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Dennard Hopes That Wait Is Over

Last year while fellow 2014 first round draft picks Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, and C.J. Mosley were playing starring roles as rookies, Darqueze Dennard mostly watched and waited.

Darqueze Dennard

The 24th pick in last year’s draft made a significant contribution for Cincinnati on special teams, but only played 77 snaps on defense. For the sake of comparison, Mosley played 1,243 snaps on defense for the Ravens.

“I continually tried to tell myself, ‘Patience is a virtue. Patience is a virtue.’” said Dennard. “Sometimes I want things to happen how I want it and when I want it, but it doesn’t always happen like that.”

“He wanted to play and was frustrated last year,” said defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. “But watching Terence Newman, Leon Hall, and Adam Jones is going to help him be a better player.”

“We didn’t have to throw Darqueze in the fire,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “We stayed fairly healthy at the spot and didn’t have to do that.”

And as Coach Lewis is fond of saying: “That’s a good thing.”

Rookie cornerbacks rarely excel. It’s interesting to note that the last 16 Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookies of the Year have been defensive lineman or linebackers. The last cornerback to win the award was Charles Woodson in 1998.

“I think if cornerbacks or quarterbacks play too early and have negative experiences – that can really ruin a player,” said Joseph. “But if he watches for a while, learns how to play, and plays well when he gets a chance to play, it carries confidence throughout his career.

“I am in a great situation,” said Dennard. “I didn’t get thrown into the fire too early. You see a lot of first round corners thrown in too early and they fade out of the league. You don’t hear too much about them anymore.”

Instead, Dennard learned from a trio of cornerbacks that ended last season with a combined 28 years of NFL experience.

“I knew a lot about the college game, but the NFL is completely different,” Darqueze told me. “Having guys like Terence, Leon, and Adam helping me out by coaching me, showing me how to watch film, and staying on top of me about playing with good technique helped me out a lot. I really appreciate those guys looking out for me last year.

“The older guys did a great job of telling me that things happen for a reason. Just continue to work on your craft. This is a time where you can go back to the lab and get better. When you get an opportunity, you can make the best of it.”

“He got a chance to learn behind some great pros and we’re reaping the benefit now,” said Lewis.

One of the biggest lessons that the former Michigan State star learned from the veterans was how to take care of his body.

“I’ve been taking precautions to make me better,” said Dennard. “I’m not eating bad food, stretching daily, doing yoga, and things like that.”

“Last year he had a college football player’s body and this year he has an NFL body,” said Joseph. “His body fat is down and that’s a big deal because now he’s running better and he can run fast for a long time now.”

After the 36-year-old Newman signed a one-year deal as a free agent with Minnesota, there is an opportunity for more playing time this season for Dennard and 2012 first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick.

“They’ve been taught to do it the right way, they’ve been taught to earn it, and they’ve got a solid foundation when they get out there,” said Lewis.

“The competition is high, everybody is making each other better, and that’s going to make the team better,” said Dennard.

The 23-year-old from Dry Branch, Georgia made a positive impression during the Bengals mandatory minicamp in June.

“He had a good spring,” said Joseph. “The last two weeks he came on strong. He had four or five interceptions, he’s playing nickel and outside corner, so I’m excited about Darqueze for training camp.”

Biding his time as a rookie wasn’t easy, but Dennard can see the benefits now.

“I had four first round picks (including Kirkpatrick) in front of me that have all been in the same shoes that I’m in,” Darqueze told me. “Having those guys tutoring me is going to help me out a lot.

“And not playing defense meant less stress on my body. I was playing special teams, but it wasn’t like I was playing 80 snaps a game, so hopefully it will add a year on to my career.”

“It’s OK that he hasn’t played yet, because he’s going to be a great player in the future,” said Joseph.

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A Work Of Art…By Sam

I am not a big sports memorabilia collector, but last month at the annual Marvin Lewis Community Fund Golf Classic, there was an auction item that I was thrilled to purchase.

Wyche and Boomer

Former Bengals coach Sam Wyche has created 150 unique works of art – at least for avid football fans. They are diagrams of plays meticulously drawn with a white marker on a black canvas. Each drawing is approximately 16 by 20 inches. Another one will be up for auction at the Marvin Lewis Football 101 event on Wednesday, October 21st.

“They are plays that were used in Super Bowls that I was a part of,” said Wyche. “Super Bowl VII when I was a player with the Washington Redskins – that was the year that Miami had the perfect record so that tells you how we did in that game. Super Bowl XVI when I was the director of the passing game under Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers. We won that game with Joe Montana against the Bengals. And of course, Super Bowl XXIII when I was the head coach of the Bengals.”

Wyche play (640x480)

I was able to purchase #90 in the series. It’s labeled the “best basic run in 1988.”

“That play helped take us to Super Bowl XXIII down in Miami,” Wyche told me. “We had a zone-blocking running game under Jim McNally – probably the best offensive line coach of his day and maybe ever. He was certainly as good as any of them. We probably had the best offensive line in football that year if you think about it. Anthony Munoz, Bruce Kozerski at center, Max Montoya and Bruce Reimers at guard, Joe Walter at tackle, and some guys that would come in that were just as good. So we would take good splits, take a little drop step, and then we would – as Jim McNally used to say – cover up the guy in front of you. If he wants to go to his left, take him farther to his left than he wants to go. If he wants to go the other way, take him farther that way. But cover him up and let James Brooks go downhill. He would line-up deep in the backfield in an offset ‘I’ and come downhill. He could hit the hole off tackle, off guard, cut back over the other guard, or cut back all the way over the other tackle. After James got tired we gave it to Ickey, and if he got tired we gave it to Stanley Wilson or Stanford Jennings. We had fresh guys that could run that, and all they did was run downhill and look for the crack in the offense. We didn’t try to push them back; we tried to push them where they wanted to go which created seams. Then we let the running back pick the seam. We were the number one offensive in the National Football League several times during the eight years that I was there and it was mainly because we had a great offensive line, terrific running backs, and deep threats running down the field.”

In the 20-16 loss to the 49ers, the Bengals were held to 106 rushing yards after averaging 155 per game during the regular season. Wyche thinks they would have fared better if Wilson had not succumbed to a cocaine relapse the night before the game.

“I think Stanley Wilson would have been a difference maker because the field had not been watered properly and it was coming up in 18-inch chunks because they re-sodded the whole field,” said Wyche. “For our big backs that took away their quickness, their speed, and their decision making somewhat. Stanley was more of a Barry Sanders-type runner – feet real close to the ground, wide stance, dance on a dime. He could have made them miss that day I think.”

Kicker Jim Breech didn’t miss that day, as he drilled three field goals including a 40-yarder that gave Cincinnati a 16-13 lead with 3:20 remaining.

“I still remember Cris Collinsworth coming over and poking me with that bony old elbow that he got at the University of Florida and saying, ‘Sam, I think we left too much time for number 16.’ That was the way he worded it. Number 16, of course, was Joe Montana.”

Montana led San Francisco on an 11-play, 92-yard drive that ended with a game-winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left.

Wyche says he regrets that he was not able to hand the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the man that signed him as a player and hired him as a head coach.

Paul Brown black and white

“Paul Brown had been – by poll – a national champion high school coach, won a national championship at Ohio State, and his Cleveland Browns teams were World Champions back in those days when they didn’t have a Super Bowl,” said Wyche. “The only trophy he didn’t have was the Super Bowl trophy. That meant something to the players. Obviously they wanted to win it for themselves too, but it meant something to them to try to get that trophy for Paul Brown. It certainly meant something to me having played for him. I was a free agent when he, Mike, and Pete Brown gave me the opportunity to come to camp in 1968. I really wanted that trophy to be one repayment for a favor that led to a career for me. We fell 34 seconds short.”

Cincinnati returned to the playoffs two years later under Wyche and beat Houston in the Wild Card round 41-14. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since.

Much of the criticism for their last four playoff losses has been heaped on Andy Dalton, but Wyche remains supportive of the Bengals quarterback.

Dalton vs Jets (440x293)

“It’s an 11-man operation every time the ball is snapped,” said Wyche. “The guy that gets most of the credit or blame is the quarterback because he’s got the ball in his hands on virtually every snap. He’s got the close-up shots on him, but viewers don’t see the routes that are run, the coverages that are good, the pressure from the defensive line – a lot of things happen to the quarterback. After watching Andy Dalton, I see a good quarterback.

“Quarterbacks have to be two things – they have to be accurate and they have to be smart. When I say smart – they have to be poised, they have to be able to get you out of trouble with an audible, and they’ve got to be able to go the right receiver at the right time. A lot of that last point – going to the right receiver at the right time – is experience. Andy is now an experienced guy. I think he’s definitely accurate and I think he’s definitely a smart guy. From the little bit that I’ve talked to him, I have no doubt that he can handle the pressure. The comments always circle around the quarterback – that’s just the way it is – but I think he’s good enough not only to take them to a playoff win but well into the playoffs. Then, of course, it’s a single elimination tournament and you’re playing the best teams that year so you may or may not win.”

Cincinnati did not quite win Super Bowl XXIII, but under their innovative head coach, the Bengals pioneered the use of the no-huddle offense, led the league in scoring, and even introduced the “Ickey Shuffle.”

For Bengals fans, it was a work of art.

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Special Teams Will Be Key For Keo

When the Bengals signed free agent safety Shiloh Keo five days after last year’s playoff loss in Indianapolis, the news didn’t get big headlines.

Shiloh Keo

After all, the four-year veteran didn’t play last season after being released by Houston following the fourth week of the season.

“We brought him in for a workout about mid-season and he wasn’t healthy (calf injury) so we didn’t sign him,” said defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. “But we knew that if he was healthy enough to play in the spring that we would sign him and he’s been a plus for us.

“He’s a reliable guy. He’s very smart and very tough. As a safety, he has all the qualities you want. He tackles well, he’s got ball skills, he plays hard, and he loves to play. He’s a great addition.”

Joseph was on the Texans’ coaching staff two years ago when Keo started 11 games at safety. But the former fifth-round draft pick in 2011 made his biggest impact on special teams. Shiloh was named Houston’s special teams captain midway through his second NFL season.

“We played against him several times when he was in Houston, and I knew that he was a good special teams player,” said special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. “He was a tough, hard-nosed guy that was in the middle of their group. He was an impact player for them and it was exciting to see when we picked him up. He hasn’t disappointed.

“He’s behind right now in the terminology and knowing exactly what we want to do, but it’s just a matter of him learning it. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to pick it up quickly.”

“Whenever you’re not a starting guy you have to make it on special teams – especially if you’re a veteran,” said Keo. “I had a lot of experience on special teams in Houston and did a good job there. I just want to carry-over what I did there and take it one step further.”

“That’s where he’s made his name,” said Joseph. “If he can be a good special teams player for us and be a reliable backup at safety, it’s a plus having him on the team.”

With Reggie Nelson and George Iloka entrenched as Cincinnati’s starting safeties, and Shawn Williams expected to be the top sub, Keo will go to training camp in a likely battle for the final safety spot with sixth-round draft pick Derron Smith and college free agents Floyd Raven Sr. and Erick Dargan.

“That fourth safety spot is critical because of the special teams value,” said Joseph. “You want the guy who is the best of both worlds.”

“He has to be a dominant special teams player,” said Simmons. “That’s where a Pro Bowl-type special teams player comes from – that fourth safety spot, or fourth receiver, or fourth corner. That slot is where those guys come from.”

Keo obviously has a fan in Vance Joseph and the feeling is mutual.

“He’s hands-down the best coach I’ve ever had,” said Keo. “He’s so detail-oriented and makes sure that everybody is ready to play. He gives the same coaching to everybody – whether it’s a first year undrafted guy or a 10-year vet. He expects everybody to play at a high level and I definitely think that he brings the best out of everybody. I’m really fortunate and blessed to be here with the Bengals because I really like Vance Joseph and like I said, he’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”

But it will obviously be important for Keo to impress his new special teams coach as well.

“He’s at a point in his career where it’s kind of ‘go time’ for him,” said Simmons. “It’s a spot where guys either propel themselves forward or fall off a cliff. He’s smart enough and has been around long enough to see that. He’s a good kid and a tough guy and those are the kind of guys we want. I like guys that I know where they’re going to be and I can count on them.”

“I think this is a great fit for me,” said Keo. “I think they expect me to come in here and help the team out in any way that I can – whether it be defense or special teams – and that’s what I want to do.”

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Leviticus Has Unusual Name And Position

Leviticus Payne is 5’10”, 187 pounds, but he doesn’t act like it.

“I try to play like I’m 6’5”, 230,” said Payne with a laugh. “I really try to man.”

Although he isn’t big, Payne plays a huge role on the Bearcats defense.

As college teams increasingly go to spread offenses, defenses have had to counter by having more players on the field with coverage ability. On the Bearcats roster, Payne is a cornerback. But on the depth chart, he is listed as the starting strongside linebacker.

“He’s a little bit of both,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “He’s playing a linebacker position, but everybody plays four or five wide receivers now so you always play nickel. That’s pretty much our base defense now. We call it a 4-2-5 instead of a 4-3-4.”

“I think you have to have five defensive backs on the field,” said co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale. “Most teams’ normal formations have a three wide receiver look and you need to match- up. I think we can still play our coverages and fit the run with this type of defense.”

“When they gave me the opportunity, I tried to take advantage of it and this is where I am right now,” said Payne. “I’m truly blessed to be honest with you. I love that nickel spot. I love it.”

“I thought it worked pretty well for us,” said Tuberville. “We kind of fell into it. He has a lot of experience now and I expect him to have a good year.”

Payne’s position requires a unique skill set: Quick enough to cover receivers, but physical enough to defend the run.

“He’s a great man-to-man cover guy,” said Clinkscale. “He matches up well with the slot receivers and either though he’s small in size; he’s very physical and aggressive. He’s a great player for us and has helped us really build this defense around him.”

“If the other team comes with two backs and a tight end in the game, he has to line up with the big boys,” said Tuberville. “He handles it well. He has good athletic ability and can make big guys that are trying to block him miss.”

“As a kid, I played middle linebacker and fullback if you can believe that,” said Payne. “So I’m used to contact and I really enjoy it to be honest with you.”

Payne finished fourth on the team in tackles last year with one interception and a pair of sacks, including a critical fourth quarter sack of Miami’s Andrew Hendrix in the annual Battle for the Victory Bell.

Leviticus will be expected to make big plays as a senior at a position that is as unique as his first name.

“I’m a hybrid,” he told me. “Just a hard-nosed little guy with some quickness.”

“You always want to coach guys that reflect what you believe,” said Clinkscale. “I’m an aggressive person. That’s the way I was raised in Youngstown, Ohio. Payne is from Detroit, Michigan. He’s going to hit you. He’s going to try to knock out your biggest guy. He wants to cover the best receiver. He wants to be the guy who makes the play for the team. He definitely plays big and we couldn’t do it without him.”

“My main goal is to get to another BCS bowl and get to the (four team) playoff,” said Payne. “I’m going to do anything in my power to help us get there.”

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Zeitler On Quest To Be The Best

Paul Alexander is in his 21st season on the Bengals coaching staff. Before that, the offensive line guru was an NFL assistant with the New York Jets and coached at the college level for Penn State, Michigan, and Central Michigan. In short, he’s worked with hundreds of guards, tackles, and centers.

But he’s never coached anybody quite like Kevin Zeitler.

Zeitler at OTAs (440x375)

“He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around – he really is,” said Alexander. “He’s a pleasure to coach, loves to work, and has aspirations to be great.”

Zeitler earns similar praise from Dave Lapham who spent 10 years on the Bengals offensive line and is heading into his 30th year in the broadcasting booth.

“In some ways he reminds me of Anthony Munoz,” said Lapham. “Anthony wanted to be the best and physically did everything he could to try to get there. I think Zeitler is doing that, and I think his preparation with studying film and things like that are extraordinary as well. That’s high praise to put him with a perennial Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer, but I think that’s where he wants to be. And that’s where his preparation and work ethic are trying to take him.”

Since being drafted in the first round (27th overall) in 2012, Zeitler has been one of the Bengals biggest and strongest players. But when the players returned to Cincinnati in April for the start of voluntary workouts, Zeitler was visibly bigger in the upper body.

“This last offseason I worked really hard,” Kevin told me. “I did double-days for two straight months which actually put me in a bad position where I reached an overtraining phase. But I’ve healed from that and I’ve definitely put on some muscle. I got down to 12% body fat where I had a six pack showing for a while. Now I’m performance eating and having a few more carbs than I normally have.”

But his offseason work went beyond the weight room. Zeitler asked a member of the Bengals staff to provide video of the best guards in the NFL.

“I think I must be a jealous person in general,” said Zeitler with a laugh. “I’ve watched a lot of film this offseason and I see other guards do so many things so well. I just really want to do it at the top level, and whatever I have to do to reach that, I’m willing to put in the time.

“I love what we do here, but it’s always nice to see little things that other people do. I’ve watched San Fran, Seattle, Dallas – you can pretty much name any O-line and I’ve tried to learn something from each of them. You can always learn something.”

Last season, ProFootballFocus ranked Zeitler as the 9th-best guard in the NFL (#5 among right guards). Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda was ranked first at the position by a wide margin. In fact, PFF ranked Yanda as the fifth-best overall player in the NFL.

“Yanda is definitely one of my favorites to watch,” said Zeitler. “He’s just so smooth, so strong, and he’s always in the right place. That type of consistency is invaluable in the NFL and there’s a reason why he’s an All-Pro.”

So how close is Zeitler to playing at that level?

“We’ll see this year,” said Alexander. “I think he’s made a jump every year. He’s always been good and gotten better, but I think this year may be his biggest jump.”

“He wants to be the best there is,” said Lapham. “He’s so driven and I think he’s very hard on himself. It’s a good attribute to be your own best critic, but I think sometimes he takes it to the point where it can be a little bit harmful. It’s a balancing act and I think he’s doing a better job of finding that line. He’s not beating himself up over something he thought he could have done better. Sometimes you just have to move on. I think that’s where he can probably get better. In every other area he’s a pro’s pro in every sense of the word.”

“I have perfect images in my mind of how I do everything, and my only goal is to work every day to get there,” said Zeitler. “I doubt it will ever happen, but I’m going to be the closest I can get to that every day.”

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Moore Hopes To Fill Piece In Bengals Puzzle

Raise your hand if you expected the Bengals to select a wide receiver in one of the early rounds of last month’s NFL draft.

I’ll admit that my hand is up and while Cincinnati did grab West Virginia speedster Mario Alford with their final pick, it’s worth noting that there’s another new receiver on the roster with the proven ability to stretch the field.

26-year-old Denarius Moore signed a one-year deal with the Bengals as a free agent in early April after spending his first four NFL seasons in Oakland.

“I’m loving it so far,” Moore told me. “I like everything that I’m seeing and it’s a great environment. The people here welcome you with open arms and make sure that you’re comfortable.”

Denarius Moore (440x294)

Moore made several catches on Tuesday when the Bengals opened OTAs – the only practice this week that reporters were allowed to attend.

“I think he did some good things,” said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. “Obviously he has to continue to learn to play at our pace and adjust to the way we go about doing things. Maybe things are a little bit different than they were in Oakland, but I think he has talent.”

“You see glimpses of it,” said receivers coach James Urban. “He’s not consistent enough yet, and he would be the first person to tell you that, but there are glimpses where you say, ‘That’s the guy.’ We just need to keep trying to get to the point where it’s showing up more and more.”

The Raiders drafted Moore out of Tennessee in the 5th round in 2011 after he averaged 17.9 yards per catch in his college career and was timed at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. Jackson was Oakland’s head coach in Moore’s first season, and was a key reason why he wanted to play in Cincinnati.

“That was huge,” said Moore. “I feel like he understands me and understands what I can do.”

“I know there are things that he does really well, and we’re going to put him in those situations,” said Jackson.”

“Early in his career when we was with Hue it clicked for him,” said Urban. “Hopefully we get the same result. That’s why you take a guy like him who has some experience. You hope that it clicks again.”

Moore had 33 catches for 618 yards (18.7 ypc) and 5 touchdowns playing for Jackson as a rookie in 2011, but posted even better stats under Dennis Allen the next two years when he averaged 48.5 catches for 718 yards (14.8 ypc) and 6 TD. But his numbers plummeted last season when Allen was fired after four games as Denarius finished with 12 catches for 115 yards and 0 TD.

“I’m still trying to figure it out, but at the same time I’m trying to forget about it,” said Moore. “I guess I let it mess with my confidence which I’m trying to get back now.”

“He was a very productive guy for a couple of years and then it sort of got away,” said Urban. “I’m just hoping we can get it back. That’s the goal. You’ve got a veteran guy who knows how to play and it won’t be too big for him. Maybe we can get back whatever what was lost.”

“It starts with making plays,” said Jackson. “That’s the case with any good football player. When you start to make plays, the confidence starts to come and he made some big catches today. It was good to see. But he has to continue to grind and we’ll build this thing over time.”

The Bengals typically keep six wide receivers on the 53-man roster and A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu are locks for half of those spots if healthy. That puts Moore in the mix for one of the final three openings with (alphabetically) Alford, Cobi Hamilton, Jake Kumerow, Tevin Reese, Brandon Tate, and James Wright.

“Any time before you come in and sign a contract, you look at the depth chart and see who you’re going to be competing with,” said Moore. “I don’t really know where I am on that depth chart right now, I’m just looking to come in and compete.

“I’m looking forward to training camp. With the defense we’re in right now, you really can’t see that much until we put on the pads. That’s the time when I can really showcase my talent.”

“We’ve got on our shorts right now and we’re trying to learn our system and how we do things, but as we get closer to training camp, that’s when guys really have to show what they have,” said Jackson. “I think he has some abilities, so we’ll see how it all unfolds.”

After injuries devastated the wide receiver corps in last year’s playoff loss to the Colts, the Bengals are determined to improve the depth at that position this season.

Can Moore return to the form that he flashed in his first three NFL seasons?

“Yes, but that was in the past,” said Moore. “This is a ‘what have you done for me now’ type of league, so I’m just looking forward to a new start. I worked as hard as I could in the offseason and I’m coming back strong. “

“I think he’s going to be good as soon as he gets comfortable with everything that we’re doing,” said Andy Dalton. “Obviously he’s been in Hue’s system before and he played well in it. The more he gets thrown in, the more we’ll be able to see from him, but I think he’s going to be a good help for us.”

“I’m just looking to be another piece of the puzzle,” Moore told me. “If they’re missing a piece, I’d be more than happy to apply for it.”

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No Summer Vacation For Kiel

For the nation’s best college football quarterbacks, there’s no such thing as an extended summer vacation.

Bearcats junior Gunner Kiel will spend his summer months improving his strength and conditioning, organizing seven-on-seven passing drills for his offensive and defensive teammates (which coaches are not permitted to attend), and studying video. For the second straight year, Gunner will also be one of the counselors at the Manning Passing Academy in early July.

“I sat down with (strength) Coach Walker, (offensive coordinator) Coach Gran, and (quarterbacks) Coach Hinshaw and made a list of what I need to do to accomplish my goals,” Kiel told me. “One of them is to put in the extra work. I plan to do more footwork drills and watch a ton of tape. I talked to (cornerback) Adrian Witty about getting together with him to watch tape and get the defense’s point-of-view for how he sees things. That should help me become a better quarterback.”

Kiel had an exceptional first year at Cincinnati, passing for 3,254 yards and tying Ben Mauk’s school record for touchdown passes in a season with 31.  His teammates showed their high regard for Gunner by electing him to be one of four captains for the upcoming season.

“He’s head and shoulders above where he was last year, simply because he knows he has to be the leader now,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “He had Munchie Legaux out here last year as a senior and tried to follow him. Now he’s the leader and he’s trying to take the bull by the horns. I think the players are reacting to him and I think that has to be the case with your quarterback.”

“He’s a great leader, but he was just young,” said Legaux. “Now that he has a whole year under his belt, I’m sure he is going to do a great job as far as leading on-and-off the field. You don’t have to worry about any issues. He’s a great kid and we all know that he’s a great quarterback.”

“It’s honestly been a dream of mine to be a captain for a Division I football team,” said Kiel. “That’s huge. Especially at a football program like Cincinnati – it’s amazing. I’m blessed to have this opportunity and I’m going to do my best to give back to the program and the community.”

Last year, the Bearcats averaged 34 points and finished second in the American Athletic Conference in total offense at 460.2 yards per game. The offensive should be as prolific if not more in 2015. Not only is Kiel back at quarterback, but three of the Bearcats top four running backs (Mike Boone, Hosey Williams, Tion Green), and their top seven receivers (Shaq Washington, Max Morrison, Mekale McKay, Chris Moore, Johnny Holton, Alex Chisum, Nate Cole) all return.

“Our running backs are awesome,” said Kiel. “We’ve got a three-headed dog back there and it’s a beast. All three of them are different in their own way and we’re going to use that to our advantage.

“The connection that I have with the wide receivers is amazing. Compared to last year when I was still getting a feel for them – now they’ve all gathered around me and we’re focused on our goals and plan to come out firing.”

“We’re going to go faster (on offense) than we’ve ever gone,” said Tuberville. “We have experienced players and when you have experienced guys on offense you can do a lot of different things to give other people problems.”

“It’s unbelievable how many great players that we have and I’m very lucky to be the quarterback for Cincinnati,” said Kiel.

But as legendary golfer Gary Player once said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

“There are no days off really,” Kiel told me. “I’m willing to do anything for my guys and they definitely come first for me.

“I’m going to stay up here this summer and be with my teammates. Whenever you’re with your teammates and they see you working, you’re going to earn more respect. As a captain and a leader, you have to be here and you have to put in the extra time.”

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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, 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 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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