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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Scouts Looking For Moore

On a Cincinnati team with six senior wide receivers last year, it wasn’t easy for any individual to post big numbers.

Chris Moore 1-handed TD

But NFL scouts had no trouble spotting Chris Moore who was one of only 11 receivers invited to the prestigious Senior Bowl in January. That bowl’s executive director Phil Savage recently listed Moore among the top “under the radar” prospects in this year’s draft.

“I proved to myself that I could play and compete with the best,” said Moore. “At the Senior Bowl there were a number of great athletes and that’s one thing that I wanted to do – truly prove that I could play with all of them. I feel like I came away with that.”

Moore’s athletic ability was on display again at the Sheakley Athletics Center Bubble on Monday as he was among 20 Bearcats to work out for NFL scouts and coaches at UC’s Pro Timing Day.

“It’s exciting,” Chris told me. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m just taking it all in, enjoying it, and trying to remember as much as I can. It’s incredible.”

Moore at combine (440x440)

Moore also participated in the NFL Scouting Combine last month in Indianapolis. While his 4.53 time in 40-yard dash was slower than he’s run in the past, the Tampa, FL native elected not to try for a faster time on Monday.

“I talked to all of the scouts and they said it was a good time and they were pleased with it,” said Moore. “They said that on film I show speed, so they weren’t pressing me to run the 40 again.”

If anybody doubts Moore’s speed, all they have to do is pop in the video of Cincinnati’s game against the eventual national champion Ohio State in 2014. Chris hauled in touchdown catches of 60, 78, and 83 yards against the Buckeyes (and had a 50 yard TD grab negated by a penalty). Additionally, he ranked fourth in the country last season in yards per reception at 21.8.

“One of the questions that a lot of scouts have asked me was, ‘Can you only run a deep ball?’” said Moore. “I got the chance to interview with a lot of scouts and talk to a few teams and general managers and tell them, ‘Yes, I can do it all.’ That’s what the film shows and I just had to tell them that at this school, nobody practices running routes more than us. We did that non-stop at every practice and a lot of teams don’t do that. I feel like the receivers here are more prepared than any receivers in the country.”

Moore at pro day (440x306)

At UC’s Pro Timing Day, the wide receiver drills were conducted by Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and wide receivers coach James Urban. With the recent free agent departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals appear likely to target wide receivers in this year’s draft and are undoubtedly studying Cincinnati’s six seniors: Alex Chisum, Johnny Holton, Mekale McKay, Moore, Max Morrison, and Shaq Washington.

“We all have a feeling that at least one of us is going to wind up there,” said Moore. “If it was me, it would be amazing because I’ve grown to love this city. My girlfriend is from here and I feel like I have some ties here now. It would be awesome to stay here and play in Paul Brown Stadium again and have a whole new fan base to show my talents in front of.”

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A Photo Comes To Life For Bearcats

Fortson picture on wall (207x440)

There is a giant photo of Danny Fortson in the practice gym at UC that includes a few details about his outstanding career. But that’s about all the current Bearcats know about the two-time Conference USA Player of the Year since they didn’t see him in action.

“Unfortunately, Dan was from the VHS era and our guys don’t really know too much about him,” said head coach Mick Cronin. “I wish I could show them how hard he practiced every day.”

Coach Cronin discussed that with the team on Wednesday when Fortson attended practice and shared his thoughts on what it means to be a Bearcat.

Fortson huddle (440x293)

“When one of the greatest players to ever put on the Cincinnati jersey takes the time to come to the gym and talk to the guys and motivate them and tell them that he’s pulling for them, that means a lot,” said Cronin. “I know the guys really enjoyed it and we’re lucky to have him living in Cincinnati.”

The former first team All-American was inducted into the James P. Kelly UC Athletics Hall of Fame last October and was honored on the court during a Bearcats’ home game earlier this season.

“It was my first time being here since I played,” said Fortson. “I came one other time with my daughter, but that was just briefly and I was in a box and didn’t get to experience what I experienced recently. I felt the appreciation inside. I almost cried, but I didn’t. I love the fans here. I always say that the Bearcats fans are the best fans in the city and I really mean that.”

Fortson SI cover (383x440)

The 6’7”, 260 pound power forward was among the most efficient offensive players in Cincinnati history, ranking third in field goal percentage (.565) and fourth in career scoring average (18.8).

“I had great coaching when I was younger,” said Fortson. “Plus, I ate, drank, and slept basketball. I stayed out on the basketball court from morning until night. I just loved the game.”

“What I would tell everybody about Danny is that the reason for his success regardless of his lack of athleticism was because he just refused to be denied,” said Cronin. “The guy has unbelievable toughness and wanted to make every shot. If he was 15 for 16 he was mad about the one miss.”

With his burning desire to excel, Fortson thrived under the relentless push of head coach Bob Huggins.

“Here’s a story for you,” Fortson told me. “One time, me and Bobby Brannen woke up at 4:30 in the morning our freshman year and thought we had basketball practice. We were walking to campus and Bobby looked at his watch and said, ‘Hey Dan, you know what? It’s only 4:30 in the morning.’ That should tell you how much that Coach Huggins had an influence on all of us when we played. It was really tough. He pushed us – I mean REALLY pushed us. But I tell you what, when I got to the pros it was pretty easy compared to Bob Huggins’ practices.

“I give Coach Huggins the credit for preparing me. I think he did that for every one of us and doesn’t get enough credit for it. And right now, I think you have a coach in Mick Cronin who does a lot of that. I think he’s really underrated as far as being a coach is concerned. I think you’ve got to give him some credit too.”

Fortson (295x440)

After leading the Bearcats in scoring in all three of his seasons, Fortson left UC after his junior year and was selected as the 10th pick in the NBA draft by Milwaukee.

“I knew he would make it in the pros because he would find a way to make it,” said Cronin. “He was that tough a guy and had a lot of pride in his performance. It’s hard to find a guy as competitive as he was. He had a massive chip on his shoulder every time he played basketball.”

Fortson was a prolific scorer in college, but became known for his rebounding and defense in a 10-year NBA career. He finished fourth in the league in rebounding in two of his first five seasons and led the league in offensive rebounds with the Denver Nuggets in 1998-99.

“It was a learning experience,” said Fortson. “I just remember Bob Huggins telling me, ‘You might not be a scorer in the NBA but you might be a rebounder.’ I said, ‘Yea right.’ Turns out he was right. If it wasn’t for him preparing me mentally and physically, I probably wouldn’t have been able to survive that.

“The funny thing is that I actually grew two inches before my rookie year. I remember putting on jeans and they didn’t fit, and I remember hitting my head a couple of times in my room. That was weird. I was still growing, and I think once I grew those extra two inches it was a lot easier to get that type of job done.”

Still, Fortson was shorter than most of the players he outrebounded in the NBA and the current players were surprised by his lack of height when they met him this week.

“He was a really, really tough customer,” said Cronin. “He was a great scorer at Cincinnati and a great rebounder in the NBA.”

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2016 “Recruit” Already Having Impact

Cincinnati added 23 new players on National Signing Day last month, but Tommy Tuberville’s biggest recruiting coup this year might have happened a few weeks earlier when he convinced J.B. Grimes to join his coaching staff.

JB Grimes (440x216)

The veteran offensive line coach has more than 30 years of college experience and spent the last three seasons at Auburn. During Grimes’ tenure, the Tigers led the nation in rushing in 2013 and played for a BCS Championship that season. The players he mentored at Auburn included the second pick in the 2014 NFL draft in tackle Greg Robinson, and a Rimington Trophy winner in center Reese Dismukes.

“He’s a typical offensive line coach,” said Tuberville. “He’s about 5’9” and has the voice of a 6’8” guy. That’s the type of guy that it takes to coach offensive lines. I really thrilled to have him. He’s going to be great for the program.”

The question is, how did the Cincinnati head coach lure Grimes away from a traditional SEC power?

“I had a couple of aces in the hole in getting him here,” said Tuberville. “One, I’ve known him all my life. He’s from Arkansas and I’ve followed his career and he’s followed mine. Two, his son Nick is on the staff as a graduate assistant and coaches tight ends and I think that was a lure also. I called him and took a chance that he might be interested. I think Gus (Malzahn) was making some changes at Auburn and bringing some different guys in, and I think it was just perfect timing for us to be able to lure a guy like J.B. here.”

“Coach Tuberville and I have always wanted to work together,” said Grimes. “I’m just a dumb assistant, but he’s been a head coach for 20 years. I’m a career assistant and proud of it. I’ve worked for a lot of football coaches including six or seven Hall of Fame coaches and I’m working for another one now. Tommy Tuberville is a Hall of Fame coach – he’s in the Arkansas Hall of Fame right now. I’ve learned something from everybody that I’ve ever worked for and I’ve always wanted to work for Coach Tuberville. There were other circumstances in the past where life got in the way. But this was a chance to work with a guy that I really like and really respect as a coach, and I also have an opportunity to coach with my son.”

Grimes has coached for Frank Beamer and Lou Holtz among others, and comes with the reputation for being an excellent instructor of offensive line fundamentals.

“He is truly a technique guy,” said Tuberville. “Most guys like to do the ‘Xs and Os’ and don’t like to teach. He’s a true teacher and I needed somebody to come in and get our offensive line technique-sound and that’s what he started to do from day one.”

“Man, I love him,” said junior tackle Korey Cunningham. “I love that he’s hard on us and very precise with every little step we take. I have some friends that played for him at Auburn that said, ‘He’s going to get you to the next level.’ I’ve learned more with him over the last couple of days than I’ve learned in all of my years of playing football. He’s demanding and he’s going to get it out of us.”

At Cincinnati’s fourth spring training practice on Tuesday, it was easy to see that Grimes has a passion for teaching the intricacies of offensive line play.

“We don’t score touchdowns,” said Grimes. “I tell people that if you want to rob a bank, the best place to hide is the offensive line because ain’t nobody going to look for you there. We block people, ya know? There’s nothing romantic or sexy about it. We just have a passion for it if you’re the right kind of guy. I’d like to think that I’m that kind of guy.”

A guy who is arguably Cincinnati’s most important recruit in 2016.

“He’s here to stay and loves to recruit and we’re a little bit behind in some areas on the offensive line,” said Tuberville. “He has really worked hard to try to figure out as quickly as he possibly can what we need. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

“I have no agenda,” said Grimes. “I just want to coach the five guys up front. Let’s get better and go win some football games. That’s all I want to do.”

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Tobin’s Value Is No Mystery

For several years, Bengals fans have recognized the important role that the team’s Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin has played in building one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented rosters.

Duke Tobin at combine (440x293)

But when he stepped to the podium at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday to discuss the Bengals with the national media – the first time he has represented the team that visibly – the initial question was about his role with the franchise.

“Does this mean you’re running the show there?” asked Chris Wesseling from NFL.com.

“No,” replied Tobin. “There’s no sea change. Our operation remains the same. I was asked to come and talk and it’s a scouting event so it’s a natural thing.”

The self-effacing Tobin typically downplays his importance in Cincinnati, but his acumen in evaluating talent is widely respected throughout the NFL. In January, the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans reportedly requested permission to interview Tobin for their general manager openings but he declined to even go through the process.

“It’s flattering, but I knew early on in my job here with the Bengals that this is a place where I wanted to make an entire career,” Tobin said. “I’ve done everything that I could to build myself up within the organization, to add value every year and make that happen. I grew up with a dad who was in Chicago for 18 seasons and he did that for us and for himself and it’s the right thing to do.”

His father Bill is the former general manager of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts and Duke spent his childhood hanging around his dad’s teams.

“That’s really all I did, other than playing sports myself,” Duke told me. “When I had free time I would be up at Halas Hall being a ball boy, or working security, or pulling the nets at games, or just hanging around the locker room. So I grew up around pro football and that’s really all I’ve ever known.”

His father played a critical role in building the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears who went 15-1 during the regular season before putting together the most dominant postseason stretch in NFL history. The Bears beat the Giants 21-0 in their first playoff game, added a 24-0 shutout of the Rams in the NFC Championship, and then crushed the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10.

Duke watched that Super Bowl rout from the Bears’ sideline.

“I’ve got great memories of that team,” he said. “They had ability, they had character, and they enjoyed the game. It was more than a job; it was their lifestyle. When I look at players today, those are the guys I compare them to. Those are the guys I’m always trying to find – Walter Payton being the number one. When you grade a guy, that’s kind of the high end of the scale. A lot of those Bears of the ‘80s shaped my opinion of what a football player should be.”

But his ability to judge talent was also shaped by his own football career. Duke was a highly-recruited high school quarterback who began his college career at Illinois where he was a backup to the eventual number one overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft Jeff George.

“It’s humbling throwing next to a guy like that because it shows all of your deficits pretty quick,” Duke said with a laugh. “When I showed up there, it was a little awe-inspiring to watch how the ball came out of his hand. He had one of the strongest arms and quickest releases that I’ve ever seen.”

After two years at Illinois, Tobin transferred to Colorado where he backed up another quarterback who went on to have a long NFL career Kordell Stewart. Both programs reached the Top 10 in the rankings while Duke was on the roster.

“I was fortunate to be on some good college teams and I think for my job right now, that helped me and shaped what I look for,” he said. “Those Illinois teams were good and then when I went to Colorado we had some very fine teams there with a lot of very good players that played in the NFL.”

Despite only starting one college game, Tobin went on to play professionally in the Arena Football League with the Orlando Predators and Memphis Pharaohs.

“We made a little bit of money and they gave us room and board and an automobile to drive, so there were some positives to it,” said Tobin. “We had a good team as well, and I think a lot of college football players don’t admit when it’s over. I probably fell into that bucket and said, ‘Hey, why not give it another year or two?’ I ended up getting hurt, and it wasn’t worth giving up your knee ligament for it for sure. I started scouting soon after that. I realized where my lot was.”

After spending four years as a scout with the Colts, Duke joined the Bengals scouting department in 1999 before becoming director of player personnel in 2002. His father joined the Bengals scouting staff the following year.

So while his 15 minutes at the podium on Thursday should not be interpreted to mean that Duke’s job has changed, it’s unmistakable that he’s happy with his current role in the Bengals front office.

“Loyalty is a two-way street,” said Tobin. “We really enjoy Cincinnati. I wanted to give my kids that same opportunity that my dad gave us to grow up in one place and establish some roots. We’re Cincinnati Bengals and I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do.”

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