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Will Williams Emerge In Third Season?

While the Bengals suffered a rash of injuries at two position groups last year – linebacker and wide receiver – their starting safeties were remarkably durable.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, George Iloka only missed 12 of 1,222 defensive snaps, while Reggie Nelson missed a mere 25. That means the two of them were on the field for 98% of Cincinnati’s defensive plays.

The safety duo was nearly as durable in 2013 as Iloka and Nelson were on the field for 94% of the Bengals’ defensive plays.

As a result, there haven’t been many opportunities for Shawn Williams to play safety in his first two NFL seasons. The former Georgia standout has been a key contributor on special teams, but has only seen 39 snaps on defense.

“I understand what’s going on and I respect the guys in front of me,” said Williams. “George and Reggie are two very good safeties, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be ready when my number is called – whenever that may be.”

The third-round 2013 draft pick got the call to practice with the first team defense when the Bengals opened OTAs on Tuesday as Iloka sat out with an undisclosed minor injury.

“Shawn’s doing good – really good,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “George (Iloka) is a little dinged-up, so Shawn has the opportunity to run in there and get a lot of snaps. It’s a big time for him. It’s his time to make a move.”

That’s not the first time that a Bengals coach has mentioned that it’s time for Williams to play a more significant role. In an interview with Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson and the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. at the NFL Owners Meetings in March, Marvin Lewis brought up Williams when asked which young players would be expected to emerge in 2015.

“I think Shawn Williams now is going into his third season,” said Lewis. “He’s a little different than Darqueze (Dennard) – he’s like where Dre Kirkpatrick was. He’s done everything we have asked of him on special teams. He’s a guy who in practice does a great job. I think he does things in practice that ought to transition well onto the playing field. This season he’s got to challenge Reggie and George and give them everything he can to work to play.”

“I feel like I’ve grown and matured and I’m doing everything I can do to show that I’m dependable,” said Williams. “I have to stay focused and be ready for whenever my time comes.”

Williams faced a similar situation in college. Shawn only started three games in his first two seasons at Georgia, before starting 27 of 28 possible games at a junior and senior.

“Patience is hard for me,” said the former Georgia captain. “But I feel like I’ve been put in that situation before so I have to take it in stride. That’s part of being patient, growing, and learning.”

Nelson and Iloka are both due to be free agents at the end of the season, so the Bengals need to know if Williams is capable of taking over in case either does not re-sign.

But for now, Shawn is simply focusing on being ready if his opportunity to play arises.

“Reggie is awesome and George has had two very good years,” Williams told me. “I respect their work. So for me, I have to back up both of them and be ready in case anything happens.”

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Battered Linebacker Group Helped Flowers Grow

Last season, the Bengals starting linebacker trio of Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, and Emmanuel Lamur missed a combined 17 regular season games due to injury. If you’re looking for something positive that came from their absence, it meant that the team’s younger backups were able to get significant NFL experience.

“Now those are some rose-colored glasses right there,” said linebackers coach Matt Burke with a laugh. “I certainly wasn’t feeling blessed about it at the time.”

But it was a blessing in disguise for rookie Marquis Flowers, a sixth-round draft choice who appeared in every game and got 22 snaps at linebacker in the playoff loss at Indianapolis.

“I ended up getting a lot of snaps and one of the biggest things that I learned is that you’ve got to be ready,” said Flowers. “Obviously you always want to play, but I wanted to be ready. You don’t want to go in there and feel like you did badly.”

“He actually played all three spots at times for us last year,” said Burke. “That’s tough for a rookie, but I threw him in and at least he has a little bit of a foundation everywhere.

“Part of my approach this offseason is rolling guys through. Every one of them is playing at least two of the positions to cross-train them.”

The adjustment to the NFL was especially big for Flowers because he only played linebacker at the University of Arizona for two seasons after beginning his college career at safety.

“My rookie year was a big learning curve,” Flowers told me. “I learned from the older guys that it’s a long season and you have to take care of your body and be patient. I’m glad my locker is right next to Vinny Rey’s because he helped me out tremendously last year. He could tell when I came back this year that I’m a lot more comfortable. But I’m still young and I’m still learning.

“I got a chance to get on the field last year so this year I know what to expect. I know what the game is like and what the speed is like and this year I’ve got to be more comfortable with the playbook so that the coaches will trust me and can call whatever they need to.”

His position coach has already noticed a difference.

“We gave the whole defense a test in a meeting the other day and he got a 100% on it,” said Burke. “He was one of three linebackers that got ‘em all right.”

“We’re going to put it to the text next week when OTAs start,” said Flowers. “I’ve been doing well and have (the defense) down, but it’s all about what happens when it’s ‘go time.’ I’ve done a lot of studying and I’ve been preparing, so we’ll see next week.”

The 23-year-old returned to Cincinnati for voluntary workouts noticeably larger than last season when he was listed at 230 pounds coming out of college.

“I actually put on 17 pounds,” said Flowers. “I plan on dropping four or five to get to my playing weight, so everything is falling into place. It’s year two and I’m a lot more comfortable in everything that I do. I definitely know what to expect.

“I basically wanted to get my body right and get stronger in the offseason. I ended up having a great offseason. I got bigger, faster, and stronger.”

“The work that he put in the offseason really shows,” said Burke.

Flowers definitely does not resemble a safety anymore.

“The safety in me has been gone since college,” he said. “I started eating like a linebacker since I moved to the position.”

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Hawk Enjoying Fresh Start In 10th Season

A.J. Hawk is 31 years old, has nearly a decade of NFL experience, and has started 147 games including a Super Bowl win.

AJ Hawk

“I like being ‘the old guy,’” he said with a laugh. “People say it like that’s a bad thing, but I don’t mind it at all. Physically I feel great, and mentally as well.”

But as one of the Bengals newcomers taking part in the team’s voluntary offseason program, he sounds like a rookie.

“It feels like when I started out in Green Bay,” Hawk told me. “Most of these guys have all played together for a while and they know what’s going on. So I’ve been picking their brains and asking them questions about how they do certain things.

“Everything is obviously new to me, but after being in one place for nine years, it feels good to come to a new team and feel the energy of a lot of young guys and a lot of great players. Every day is a learning experience for me – that’s for sure – and I’m just trying to do my job and be accountable to everybody. But I’m having a good time honestly. I’m having a lot of fun.”

The former Ohio State star signed a 2-year, $3.25 million contract in March as the Bengals looked to shore up their depth at linebacker after the position group was hammered by injuries last season. Although he didn’t miss any games, Hawk also dealt with an injury in Green Bay last year, resulting in surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankle after the season.

“I feel really good moving around now,” said Hawk. “It was something that I knew I had to have fixed and get cleaned out, and as soon as I got done with the surgery with Dr. (Robert) Anderson down in North Carolina, he said, ‘Trust me. I think we got what was bothering you.’ So I feel really good. I haven’t been limited at all and I’ve been full-go since I got here.”

“He’s been moving around well,” said linebackers coach Matt Burke. “I’m excited and happy to have him around.”

While the Bengals remain hopeful that Vontaze Burfict will be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery, Hawk gives Cincinnati a veteran capable of starting at any of the linebacker spots if needed.

“Obviously he’s a professional in every sense of the word,” said Burke. “He’s really intelligent and he’s played a lot of ball in the league. For him it’s just translating to our language a little bit. He understands it all; it’s just what we call things and how to communicate it.”

Hawk went to the playoffs in seven of his nine seasons in Green Bay, winning the Super Bowl in his fifth NFL season.

So having played on a championship team, do the Bengals have what it takes to contend?

“Everywhere you look there are stud players,” said Hawk. “They have crazy athletic ability and talent and it’s a really tight team too which is good to see. Everyone knows that the best teams that they’ve been a part of – whether it’s sports, business, or whatever – they enjoy being around each other and trying to make each other better. I’ve seen that from day one here.

“For that one team that finds the way to win it all, everything kind of clicks at the right time. So why not us? We should be in that group of teams that are competing for the Super Bowl for sure.”

Hawk’s transition to a new team has been made easier by its location. He grew up about 45 minutes from Cincinnati in Centerville and maintained a home in Columbus while playing in Green Bay.

“The great thing is that I don’t have to take any flights,” he said. “Normally at this time when I was in Green Bay, I would fly back to Columbus every weekend to be with my family. So I’ve been driving back and forth to Columbus every week and I’ve also been to Centerville multiple times because my parents and my brothers are all there. It’s still weird for me to be back in Ohio and knowing that this is where I’m working.

“I’ve always wanted to get back to Ohio and now I’m here. It’s exciting.”

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The Night David Letterman Made Chuck Machock A Running Gag

Tonight David Letterman will host his 6,028th and final late-night talk show. In one of them he did a running gag that spoofed my basketball broadcasting partner Chuck Machock.

Letterman

In 2009 while in New York City to broadcast the Big East Tournament, I attended my first taping of a Letterman show with former Cincinnati Enquirer beat writer Bill Koch and we learned that Dave comes out and takes a question or two from the audience before the show begins.

The following year I was able to get tickets again and planned to see the Late Show with my former college roommate, but he had to cancel at the last minute and I attended alone.

For whatever reason I was picked to sit in the front row, so when Dave came out to take questions from the audience I stuck up my hand and began frantically waving like Horshack from “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

Dave picked me and asked where I was from. I told him Cincinnati and that I was in New York to broadcast the Big East Tournament on WLW Radio (knowing that he had listened to the station as a kid growing up in Indiana). After he informed the audience that WLW was one of the nation’s most legendary radio stations, I invited him to be a guest color commentator on the Bearcats’ first tournament game and added that I might actually need him because my broadcast partner had once been kicked out of an NCAA Tournament game for yelling at the referees.

Here’s a photo of Chuck being escorted off the court by a cop in the 2003 NCAA Tournament game between Cincinnati and Gonzaga.

Chuck with police

And here’s a photo of CBS using a telestrator to point out where my color analyst was supposed to be sitting.

Where is Chuck

Dave began laughing hysterically and asked me for all of the details. By the time I finished telling the story about Chuck getting tossed in Salt Lake City, the opening theme song started and it was time for the show to begin.

About 30 seconds later, Dave ran out on stage and here’s how his opening monologue began:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t usually do this, but since it’s a Friday night and you’re in such a great mood, I thought I would kick off the program this evening with an impression. This is my impression of a college basketball radio announcer getting kicked out of his coverage of the NCAA Tournament.”

The audience erupted as the camera cut to me laughing like a hyena in the front row.

Me on Letterman (2)

“The announcer is seated courtside,” Dave continued, “and he’s broadcasting the game back to…oh, let’s just say Cincinnati. The color commentator is such a homer that when there’s trouble for the home team – the Cincinnati Bearcats – he becomes so incensed that he jumps to his feet and starts heckling the referee.”

More applause and laughter from the audience.

“And it goes something like this,” said Dave. “Foul! Are you crazy! What are you blind! What are you trying to pull! That’s a foul!”

And just like that, Dave’s ad-libbed imitation of Chuck Machock became a running gag throughout the rest of the episode, complete with the addition of Cincinnati sponsors.

“He wasn’t traveling!” Dave suddenly yelled later in the monologue. “What are you blind! That’s not traveling! And we’ll be right back after this message from Kroger.”

After each rendition of Dave’s out-of-control basketball announcer, the camera cut to me doubled over in laughter at the Ed Sullivan Theater.

Me laughing on Letterman

“Harrison brings the ball up to half court,” Dave said a few minutes later. “Bounce pass to Johnson, Johnson dribbles to the key, comes back out, takes a shot from three-point range. It’s good! What! His foot was on the line! His foot was on the line! What’s the matter with you ref! You’re out of here! And we’ll be right back after this message from Queen City Tires.”

Unfortunately, one segment during the live taping didn’t make the broadcast. Just before doing the Top 10 list, Dave read a card that explained what happened to Chuck and introduced me in the audience. I was surprised that it got edited out because it tied the whole gag together and would have made more sense to somebody watching at home.

Still, it was a great experience. The only thing that would have been better is if Dave had actually joined me on a Bearcats broadcast.

One final note. I was living in Boston at that time and lost my recording of the episode when we moved back to Cincinnati. If any Bearcats fans were taping the show that night and still have the recording, please let me know. I’d love to have a copy.

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Healthy Hopkins Ready For Roster Battle

When the Bengals opened the preseason at Kansas City last year, center Russell Bodine was not the only rookie that started on the offensive line. Trey Hopkins lined up next to Bodine at left guard.

Hopkins and Bodine

“He was doing a good job at camp and all of the sudden I threw him in there with the first group,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. “Clint (Boling) was still coming back from his ACL repair, so Trey got a lot of reps. He was looking really good. He had a good chance to help us last year.”

Unfortunately, Hopkins suffered a broken leg in Cincinnati’s third preseason game.

“It was just on a combo block,” said Hopkins. “I plant-stepped and it just kind of shook and popped. At first it felt a little numb and I got up and tried to jog it off, and that’s when I knew it was bad.”

But Hopkins says his leg is fine now.

“I’m 100%,” he said. “I got cleared in the last week of December. There were still a few limitations then, but they gave me the go-ahead to start training in the offseason. For the past couple of months I’ve been pushing it and haven’t had any problems.”

“He’s moving around and it looks like nothing is bothering him,” said Alexander. “He’s missed a few days because he’s been back at school finishing up to graduate, but most of the time he’s been here and looked good.”

Despite being a two-time All-Big 12 selection and starting 42 games at Texas, Hopkins went undrafted last year before being signed by the Bengals as their highest-paid college free agent.

“I used it as motivation,” Trey told me. “It’s disappointing when you don’t get that call. You see your buddies get those calls and you want to be happy for them, but there’s always that biting feeling in your stomach because you’ll never know how it felt to celebrate with your family on that day. But you still have an opportunity if you got invited to camp and get to participate in OTAs. You just have to use those opportunities.”

The biggest challenge for the 6’3”, 310-pound guard was to change the footwork that he had learned at Texas.

“He was taught different techniques in college that I thought would hinder him in making the transition to the NFL,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “He unlearned and relearned about as quickly as any young guy that I’ve seen. He’s got good overall athletic ability. He’s got the ability to finish blocks, good hand placement and feet, and has some strength to him. He’s just a good prospect.

“In my mind it’s hard to project how quickly a guy will be able to go through the process of unlearning and relearning. You wonder if he will go back to his old ways in the heat of battle and Trey proved to me that he was capable of putting those away. He did a really good job of that.”

“Last year I worked hard, studied a lot, and put a lot of effort into learning the techniques that Paul teaches,” said Hopkins. “I’m pretty much going to have to do the exact same thing again. But I’m not starting from complete zero. Now it’s just training that muscle memory again and getting used to the techniques for the steps and pulls and stuff like that.”

“He has a combination of very good athleticism, excellent intelligence, and want-to,” said Alexander. “The want-to kind of puts the other two together and he did a really good job.”

The Bengals typically keep nine offensive lineman on the roster and Hopkins will have to earn a spot in training camp. After missing an entire season, Trey is looking forward to the battle.

“You always kind of wonder what your life would be like without football,” said Hopkins. “Sometimes it’s really a grind, but when it gets taken from you, you really start to appreciate the fun in it. You play football since seventh grade – even before that for some people – and I don’t think you ever realize how different your life will be when that’s over with. It may be refreshing for a little bit, but after a while it’s maddening because you’re just itching to be part of it.

“My goal right now is to get back into the swing of things. It’s been almost a year since I’ve done any of this, and even when I was healthy I had a lot of room for improvement.”

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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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