hue,” said Lapham. “He’s a dynamic leader and Hue got a lot out of Andy Dalton. But I think with Kenny, there’s going to be more room for Andy Dalton’s personality to come out to the football team, because Hue was such a people person and such an animated guy and knew all the buttons to push. He was vociferous you know? There wasn’t a whole lot of room left. Kenny’s not that type of guy and that gives Andy more space in the room to take that to another level. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see that part of his game grow as well as his on-field stuff.”

“Our quarterback continues to blossom with his own leadership and his personality,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “Kenny provides a new space for him to continue to do that.”

Dalton will also have to adjust to the loss of free agent wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Newcomers Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd are expected to help replace that duo and both say they’ve been impressed with Dalton’s timing and accuracy during OTAs and minicamp.

“His ball placement is automatic every time,” said LaFell.

“As soon as I get out of my break and turn my head around the ball is coming,” said Boyd. “You know when a quarterback’s timing is on. When you don’t get a chance to actually see him throw it and when you look back in the air it’s already coming.

“You just have to do your assignment. I know that if I do my job he is going to do his for sure.”

In recent years, the national narrative has been “Bengals will go as far as Dalton will take them,” and questioned Andy’s ability to lead the team to postseason success. Dalton’s exceptional play in 2015 quieted many of his critics, but he knows that overall theme remains.

“Usually the team goes as far as the quarterback will take them,” he said. “I think that’s a typical thing. Most teams that win the Super Bowl have a quarterback that’s playing at a high level. You can think about it any way that you want, but I think most teams go as the quarterback goes.”

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From Flag Football To The NFL

At this point in the offseason, there are nearly 3,000 players on NFL rosters. I’m guessing that only one of them played intramural flag football in college.

Alex Erickson

Bengals rookie Alex Erickson eventually earned All-Big 10 honors at Wisconsin, but he arrived there without a scholarship and didn’t begin practicing with the Badgers until the spring of his freshman year.

“My first semester at school I wasn’t on the team right away,” Alex told me. “I was coming off of a broken wrist so I probably would have had to sit out most of the first season. So in October of my first year in college, a couple of buddies that I played against in high school asked if I would join their intramural team. I only played in two or three games, but it was fun to get out there and run around a little bit.”

Erickson was a quarterback in high school, rushing for 3,856 yards and 57 touchdowns and passing for 3,648 yards and 37 TDs. He also played defensive back and had 14 interceptions. But after joining the Badgers as a walk-on, Alex gradually became a standout at wide receiver.

“It was just consistency,” said Erickson. “Catching the football consistently, preparing consistently, and getting better every single day. I had never played the position before going to Wisconsin, so I was already behind the eight ball and I had a lot of great guys in front of me. I just tried to focus and learn every day.”

His dedication paid off. Last year Erickson finished second in the Big 10 with 77 receptions – the second-highest total in school history. And while he was not selected in the NFL draft, the 23-year-old from Darlington, Wisconsin quickly signed with the Bengals as a college free agent.

“I had visited down here with Cincinnati, met with the coaching staff and had a good relationship with (receivers coach) James Urban so I felt like it was a great fit,” said Erickson. “The things they saw in me as a player are the things that I would say about myself. The ways they talked about using me here are the same ways that I was used at Wisconsin – inside and outside, being able to play multiple positions, and the special teams’ component is huge. So when I got the call after the draft it was a no-brainer to come down here to Cincinnati. Getting an opportunity to compete for a roster spot with the Bengals is all that I could ask for.”

Erickson isn’t big at 6’0”, 195 pounds and doesn’t have blazing speed as he was timed at 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Wisconsin’s pro day. But he made a strong impression during the Bengals’ OTAs and minicamp.

“Alex Erickson is a smart, crafty, bright-eyed, hard-working football player,” said Urban. “We’ll see how he looks when the pads come on. Sometimes little guys disappear, and sometimes they show up bigger than you ever think. I would not bet against him in any way. I’m anxious to see him in pads.”

“I never felt that if I was bigger I could have more success,” said Erickson. “It is what it is. You’re not going to be able to change what God gave you in that sense, so I’ve never looked at my size as an issue.”

“He gets in and out of cuts with a very low center of gravity and does a good job of creating separation,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “There are a lot of abilities that you have to have to be able to play in the National Football League and people look at him and say that he’s not a very big guy or a super-fast guy and that’s why he didn’t get drafted, but there’s reliability and accountability. If I’m a quarterback and I throw the ball Erickson’s way – from what I’ve seen here at the camps he catches it. Nothing has hit the ground that he should have caught. You can have all the speed in the world and all of the route-running ability in the world, but if you can’t catch the football it’s all a moot point. This guy makes plays. Every single practice that I’ve been to, he ends up making plays.”

“I’ve been trying to study the playbook and ask questions,” said Erickson. “They’ve thrown a lot at us and a lot of the playbook is installed, so it’s a constant battle to keep studying and keep looking at your notes and asking questions. You’re not sure how many opportunities you’re going to get, so you’ve got to make the most of every single one of them.”

The free agent departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu have obviously created opportunities on the roster at wide receiver and Erickson admits that was a factor when he elected to sign with Cincinnati.

“You obviously have to look at the numbers side of it,” said Erickson. “My agent had it broken down where guys on this team that had played huge roles had left and those spots are going to need to be filled. So I thought it would be a good place to come and compete and try to earn a spot.”

He’ll need to shine in training camp and preseason games to make the Bengals roster or practice squad. But simply having the opportunity represents quite a climb from intramural flag football.

“It’s been a unique journey to say the least, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said.

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LaFell Seeks Second Ring In Cincinnati

When veteran wide receiver Brandon LaFell became a free agent this offseason, his goal was to sign with a team that had a chance to win and a good quarterback.

After two weeks of OTA practices with the Bengals, LaFell sounds confident that he found what he was looking for in Cincinnati.

“Definitely man,” he said. “Andy (Dalton) is a great guy and a great young quarterback that’s been producing year in and year out and been getting his team better year in and year out. This team has been winning for the last six or seven years – since Andy’s been in the league and before that when they had Chad (Johnson) and those guys. I wanted to come in to a great situation where I had an opportunity to play with a good quarterback, get a lot of playing time, and to win. Since I’ve been here, that’s all I’ve been seeing.”

LaFell with Bengals (440x315)

LaFell was signed by the Bengals to help fill the holes in the receiving corps left by the departures of free agents Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. With six years of NFL experience and 278 career catches, Brandon is expected to step into the starting lineup opposite A.J. Green.

“I feel like he’s been here for a while and that it isn’t his first year here,” said Dalton. “He came in and picked things up pretty quickly. He’s really going to help us out.

“He’s not asking a ton of questions and asking me to repeat things. He’s got it. You can tell that he’s studied a lot and been in his playbook and he’s learned a lot of what we’re doing.”

“It’s nothing different from anywhere else I’ve been,” said LaFell. “I’ve always had a lot demanded out of me and I always demand a lot out of myself. There’s a good opportunity here for me so all I’m going to do is go out there and make the plays that are available and do whatever I need to do to help this team win.”

LaFell spent his first four NFL seasons with Carolina before signing as a free agent with New England in 2014. In his first year with the Patriots, Brandon had a career-high 74 catches for 953 yards and caught a touchdown pass in New England’s Super Bowl victory over Seattle.

LaFell Super Bowl (440x247)

“I give a lot of credit to Tom (Brady),” said LaFell. “He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play this game and he made the game much easier for me. He made it slower my first year in the offense. He made it so simple that I just had to go out there and play fast and catch the ball.”

LaFell says there are similarities between Brady and Dalton.

“Just the way they command the huddle,” he said. “They both go out there and get us in the best plays possible no matter what the defense is showing and deliver the ball on time.”

The 29-year-old out of LSU began last season with a broken foot and finished with 37 catches for 515 yards. But he says he’s fully healthy now and expects to thrive with opposing defenses focusing on five-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green.

“It means I’m going to get a lot of man-to-man coverage and I don’t have to worry about the defense shading to my side,” said LaFell. “Every time he touches the ball he can take it for a touchdown, so it takes a lot of pressure off of me knowing that I don’t have to make every play.

“I definitely showed what I can do if I’m healthy. Last season I didn’t play healthy at all, but this year I have another chance to go out there and put my best foot forward and make up for what I did last year.”

LaFell already has what his teammates are chasing – a Super Bowl ring. He says signing with Cincinnati gives him a legitimate chance to win another one.

“Since we won that game, all I’ve been thinking about is winning another one,” said LaFell. “I told guys it’s like playing golf. Once you hit that perfect swing that’s all you’re chasing the rest of the time that you’re playing. It’s the same way with football. Once you win a big game you want to continue to win big games. That’s my goal every year.”

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Luc Embracing New Challenge With Bengals

Jeff Luc’s license plate includes the number 48 – his uniform number in high school and in his first three seasons of college football. His twitter handle is @JeffLuc1 – a reference to the number he wore as a senior at UC.

Now Luc has a new number (44) and a new position. The former Bearcats linebacker is currently working with the Cincinnati Bengals at fullback.

“At first, I didn’t want to play it coming out of college,” Luc told me. “But now that I’m here, I have a different mindset. So when I was approached about playing fullback I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I think it’s another opportunity to show what I cacn do and how versatile I am.

“I’m fairly new at the position, but I’m willing to learn and willing to put in the extra time. They know that I’ll give it my all.”

The chiseled 6’1”, 256 pounder had an outstanding senior season for the Bearcats in 2014, earning first team All-American Conference honors when he finished 11th in the country in tackles (134) and tied for the NCAA lead in forced fumbles with six. Luc says his experience at linebacker should help him make the transition to fullback.

“I’m actually glad that I’ve had guys try to block me because I know what to look for in trying to block linebackers,” he said. “I know the different leverages and how they take on a fullback, so with that being said, I’ve got to have a linebacker mindset at the fullback position. There are going to be some collisions going on.”

Luc was not drafted last year, but signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins and made it through training camp and the preseason before being one of their final cuts.

“I sat home for 16 weeks and that’s a long time,” said Luc. “I finally got picked up by the Saints near the end of the year and was on their practice squad.

“You never know when the call is going to come. The biggest thing that stood out was all of the time that I had. Since high school, we’ve had everything scheduled and planned out for us. We have to be here at this time, we have to do this at that time. To get released and experience that for the first time was difficult because I was literally bored out of my mind. But I learned from it, and I’ve grown from it, and I think it made me the person that I am today. And that’s a better person.”

Luc signed with the Bengals in January and hopes that his NFL career mirrors his college experience. After being ranked as the nation’s top middle linebacker prospect in high school by multiple recruiting services, Jeff originally enrolled at Florida State. But after battling injuries and seeing limited playing time in two years with the Seminoles, Luc transferred to Cincinnati and become one of the Bearcats’ best defensive players.

“I ended up finishing well,” Jeff told me. “It’s kind of similar. I started with Miami and hopefully I’ll have a long career and finish here. Everything happens for a reason.”

The switch to fullback could give Luc a better opportunity to make the Bengals’ roster or practice squad since Vontaze Burfict, Karlos Dansby, P.J. Dawson, Marquis Flowers, Rey Maualuga, Vinny Rey, Trevor Roach, and third round draft pick Nick Vigil (listed alphabetically) provide considerable depth at linebacker.

“I’m not even thinking about that,” said Luc. “I just want to get better at this position and help the team any way possible whether it’s at fullback, linebacker, or any other position.

“I can be whatever they need me to be. Special teams, defense, fullback, nickel packages – I think I bring a lot to the table. But at the end of the day, I have to go out and show it.”

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

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1

 

Some Thoughts On A Pair Of Famous Friends

Sean McDonough helped me get my first job in radio. Mike Tirico helped me get my first job in TV. I hope that I can help each of them land a gig someday.

Actually, they seem to be doing just fine without me.

If you missed the news on Monday, NBC Sports formally announced that Tirico is joining the network after spending 25 years at ESPN. He’ll be part of NBC’s Olympic coverage in Rio this year and the move puts Mike in line to eventually succeed Al Michaels and Bob Costas as the primary play-by-play announcer and host of NBC’s sports programming.

One hour after that announcement, ESPN named McDonough as Tirico’s replacement on Monday Night Football. Sean becomes just the fifth play-by-play man in the 46-year history of the series.

I am admittedly biased, but both networks made exceptional hires.

Tirico (440x294)

Tirico is the most versatile announcer in sports broadcasting – equally adept as a host or as a play-by-play man in both TV and radio. He is easily the most qualified person to eventually succeed Michaels AND Costas, allowing NBC to replace its two most important sports broadcasters with one hire. Pretty shrewd move.

Sportscasting is a very subjective business and nearly every announcer – no matter how successful – has critics. Vin Scully and Tirico might be the only exceptions. I’ve never heard anybody say they don’t like Mike’s work.

I’ve said before that I believe Mike made one of the greatest calls in sportscasting history on the infamous “Fail Mary” play that ended the Packers-Seahawks game in 2012. Watch the clip and listen to Mike’s play-by-play.

“Wilson scrambles to keep it alive. The game’s final play is a Wilson loft to the end zone. Which is…fought for by Tate with Jennings. It’s simultaneous! Who has it? Who do they give it to? Touchdown! One (official) goes up touchdown…the other says no time. It has to be looked at because it’s a score…and we still have an official down there in the pile looking.’

It’s one of the most confusing plays in NFL history and Mike nails every minute detail on the fly. If you go back and watch the play and try to script exactly what to say, would it be significantly different than what Mike said on live TV?

McDonough (440x330)

McDonough has had his share of classic calls too, including Joe Carter’s World Series ending HR in 1993 and Michigan State’s stunning win over Michigan last year on the return of a flubbed punt on the final play of the game.

But for me, the best example of Sean’s skill was the legendary six overtime game between Syracuse and UConn in the 2009 Big East Tournament.

In a marathon broadcast with too many twists and turns to count, Sean perfectly captured the drama of every big moment.

A great play-by-play announcer is both informative and entertaining and nobody combines information and humor better than McDonough. That’s why the trio of Sean, Bill Raftery, and Jay Bilas back when they did Big East/Big Monday basketball games on ESPN is my all-time favorite broadcasting crew. In addition to calling a great game they frequently had you doubled over in laughter.

I arrived at Syracuse University in the fall of 1981. One of the first things I did as a freshman was to sign up to work at WAER, one of the campus radio stations. At that time, newcomers were assigned to assist older students in order to learn the ropes. In my case, that was a sophomore named Sean McDonough.

After listening to him call games, do sports reports, and host talk shows, I remember thinking, “My God, is everybody here this good?” If so, I had better find another career goal. Fortunately, I soon realized that I was the norm and that Sean was the exception. While most of us wannabe sports announcers were getting badly needed on-air experience and developing our own broadcasting style, Sean was a network-level announcer as a college student. At the age of 30, he was calling the World Series on network TV.

By the time I was an upperclassman at SU, it was my turn to show some radio basics to a freshman that had been assigned to work with me – you guessed it, Mike Tirico. I’d like to pretend that I had something to do with his success, but like Sean, it was obvious right away that Mike was going to be hugely successful.

When I graduated from the ‘Cuse, my first job was to succeed McDonough as the radio voice of the minor league Syracuse Chiefs. I’m sure that Sean’s recommendation to the team’s general manager was the biggest reason I was hired.

After calling baseball games for a few years, Tirico asked me if I would be interested in becoming the weekend sports anchor at the Syracuse TV station he was working for at the time. Despite having no professional TV experience, Mike convinced the news director to give me an audition and I landed the job.

Without their help, I have no idea how my career would have turned out.

They are incredibly talented broadcasters and even better friends.

And they are both going to be sensational in their new roles.

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

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1

 

The “Other” Coach Lewis Helps Mouhon Get NFL Shot

Former Bearcats defensive end Silverberry Mouhon says he has Coach Lewis to thank for his free agent opportunity with the Cincinnati Bengals.

As in Marcus Lewis.

Mouhon Bengals camp (317x378)

The son of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was an assistant to the University of Cincinnati coaching staff in 2013 during Mouhon’s sophomore year when he had a career-high 9.5 sacks. Marcus has been part of the Bengals coaching staff for the past two seasons, and encouraged Silverberry to join the team on a tryout basis during this weekend’s minicamp.

“Marcus was talking to my agent and said it would be great for me to try out with the Bengals if things didn’t work out in the draft,” said Mouhon. “I felt like this was the place I was meant to be. I’m close to UC, Marcus is here, so I feel like it’s a blessing to have this opportunity.”

Mouhon earned second team All-American Athletic Conference honors last year and was named the Bearcats’ defensive MVP despite battling injuries.

“I dealt with some nagging injuries last year, but in the offseason I was really able to get myself back,” said Mouhon. “Just having some time off from the physical part of football helped me get my body back to where it needed to be. Now I’m 100% and ready to go.”

The 6’3”, 260 pound defensive lineman trained under strength and conditioning coach Cliff Marshall in the offseason at the Ignition APG workout facility in Mason. Mouhon ran a 4.81 40-yard dash at UC’s pro day and did 27 reps on the bench press.

While the Bengals depth on the defensive line likely means that Mouhon is battling for a spot on the practice squad that is not his objective.

“I’m trying to be on that 53-man roster – that’s the top goal,” he told me. “I will never sell myself short. Whatever happens, happens, but I’m going to work my butt off and see where it goes.”

Silverberry Mouhon Bengals (440x293)

His task this weekend is to show the Bengals coaching staff that he’s worthy of being signed to a contract in order to get a longer look in training camp.

“I want to show the coaches that I’m versatile and can play special teams or wherever they want me to play,” said Mouhon.

Silverberry finished his college career with 19 sacks to rank fifth all-time at UC. After winning at least nine games in each of his first three seasons, the Bearcats finished 7-6 last season.

“It was disappointing,” said Mouhon. “But at the same time, I enjoyed the time I spent at UC and we had some great moments while I was there. I will never forget those moments and it was a great blessing to be there.”

As it turned out, one of those blessings was getting to know the son of an NFL head coach.

“Marcus Lewis really helped me,” said Mouhon. “He said even if it wasn’t here in Cincinnati, I should keep my head up and he told me what to expect wherever I went. He said to keep working and an opportunity would come knocking.

“Never lose those connections man. I’m grateful for what he’s done to help me get here.”

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

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1