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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.”

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

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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

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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

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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

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Westerman Adds Toughness In 5th Round

Forget about the bench press, 40-yard dash, and three cone drill. When it comes to evaluating offensive line prospects, Bengals coach Paul Alexander has a unique “toughness test.”

“I shake the kid’s hand, I look them in the eye, and I judge the percentage that he would kick my butt,” said Alexander with a laugh. “And if I think he would really destroy me, then I like him.”

Chris Westerman ASU (440x248)

Suffice to say that Alexander would not like his chances in a brawl against the Bengals’ 5th round draft pick Christian Westerman – a 6’3”, 298 guard out of Arizona State who has experience as a boxer.

“It’s something that helped me in the game of football,” said Westerman. “Growing up in Arizona, there’s a weight regulation and I wasn’t able to play (football) until I was a freshman in high school. So for me, just getting in some type of contact sport was essential.

“I liked to hit people back then. I still do – but it a different way.”

“He’s tougher than hell,” said Alexander. “He’s the toughest kid in the draft. When Andrew Whitworth came out he was the toughest kid in the draft. Russell Bodine was (in 2014), and I think Jake Fisher probably was last year. (Westerman) fits right in.

“In this division you’ve got to be. It’s not for the feeble.”

Pro Football Focus gave Westerman a third round grade and ranked him as the best pass protecting guard in this year’s draft. Although Christian has never played center, the Bengals think he is versatile enough to learn the position.

“He’s been a guard and a tackle in his career, but the opportunity at center could be there too” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “All of our interior guys need to learn how to do both things, so that will be something we’ll work with him on.”

“It won’t happen overnight,” said Alexander. “It will be a year away or whatever before he can do that. But I think he’s a versatile guy.”

After fielding a few questions about Westerman’s ability to move to center, Alexander took the opportunity to defend the team’s current starter Russell Bodine who has had bouts of inconsistency in his first two NFL seasons.

“Let me tell you about Bodine,” said Alexander. “He’s better than Clint Boling was after two years. He’s similar to what Kevin Zeitler was – Zeitler didn’t start out all that great. And then I was talking to Whit about Rich Braham and he said, ‘Don’t compare Bodine to Rich Braham.’ And I said, ‘Whit. Rich Braham didn’t step on the field until his third year.’ This is a young player in his second year who is playing with a bunch of veterans that are very good offensive lineman and he’s the last one right now because he’s the youngest. But I don’t care what anybody says – I think Bodine is going to be a helluva player.

“I just think that he’s young. If you look at his birth date, he’s the same age as the kids in this draft. He came out two years early. He’s incredibly strong and tough and just needs to learn how to do it. It’s going to come.”

Unlike Bodine, Westerman will not be expected to start as a rookie. But he will be in the mix to provide immediate depth at both guard spots.

“We feel really good about the chance for him to come in right away and have a chance to uplift us,” said Lewis. “He gives us another young guy on the interior offensive line to compete.”

“I would say my biggest strengths are my overall physical strength, my consistency, and my willingness to be coachable and be a better player every day,” said Westerman. “For me overall, I want to work on technique, my first step, and all of the kinks to it. A lot of things you can get away with in college you can’t in the NFL.”

The Bengals can only hope that Westerman is as successful in the NFL as he was in the boxing ring where he figures he has competed in eight or nine bouts.

So what’s his career record?

“Honestly? I haven’t lost a fight,” he said.

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

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Bengals Add Versatile Weapon In Boyd

When Bengals legend Isaac Curtis stepped to the podium in Chicago to announce the Bengals’ second round pick in the 2016 draft, he said “Tyler Boyd” and then hesitated before adding his position.

Perhaps he was considering how many to mention.

Boyd running (430x440)

Boyd is a wide receiver, but in three years at the University of Pittsburgh he could have been listed on the roster as a “Swiss Army Knife” as Tyler caught 254 passes, ran the ball 63 times, returned 73 kicks or punts, and even completed 3 out of 4 passes.

“I feel like I can help the team a lot with my athleticism,” said Boyd. “I believe they can move me all around the field to create mismatches.”

“You got a chance to see him do a lot of different things because they got it to him a lot of different ways – handing it to him, throwing it to him, and he got to throw the ball,” said offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. “You got to see everything that the guy has which is nice to know. Sometimes you don’t always get to see all of those things. So we have a good idea of what he is and we have a pretty good idea of where we can take him.”

“There are Sanu-esque things in the versatility that he provides,” said receivers coach James Urban.

Boyd combine (293x440)

Like former Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu, Boyd does not have blazing speed as he was timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Pitt’s pro day. But that did not prevent him from breaking Larry Fitzgerald’s school records for career receptions and receiving yards (3,361).

“I think he’s got competitive speed,” said Zampese. “You wouldn’t look at his timed speed and say, ‘Wow, he’s going to run by that guy all the time.’ Those numbers don’t bear that out, but when he plays, he competes and he’s productive with the skill set that he has.”

“He does a great job of using his body to create separation,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “He’s great with the ball in his hands and seems to understand the game very well.”

With the free agent departures of Sanu and Marvin Jones, Boyd will have the opportunity to play a significant role as a rookie.

“Tyler has a chance to come in and compete to play,” said Lewis. “We’ve got some guys in the building who feel like they want those opportunities as well.”

“He strikes me as a guy that can play the slot early, and learn the outside spot and be productive out there as we go,” said Zampese.

“I feel like I’m capable of playing in the slot or outside,” said Boyd. “They can move me around a lot. Or even line me up in the backfield so I can get mismatches with linebackers.”

The 21-year-old was raised in the Pittsburgh area and helped his high school team win four state championships before attending Pitt. It’s no surprise to learn that his favorite NFL team is the Bengals’ biggest rival.

“I definitely rooted for the Steelers,” Boyd said with a laugh. “That’s my hometown team. But at the end of the day, I’m going to sacrifice myself to the team that picked me and would rather have me. So I’m going to have to completely go at the Steelers and cause them all hell.”

If not hell, Boyd can at least cause headaches for opposing defenses by giving Andy Dalton another versatile and dependable weapon.

“We think we got a good football player and we’re going to find ways to take advantage of his skill set and we think it’s a good fit,” said Urban.

“He’s certainly not a finished product, but he’s ours and we like him,” said Zampese. “We’re going to drag him and push him and make him compete and drive him to where we think he can be.”

“I can’t wait to start the next chapter in my life,” said Boyd. “I’m really happy and appreciative that the Cincinnati Bengals chose a great player like myself.

“I was waiting around just waiting for that call. No matter what team picked me I was going to be really happy and grateful and just celebrate with my family. I’ve got about 30 people at a hotel to celebrate with me and it’s one of the happiest days of my life.”

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

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Vigil Pick Worthy Of Celebration

Last April, despite being named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Utah State linebacker Zach Vigil was not selected in the NFL draft. He eventually signed as a free agent with Miami and played in all 16 games as a rookie.

This year when it was clear that Zach’s younger brother and former college teammate Nick was likely to be selected, their father wanted to throw a party on the second night of the draft.

“I said to hold off until I’m actually drafted and something happens,” said Nick Vigil. “You never know with this whole process. He said, ‘OK.’ But there still ended up being 20 or so people there.”

Vigil tackle (440x321)

Nick should have trusted his father’s instincts as the Bengals selected Vigil in the third round with the 87th overall pick.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I hadn’t had much contract with them throughout this whole process. My cell phone actually dropped the call. I saw ‘Cincinnati, Ohio’ and I saw their pick was coming up and I kind of panicked a little bit. Good thing my mom had her phone on her and they ended up calling her. She handed me the phone and it was pure excitement.

“I didn’t think I’d necessarily go that high. It was the third round and we were thinking more of the fourth round. When I got the call it was a good moment for me.”

Vigil was a two-year starter at Utah State, earning first-team All-MWC honors in both seasons. He ranked sixth in the nation in tackles last season and turned heads at the NFL Scouting Combine by posting the fastest times among linebackers in the three cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle.

“Vig is flat-out productive,” Utah State coach Matt Wells told the Salt Lake Tribune. “He is flat-out athletic. He’s got tremendous upside – especially on special teams.”

His versatility was evident with the Aggies as Vigil saw action at every linebacker spot and even played some running back, including a game with 16 carries vs. BYU.

Vigil run (440x325)

“I don’t know how good I was at running back,” said Vigil. “I’m sure those days are over. In a 3-4 defense in college, I played all four linebacker positions throughout my three years. I was a starter on all of the special teams for a while there as a freshman. So anything I can do to help this team I’m willing to do.”

For starters, he’ll try to follow his older brother’s advice on how to succeed as an NFL rookie.

“He said it’s going to be the hardest year of your life,” said Vigil. “It’s going to be hectic and you’re going to just have to take it all in. Act professional because it’s a job, so treat it like that.”

The Bengals face Zach’s Dolphins in week four on Thursday Night Football, and while Miami has missed the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons, Nick joins a Cincinnati franchise looking to make its sixth straight postseason appearance.

“The culture here is obviously fantastic,” said Vigil. “They’ve won consistently over the past few years. They’ve got a great foundation set by the coaches and ownership. And they’ve got a bunch of core players who’ve been really good for a long time. So I couldn’t have asked for a better place to go.”

Nick was in Cincinnati on Saturday to meet with the team and local reporters, but that didn’t prevent his family and friends from celebrating back in Utah.

“They’re having a big party there today with me,” he said. “My mom said that we were going to have to cancel it and move it to Sunday, but my dad said, ‘No way.’

“They said they were going to have to get a cardboard cutout of me.”

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

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Jackson Lands In Cincinnati, Not Pittsburgh

Houston cornerback Will Jackson figured he would be drafted in the first round by a team in the AFC North. But he thought it was going to be the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I definitely did,” said Jackson. “I had dinner with them and we had great chemistry. They were telling me a lot of good things so I felt like they were coming. But I’m happy to be a Cincinnati Bengal.

“They definitely surprised me. I was sitting on the couch and wasn’t even looking at my phone. For me to get that ring – oh man I’m just so excited.”

Will Jackson Houston (320x440)

The Bengals defensive coaches are equally excited to land the 6’0”, 190 pound speedster that according to Pro Football Focus “may be the best pure cornerback available in the draft.”

Jackson had five interceptions last season and led the nation with 28 passes defended.

“When the ball is in the air, he can find it in the blind spot and make plays on the ball with those long arms,” said ESPN’s Jon Gruden.

“It’s just watching a lot of film and knowing what is going to come before it happens,” said Jackson. “I watched a lot of film and nine times out of 10, I knew what was going to happen so it was always there for me to make the play.”

It helps to have great closing speed. Jackson says he ran a 4.29 40-yard dash in junior college and the 23-year-old was timed at 4.37 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Will Jackson combine (440x313)

“I feel like I could always run, but the NFL projections had me at 4.6 and I wanted to prove people wrong,” said Jackson. “So I went out there and did what I had to do.”

Jackson was widely projected to be a first round pick and PFF gave him a Top 10 grade. But rather than attend the draft in Chicago, William elected to watch it at home in Houston.

“I wanted to be around my family and the people that loved me and helped me get to this point,” said Jackson. “I wanted to celebrate with them.

“I didn’t know if I would go first round or not, so I was hesitant about having the draft party. But it worked out well and I’m excited.”

Now he looks forward to returning to Cincinnati after meeting with the Bengals coaches several weeks ago on a pre-draft visit.

“I know a lot about them,” said Jackson. “I watched film when I came on my visit, watched one-on-ones, and watched practice. I have a great feel for what kind of scheme it is, and I’m ready to just come in and work.”

He may have already accomplished something in the eyes of Bengals fans if being selected by Cincinnati disappointed the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The Steelers in the division were eyeing him at number 25, and the Bengals get him at 24,” said ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Jackson. “Just sitting there waiting for the call and looking forward to it finally coming in. It’s truly a blessing and I was overwhelmed.

“This is a lifelong dream. I’ve been playing this game since I was in elementary school, and for me to finally make it to this day is such a blessing.”

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

 

Holton Hoping For NFL Shot

Johnny Holton won’t be selected tonight in the first round of the NFL Draft. But by the end of the weekend, he will almost certainly be employed by an NFL team either as a late round pick or as a college free agent.

Holton vs Ohio State

Of the hundreds of players hoping to be drafted over the next three days, the former UC wide receiver is among the most unlikely candidates to make it to pro football.

“I feel like my story is one of the wildest of anybody in this year’s draft,” said Holton.

If you’re not familiar with his story, Holton did not play high school football. As one of 11 children, he worked at a grocery store during his high school years to help support his family. He was eventually spotted playing flag football and got an opportunity to play at the junior college level before transferring to UC.

When he sat down with teams at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Holton made sure they knew the details.

“Some teams knew my story and some teams didn’t,” Johnny told me. “When I met with teams I said, ‘You know that I didn’t play high school football, right?’ Some of them said, ‘Whoa. Tell me about that?’ I told them about it and that’s why I feel blessed to be where I am.”

In two seasons at UC, Holton flashed big-play ability, catching 46 passes for 892 yards (19.4 ypc) and 10 touchdowns. He also had a 99-yard kick return touchdown nullified by penalty. Those numbers would have been better if he had not been hampered by a hamstring injury last season.

“It was a disappointing year because we went 7-6 and I was out for seven games,” said Holton. “I felt like I let the guys down and I wish I was out there to help, but things happen for a reason.”

Despite the injury, Holton showed enough potential to join Chris Moore and Mekale McKay as the three Cincinnati receivers invited to the combine.

Johnny Holton

“I was pretty excited,” he said. “As a kid, I always wanted to go to the combine. I used to always watch it on the NFL Network and I felt blessed to have that opportunity.

“Teams want to know how fast and how well I can learn the plays. They also want to know if I am just a vertical guy or if I can go in the slot and run short and intermediate routes. They already know about my toughness and physicality.”

Still hampered by the hamstring injury, Holton was timed at 4.54 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine. He improved to 4.42 at UC’s pro timing day in March and was even asked to go through some drills at defensive back.

“The scout from Kansas City just asked me if I was tired after the wide receiver drills and I said, ‘No sir,”’ Holton told me. “He said, ‘Do you want to try some defensive back drills?’ I said, ‘Let’s go.’ Whatever I have to do to get to the NFL, I will make the best of it. I was a little surprised that they put me at defensive back, but I always wanted to play DB and they gave me the opportunity to show what I’ve got.”

Because of his limited experience, Holton is viewed as a long-term prospect. Lance Zierlein from NFL.com described Johnny as a “straight-up vertical guy who can blaze and hit the home run, but who lacks of completeness to his game. Holton’s size and speed are worthy of attention and his ability to return kicks gives him a better chance to make a roster than most limited speedsters.”

Not a ringing endorsement, but not bad considering that most people that skip high school football have NO chance of making an NFL roster.

“When I wasn’t playing high school football, I used to go to high school games and watch other people play,” said Holton. “I would think, ‘I can do the same things. If I get the opportunity, I know that I could make it to the NFL.’ Now I’m on the path to the draft. I just pray that I’ll get the chance to show what I’ve got.”

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

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Staying Home

“Sometimes, no matter how much you love something you can get sick of it.” – Mick Cronin

When Mick Cronin said those words to me last Friday in Spokane, he was not talking about his job – he was referring to the challenge of keeping his players fresh and motivated at the end of a long season. But I do think that quote helps explain his decision to consider leaving Cincinnati for another job.

Mick at NCAA (440x323)

The program was an absolute mess when he arrived following the drawn-out exodus of Bob Huggins. And rather than embracing him as a home town kid who was willing to take on a massive rebuilding project, a huge portion of the fan base was still pining for his former boss.

Mick inherited a roster with one scholarship player and no recruits in the pipeline and had to try to compete in the deepest conference in the history of college basketball.

“When I got the job, my first team meeting looked like a golf team,” Coach Cronin once told me. “It was a foursome – Ron Allen, Branden Miller, Ced McGowan, and Connor Barwin. I had a walk-on, a football player, a hurricane victim, and Cedric.”

Many of his friends in the coaching profession thought he was nuts to take on the challenge and destined to fail. But Cronin reasoned that getting his dream job was worth the time and effort required to rebuild the program.

“The Cincinnati job was obviously in a bad spot at the time, but what if I would have passed on it?” Cronin told me in 2012. “What if somebody would have come in and done a good job and rebuilt the program and I would have never had the chance again? In life, you can’t always have everything. If you get a chance to get the job that you’ve coveted your whole life since you realized that you’re a midget and your playing days are over – you can’t also want it to be in great shape.”

The program is no longer in bad shape thanks to his tireless efforts to revitalize it. Six straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, solid academic achievement, and minimal off-the-court drama are sufficient evidence that the Bearcat basketball program is infinitely stronger than the one he inherited.

So why consider leaving?

There are things at UNLV that Mick will never have at UC. First at foremost, it’s easily the most prominent sports team in the region. He wouldn’t have had to compete with the Bengals, Reds, or other college programs for fan interest and financial support.

Secondly, UNLV is a basketball school that happens to have a football team. Cincinnati aspires to play at the highest level in both sports and faces budget challenges as a result – especially outside of a Power 5 conference.

There are other things in place right now at UNLV that Mick is still hoping for at UC. The Rebels’ arena recently underwent a $72.5 million modernization project and their four year old practice facility is among the nation’s best. At UC, after the $86 million facelift of Nippert Stadium the dollars simply weren’t there to turn around and immediately begin construction on an $87 million renovation of Fifth Third Arena. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2018.

Mick Cronin has been my friend for nearly 20 years and has been a pleasure to work with. I’m grateful that he was willing to take the UC job at arguably the lowest point in program history and I applaud him for returning Bearcat basketball to its rightful place as a perennial contender. He is an excellent coach and the future is bright at Cincinnati.

A few years ago, I asked Mick about the rough times he had endured while rebuilding the basketball program at his Alma mater.

“It hasn’t been easy – I’m not going to lie – but at the same time, I think that sometimes in coaching, to get what you want, you have to be willing to take a chance and find out if you’re cut out for it,” he told me. “I don’t want to talk about how tough it’s been too much because it’s also been the opportunity of a lifetime. No matter what happens for me, I’ll always get to say that I was the head coach of the Bearcats.”

Make that IS the head coach of the Bearcats.

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

 

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