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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 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

“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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Newcomer Washington Is Already Leading

When Mick Cronin was sidelined for several months last year due to a health issue, he received well-wishes from all over the country. One of the people that reached out was an opposing player at a game that the UC head coach was unable to attend.

Kyle Washington vs Bearcats (416x440)

“When we played NC State and won,” said Cronin, “I’m talking to Coach Davis on the phone when they’re on their way to the plane and telling him that he did a great job and he said, ‘Hey. Kyle Washington came running over to me when I came out of the locker room to ask me how you’re doing.’ Most teenagers tend to forget about things that don’t include their iPhone or a new pair of shoes and that’s just the type of person that Kyle is. He ran right to Larry and was immediately asking about me.”

The Bearcats had recruited Washington coming out of high school before he elected to play for the Wolfpack. But after starting 43 games over two seasons, the power forward decided to change schools.

“I’m sitting at home watching ESPN and I see on the bottom of the screen that NC State forward Kyle Washington announces that he will transfer,” said Cronin. “There was an immediate scramble to get to Kyle and get him on the phone as soon as I could get his release from NC State. I spent the next three months chasing him because everybody in the country was recruiting Kyle. When you have a 6’10” guy that can shoot the ball, is aggressive, and is a great kid that has no issues and brings nothing but positivity to your program, everybody that had an available scholarship was trying to sign him.”

In early July, Washington announced he would play his final two college seasons at Cincinnati.

“Coach Cronin was the first one to let me know that he wanted to offer me a scholarship coming off of my sophomore year,” Washington told me. “I did have a lot of options, but at this point, it was really about knowing what I had to improve on and Coach is a great defensive mind – he’s a great basketball mind in general. He was letting me know that you need to come here because I can really turn you into a great basketball player. He has taught me so much in the few months that I’ve been here.”

Kyle Washington (440x275)

Washington is practicing with the Bearcats this year before returning to action next season.

“To tell you the truth, it’s OK for me right now because I’m learning so many different things that I had to learn,” said Washington. “On my official visit, Coach Cronin let me know exactly what I could do and he said exactly what I needed to improve on.”

One thing Washington didn’t need to be taught when he got to Cincinnati was how to compete on a daily basis.

“I play with a lot of passion and I never take a day at the D-I level for granted,” said Washington. “A lot of people do, and in our game we should never take that for granted. I’m a high-intensity guy – that’s how I play – and I’m high-intensity off the court too. I just love to play and that’s where that passion comes from.”

“Kyle is a great leader for our team,” said junior Kevin Johnson. “I’ve known him coming up through AAU basketball and he brings energy, effort, and toughness to our team every day. He enjoys the game and has great pride in being a Bearcat now.”

“He’s a very competitive guy,” said sophomore Gary Clark. “When we’re doing drills, we always partner up because he’s always going at me and I’m always going at him. We’re making each other better and he’s pushed me to be more competitive.”

The Bearcats will lose two key big men at the end of the year in seniors Octavius Ellis and Coreontae DeBerry, but they’re confident that Washington will help fill the void next season.

“We know what to expect from him and this is a good process for him,” said Johnson. “He gets a front row seat to all of the games and a front row seat to us as players. He knows how to work with us, and we know how to play with him. I am definitely looking forward to playing with him next year.”

Kyle is already helping the team as a leader.

“We put a lot of time into character development and trying to help guys grow up and get ready for the real world but Kyle Washington doesn’t need a lot of help with that because he has great parents,” said Cronin. “He comes from a great family and is a very polished young person.”

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