True Freshman Copeland Making Bid To Start

One of the most enjoyable things about watching a college football training camp is seeing a newcomer emerge that you’ve barely heard of.

In the first week of Bearcats camp it’s been true freshman Marquise Copeland.

Marquise Copeland

“He just keeps climbing and climbing,” said co-defensive coordinator Robert Prunty. “It’s to the point where if we played a game tomorrow, he would be starting at defensive end with Silverberry Mouhon. Honestly, I’m shocked.”

Copeland started at right defensive end in Saturday’s scrimmage as Mark Wilson and Landon Brazile were kept off the field for precautionary reasons with minor injuries. That meant that Copeland was matched-up against First Team All-AAC offensive lineman Parker Ehinger.

“I looked at that match-up and I said, ‘If I start him against Parker, how is he going to handle it?’” said Prunty. “I kept looking at his eyes when we were doing pregame warmups and he didn’t have those ‘wide eyes.’ That let me know how poised he was.

“He made the first three plays of the scrimmage. He’s just an impressive young man. Great leverage, unbelievable hand placement for a kid coming out of high school, and he’s physically ready to play Division I football.”

“He really stepped it up,” said Mouhon. “Marquise went out there under pressure as a true freshman and kept his composure. He did everything Coach Prunty taught us to do and his play spoke for itself.”

“It was a good accomplishment but I’m capable of doing more,” Copeland told me. “There’s more to come.”

Copeland is from Bedford, OH, a suburb of Cleveland, and chose UC from a long list of college suitors including Kentucky and Wisconsin. He frequently lined up in a two-point stance during Saturday’s scrimmage and showed a burst of speed in rushing the quarterback.

“You can clearly see the level of speed that we’ve got now on the outside,” said Prunty. “We’ll play some hybrid guys that are defensive end-slash-linebackers.”

Copeland looked like a linebacker when he signed with Cincinnati, but at 6’3”, 260 pounds that is no longer the case.

“In my senior year of high school I was 230 pounds so I’ve gained about 30,” said Copeland. “I’ve been eating right and lifting every day. It was a long process, but I got bigger.”

I asked Mouhon how quickly Copeland caught his eye in training camp.

“It wasn’t even in camp – he caught my eye over the summer with the way he was able to pick things up,” Silverberry told me. “He’s a quick learner and he’s able to keep fighting. More power to him for coming out here and proving himself.”

“He’s mature beyond his age,” said Prunty. “I’ll be honest with you; I know that we’ve only been in camp for a week, but I’m shocked by his performance so far. But you know how this game is; you’ve got to get better every day. He’s a freshman – let’s see if he hits the wall or knocks the wall down.”

The last two defensive players to start the season opener as true freshman for the Bearcats were Mike Mickens and Terrill Byrd in 2005. Copeland is hoping to change that.

“I’m trying to work every day to get that spot,” said Copeland.

“He’s a real quiet guy but his play speaks loudly,” said Mouhon. “I’m really excited for him this year.”

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An Impressive Debut For “Baby Geno”

Leave it to Lap.

A couple of hours before kickoff on Friday night as we discussed some of the players we were looking forward to seeing in the preseason opener, my broadcast partner Dave Lapham brought up defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, the undrafted rookie out of Clemson.

“He’s going to kill them if he’s in there against the third string,” said Lapham.

Good call.

DeShawn Williams

Williams (#69) entered the game with 9:33 remaining in the fourth quarter and quickly got to quarterback Ricky Stanzi as he released an incomplete pass on third down and seven.

“He was right there in my lap,” said Williams. “I wish he would have held the ball a little longer – then I would have had two sacks.”

On the play, Williams was double-teamed by center Brett Jones and guard Michael Bamiro, but kept fighting until he got to Stanzi as the quarterback rolled to his left.

“There’s a young man I noticed right away in camp,” said analyst Anthony Munoz on the TV broadcast. “The thing that I noticed was his speed, his quickness, and he goes 100% the whole time. He never stops.”

“On that play, he rolled out and I just gave great effort,” said Williams. “Things might not always go good as a rookie, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving effort.”

The 22-year-old got his first sack on the Giants’ next offensive snap when he nailed Stanzi for a nine yard loss.

“The guy’s got a motor and when he separates he can accelerate,” said Lapham. “He’s always penetrating, showing up, and making plays.”

Williams was on the field for 11 plays and hit the quarterback twice.

“I just waited for my opportunity,” DeShawn told me. “Even though I didn’t get that many reps, I prepared like I was a starter. Then when my number got called, I tried to just go out and play ball and have fun. That’s what Coach Guenther and Coach Hayes told me to do. Just go out there and attack.”

On his sack, Williams again beat two blockers to get to the quarterback, using an inside move to blow by right guard Eric Herman before brushing aside running back Akeem Hunt as he tried to help.

“I knew that my reps would be limited so I had to give it my all,” said Williams. “And that’s true whether it’s one rep, two reps, or 70 reps. Give it your all because coaches are looking for guys that are going to give effort. Nobody can measure your effort – that’s on you. That’s the man in the mirror. I never want a coach to say, ‘He’s not an effort guy.’ That speaks a lot about you. I want to give it my all so that they can count on me when I get in the game.”

“They’re teaching them right down at Clemson,” said Lapham. “They’ve got something like six or seven guys from last year’s defense in NFL camps.”

Williams appeared in 53 games for the Tigers during his college career to tie for fourth-most in school history, but still wasn’t drafted. According to his draft profile, DeShawn is “shorter than desired checking in at under 6-foot-1 and a little top heavy.”

Three-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins received a similar scouting report before the Bengals selected him in the fourth round in 2010.

“They call me ‘Baby Geno’ in the locker room, but I haven’t done anything yet to reach that status,” said Williams. “I try to learn from him each and every day. Just to have an All-Pro in your room – you get star struck and I’ve got nothing but praise for him. He’s a wonderful teammate.

“I’ve never met a guy like Geno. He’s just a freak of nature man. One day I hope I can reach his status but it’s going to take some work.”

Williams isn’t likely to be as great as Atkins, but his NFL career and the Bengals season got off to a good start against the Giants.

“This is something to build on, but we haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “We still have to work but it feels good.”

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A Long Shot From “Slap Shot”

Morgan James is the only player in college football who can be seen on

James is a 25-year-old former minor league hockey player who has joined the UC football team as a preferred walk-on.

Morgan James with Bujnoch

“I’ve never played a down of football in my life,” said James. “I’ve been an ice hockey player since day one. But I’ve always been a football fan and it’s always been a dream of mine to play. Even though I’m further along in my life than most of these guys, I’m coming back to fulfil that.”

James says he began training to make the transition from hockey to football about a year ago. Video of him lifting weights and doing football drills can be seen on YouTube.

“That was part of what I did to get my name out there,” he said. “I made a couple of workout videos to show what I’m doing and show what I’ve got and I sent that around to some colleges. I had a lot of Division II interest and Division I-AA (FCS), but I’m confident that I can be a football player so I wanted to come to a great school like Cincinnati.”

But how did he wind up at UC?

“A high school coach that (Co-Defensive Coordinator) Steve Clinkscale knows brought him and another young man down to one of our camps,” said offensive line coach Darren Hiller. “He worked out with the defensive lineman during the camp and then toward the end of the camp I put him through some offensive line drills. We filmed it and after we got done with camp, we watched all of the guys that we thought were possible prospects. We looked at him because of his sheer size and athletic ability.”

“He’s got a body that you would go out and recruit,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville.

James is 6’6”, 295 pounds, and has been timed at 4.9 in the 40-yard dash.

Morgan James at right tackle

At Camp Higher Ground on Sunday, James lined up with the third string offense at right tackle.

“Today was the first day that we put him in a team setting,” said Hiller. “Before today we just had him in individual drills teaching him what a zone block was, what a down block was, what a double-team block was, and what a pass block was. When he was pointed in the right direction it was pretty good.”

“It’s a lot of information at once and I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t confusing,” said James. “But I’m doing my best to learn and I’m thankful to have great coaches like Coach Hiller and Coach (Austen) Bujnoch to help me.”

“He is starting from scratch when it comes to football knowledge,” said Hiller. “We actually had to explain where the quarterback was and that he called the plays. It was kind of comical, but it’s really unique because he has great athletic ability.”

So why didn’t he ever play football?

“I started playing hockey at a very young age and invested everything in playing hockey every single day,” said James. “That’s all I did.”

The Michigan native played professionally for two years and admits that his role was often to be the team enforcer.

“I played for the Louisiana IceGators and the Columbus Cottonmouths for the majority of my time,” said James. “In the minor leagues I did play the role of an enforcer. There’s been a lot of talk about that in the locker room here and a lot of jokes. The videos have been floating around – that’s for sure.”

Despite his age, James has four years of football eligibility remaining at Cincinnati.

“He’s like a ball of clay that we’re going to try to mold,” said Hiller.

“We’ve started from ground zero with him,” said Tuberville. “It will be interesting to see how much he develops in a couple of years.

“He’s a good kid. He doesn’t say anything. He just wants to play football and it’s going to be fun to watch him.”

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Bearcats Feature Wide Variety At Wide Receiver

The 2015 UC football team features a “Noah’s Ark” wide receiving corps: The Bearcats seemingly have two of everything.

“They are so scary it’s unbelievable,” Memphis coach Justin Fuente told me at AAC media days. “They threw an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game against us and we didn’t have anybody that could come close to the kid. They have some awfully dangerous weapons.”

“When we went undefeated at Auburn (2004) we had an unbelievable receiving corps, and it kind of reminds me of that group,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “They were tall and lanky and they were fast and physical.”

Gunner Kiel’s top seven targets from last season are back. Here’s a scouting report on each receiver from UC’s junior quarterback (listed in order of receptions last season).

Shaq Washington

Shaq Washington (66 catches, 761 yards, 4 touchdowns):

“A captain of the wide receivers and a guy that can get open at any time. A reliable target that I love to throw to on short and intermediate passes.”

Max Morrison, Obi Melifonwu

Max Morrison (45 catches, 458 yards, 4 touchdowns):

“Crisp, crisp routes. Out of everyone, I think he’s our best route runner. A deadly slot guy with really good feet.”

McKay TD vs Rutgers

Mekale McKay (44 catches, 725 yards, 8 touchdowns):

“A big tall target that can jump out of the sky. With those long strides you thing he’s not moving, but he’s moving really fast.”

Chris Moore 1-handed TD

Chris Moore (30 catches, 673 yards, 8 touchdowns):

“Super-fast, quick feet, and a great route runner. He really can do it all.”

Johnny Holton

Johnny Holton (29 catches, 431 yards, 5 touchdowns):

“Deadly athletic and the fastest guy on our team. Crazy fast with great hands. Goodness sakes.”

Cincinnati Bearcats at Ohio State football

Alex Chisum (22 catches, 242 yards, 2 touchdowns):

“I love Chis. First guy out there, last to leave, and loves to work. He does whatever I ask him to do and is a great route runner.”

Nate Cole, Obi Melifonwu

Nate Cole (15 catches, 145 yards, 2 touchdowns):

“Quick and elusive. He can confuse a lot of DBs because he looks like he’s moving slow, but he’s moving fast. And he’s got great hands.”

But there’s only one football. How can the Bearcats keep everybody happy?

“Honestly, I think I do a pretty good job of spreading the wealth,” said Kiel.

“Your wide receivers are always your worst guys to keep under control,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “They’re prima donnas – not just our guys but all of them. They want the football.

“I’ll have to bring them into the office and say, ‘You’re going to get your share.’”

“One of our core values is being selfless,” said Gran. “It’s trust, it’s being selfless, it’s having unity, and it’s toughness – those are our four core values as an offense. If you can’t be selfless, and you can’t be humble, and it’s not team-first, then you won’t play here. I’ve been a part of championship teams with a lot of great players and it’s not about the touches. It’s about your productivity. If you get the ball three times and do something right with it, NFL scouts will see it.”

Washington, who needs 55 catches in 2015 to become Cincinnati’s all-time career leader, says that battling to get the ball is great motivation.

“We’re very competitive, but at the same time we push each other more than anything,” Shaq told me. “If you watch us, there’s no arguing or anything like that. We stay on top of each other about little things in order to get better.”

“They’re very coachable – that’s what I like about them – we don’t have any that go out there and think that they’ve got their job won,” said Tuberville. “They come out to work every day, put their nose to the grindstone, put that hard hat on and get after it.”

It should be a fun group to watch – and a frightening group to try to defend.

“You’re talking size, speed, and the ability to stretch the field vertically,” said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill. “When you watch them on film you say, ‘Those are some NFL guys right there.’ Big cats that can run.”

Make that Bearcats that can run.

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Dawson Trusts His Instincts

When the Bengals chose P.J. Dawson with the final pick of the third round in this year’s draft, NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock called him, “the most instinctive linebacker I saw on tape this year.”

Three months later after OTAs, minicamps, and a week of training camp, Bengals players and coaches are saying similar things.

P.J. Dawson no helmet

“He’s a savvy player and knows how to get to the ball,” said linebacker Vinny Rey. “He understands football – I can tell he’s been playing football for a while.”

“The knock on him coming out of TCU is that he didn’t test well at the combine, but every linebacker coach around the league that watched the film said, ‘This kid is the best player,’” said linebackers coach Matt Burke. “He naturally has a feel for the game. He sees plays develop and has an understanding of route concepts and that stuff can be hard to teach.”

Dawson says that his instincts on defense are the product of playing on the other side of the ball.

“I feel like it comes from me playing wide receiver in high school,” he told me. “Being on the offensive side helped me learn how offenses work. They don’t do things for no reason. Wherever they send the fullback or the puller, that’s usually where the play is going. I try to make it as simple as possible.”

But learning an NFL defense in your first training camp is anything but simple.

“It’s the normal learning curve for all rookies,” said Burke. “He has to learn the details and make sure he’s on the same page with what we’re trying to get accomplished. Right now he might be doing his own thing when he goes and makes a play.”

“Even though he’s learning all these things for the first time he still maintains his savviness,” said Rey. “He’s not playing like a robot.”

The 22-year-old says that the Bengals defense is actually easier to pick up than the one he learned before earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors at TCU last year.

“It’s the wording,” said Dawson. “Just the terms that they use and learning the minor details. It’s the language – that’s all it is.”

With experienced linebackers like A.J. Hawk, Rey Maualuga, and Vontaze Burfict on the roster, Dawson has plenty of available teachers.

“They help me with anything that I need and I appreciate that,” said Dawson. “I feel like I’m going to do the same thing for the next group of rookies coming in.

“I’m also spending a lot of time with the coaches before and after practice trying to get every little extra thing that I can so that I can be ready.”

“I can tell that he’s a quieter guy, but there’s comes a point where you’ve got to start meeting with the coach more and meeting with other guys that see the game from the on-field perspective,” said Rey. “He’s doing that more and more.”

Dawson led the Big 12 in tackles (136) and tackles-for-loss (20) last year and added four interceptions. He’s been compared to Burfict for his playmaking ability and considers that a high compliment.

“I remember when I was watching ‘Hard Knocks’ I saw him and said, ‘Man, that 55 is pretty good.’” said Dawson. “I didn’t even know his name, but he stood out to me. Then I finally met him and I was like, ‘It’s crazy that we’re on the same team.’ It’s a blessing to be here and I’m glad that I can learn from him.”

Dawson is hoping to stand out as well. It’s one of the reasons why he asked be listed as “P.J.” instead of Paul after joining the Bengals.

“I feel more comfortable with P.J. – plus there are a lot of ‘Pauls’ here,” he said. “I didn’t want to be confused for anybody else, so I felt like that would be better.”

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Healthy Eifert Could Have Huge Impact For Bengals

During training camp I’m often asked, “What player has been the most impressive?”

In each of the last two years, my answer has been Tyler Eifert.

But don’t take my word for how good the tight end looks at practice. Just listen to former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

The 2007 Pro Bowler served as a coaching intern during the Bengals’ June minicamp and wore a GoPro camera on his chest during a workout for Houshmandzadeh could be heard gushing about Eifert as he watched him run pass patterns.

“Every time I see that boy run a route I can’t believe it,” said Houshmandzadeh. “I can’t believe that man! He’s too big to be moving like that. That’s crazy.”

On Thursday, I asked Eifert if he had seen the Houshmandzadeh video.

“I have a family friend that sent it to me,” Tyler said. “When he first got here I told him that I want to be coached. Any advice you have for me about route running let me know. He helped a lot.”

Of all of the injured players that the Bengals look forward to having back this season, Eifert could have the biggest impact. Consider that the former first round draft pick was only on the field for eight snaps before suffering an elbow injury in the season opener last year and had 3 catches for 37 yards.

“It was a lot of fun – I remember that,” said Eifert. “The most catches I ever had in a game was five my rookie year, so I was like, ‘This could be a lot of fun this year.’ Then I didn’t make it through the first quarter. Hopefully I can change that this year.

“You really don’t realize how much you miss being out there until you can’t be out there. It was hard and I’m excited to contribute this year and help us win games.”

Tyler Eifert

Those eight snaps in Baltimore provided a glimpse of the wide variety of ways that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson can use the 6’6”, 250 pound tight end. Eifert lined up as a traditional tight end four times, a slot receiver three times, and an H-back once. The Bengals averaged 7.5 yards per play with Eifert on the field and he caught all three passes that were thrown to him. Additionally, Andy Dalton was 8-for-10 for 78 yards before Eifert’s injury.

“It’s good to have him back and good to see that he’s feeling better,” said Dalton. “He’s a big matchup mismatch for us. The more that he can do, the better we’ll be.”

In addition to dislocating his elbow at Baltimore, Eifert tore labrum in his shoulder during OTAs before last season. Both injuries eventually required surgery, but the former Notre Dame standout says they are no longer an issue.

“I feel good,” he said. “I feel healthy, strong, in-shape, and ready to go.

“I saw (4-time Pro Bowler) Jake Long down in Pensacola and every season he’s had a surgery. I’m just going to go out and play hard and not worry about any of the other stuff.”

Although Eifert is only in his third NFL season, he is the Bengals only tight end with regular season experience (not including H-back Ryan Hewitt) following the departure of free agent Jermaine Gresham.

“It is a little bit weird when you put it that way, but I’m confident in what I can do on the field and being a leader in this locker room,” said Eifert.

“I’ve seen him emerge this spring that way,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “That’s a good thing. Another guy who missed all of last year basically and had to sit and watch so it’s been great to see him break out of that and progress the way we want him to.”

If you make it to one of the Bengals 14 open-to-the-public practices during training camp, I suspect that Eifert will stand out as one of the most impressive players.

And if he stays healthy, the 24-year-old could be poised for a breakout season.

“There’s only so much that you can control and getting hurt isn’t one of them,” said Eifert. “And how many balls you get thrown to you isn’t one of them either. It’s just, go out and work hard, understand the offense, and do your job.”

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Hunt Hopeful For Rapid Return

Remember the “Margus Hunt Show” in the Bengals’ final preseason game last year?

Margus Hunt vs Colts

The 6’8,” 290-pound defensive end terrorized the Indianapolis Colts with three sacks and three additional QB hurries in a 35-7 win.

Unfortunately, one week later, Hunt suffered the first of several injuries that limited his impact as he finished with one sack in 12 regular season games. He added a shared sack in the playoff loss at Indianapolis.

“I was called injury prone a lot, but it wasn’t anything that had to do with me being weak,” said Hunt. “In the first game at Baltimore, Steve Smith Sr. knocked the wind out of me and bruised my ribs. That lingered for half of the season. Then I got hit on the side of the knee in the Tennessee game. It was just all of these little things. An ankle injury kept me out for four weeks – it was just stuff like that. But this is football. Everybody gets hurt.”

The ribs, knee, and ankle have healed. Now the 28-year-old is trying to rebound from a lower back injury suffered in the offseason.

“With an injury like that you have to be really careful, so we were really cautious about the rehab process and the strength process,” said Hunt. “It just takes time to really get it to a point where we can start adding more stuff to it.

“It’s about 80% now if not even more. I’ve been working out really good for a while now, but that is kind of different from what happens on the field.”

Hunt will open training camp on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. He can be activated to practice as soon as he is cleared medically.

“I feel positive and confident that I will be back during camp and will be able to play in a preseason game at least – if not two – we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “It’s just a matter of the coaches, the training room staff, and (strength coach) Chip Morton seeing where I’m at with football conditioning.

“We’re still on the rough timeline for where we thought we would be. I was expecting and hoping to be back sooner and being healthy to go right now. But I will be taking part in the conditioning and testing and trying to see where I’m at with that and we’ll go from there.”

The former second round draft pick faces stiff competition for a roster spot in the crowded defensive line room.

“It will be a very competitive camp,” Hunt said. “I have this little setback, but I just feel that if I go out there and do what I’ve been doing and what I can do, I definitely feel positive about still being part of this team.

“We’re at the point right now where I can’t take part in team activities yet, but it’s a day-to-day basis. As of right now I’m still planning on playing in the regular season.”

Hunt would not commit to a specific timetable for when he expects to practice, but the former SMU standout is clearly optimistic.

“I have a good feeling about it being sooner rather than later,” he said. “There is no pain whatsoever right now.”

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RIP Van Miller

If you live in Los Angeles, you have Vin Scully. If you live here in Cincinnati, you have Marty Brennaman. And if you grew up when I did in Western New York, you had Van Miller.

Van Miller with dates

The legendary Voice of the Buffalo Bills died last Friday at the age of 87 and while I only talked to him a few times, he had a profound impact on my life and career.

When I was a kid, Van Miller was everywhere. He not only called Bills’ games on the radio, but he was also the voice of the NBA’s Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers), the primary sports anchor on the local CBS-TV affiliate, and the host of a televised high school quiz show called “It’s Academic.”

(I actually joined my high school quiz bowl team in hopes of meeting him, but we didn’t advance to the TV round. There apparently weren’t enough sports questions for me to make a significant contribution.)

Van was outstanding at all of those jobs, but you could tell that he loved doing play-by-play of live sporting events the most. It’s one of the reasons why that became my dream job for as long as I can remember.

Like any great play-by-play announcer, Van provided a detailed and accurate description of the game, but what made him one of the all-time greats was his enthusiasm and flair for the dramatic.

Check out his call of “The Comeback” – Buffalo’s record-setting rally from a 32-point deficit to beat Houston 41-38 in the 1992 NFL playoffs.

I get chills every time I hear him say, “It is bedlam! It is pandemonium! It is fandemonium! It is…(slight pause) fantastic.

NFL Films loved using Van Miller’s calls. Here’s what the late Steve Sabol, former president of NFL Films, once told the Buffalo News:

“We have an expression called ‘deliver the moment,” Sabol said. “The ability to rise to the occasion when something great is happening, to deliver the moment that may be engraved in fans’ memories and their ears and eyes forever. You could see a great Bills play and you knew you were going to get something from Van that would match and complement and enhance whatever we were going to do with the music and the picture and the story. Van was like having an Academy Award-winning supporting actor always ready to deliver that moment when you needed it.”

Van was also hysterically funny without being snarky. His humor wasn’t mean-spirited – it was more of a gentle nudge than a shot to the ribs.

I have never consciously attempted to sound like another announcer, but when I listen to old clips of Van, I realize that my style and many of the expressions that I use were heavily influenced by listening to him.

During Buffalo’s run of four straight trips to the Super Bowl, I covered many of their games for WTVH-TV in Syracuse. I introduced myself to Van in the press box and got a big kick out of the full-length fur coat that he wore in the booth when the weather turned nasty in Buffalo (usually about mid-September). But I never had a long conversation with him during those seasons.

Van Miller fur coat

Two years ago when the Bengals played in Buffalo, I finally had the opportunity to tell Van how much I admired his work and that he was one of the biggest reasons why I pursued a career in sports broadcasting. He was delighted to hear that I grew up near Jamestown – not far from his childhood home in Dunkirk. When I asked if he would pose for a picture, Van suggested that we take two – one serious photo and one where we pretend to fight.

Van Miller

The Bengals return to Buffalo this year on October 18th. I’m saddened that Van won’t be there. If not for him, I might not be there either.

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A Room With A View

Aside from the hard working folks at Turner Construction, few people have had a better view of the renovation of Nippert Stadium than Bearcats head coach Tommy Tuberville.

Nippert pic Tubs office

His seventh floor office at the Lindner Center offers a perfect vantage point to observe the $86 million project, highlighted by the four-story addition of luxury boxes, suites, and premium seating that Tuberville can see as he looks across the playing field.

“The stadium is totally transformed,” said Tuberville. “Everybody thinks that we’re just putting in a few seats for suites and a press box, but we’re pretty much re-doing the entire stadium. Our Board of Trustees and President Ono decided to put in a lot of restrooms, concession stands, and re-do the seats in the stadium and I think it’s really going to be nice. I’ve been excited watching this thing go up.”

He’ll be even more excited when his Bearcats move back in.

After playing last season at Paul Brown Stadium – AKA “Nippert on the Banks” – UC opens the 2015 season at home against Alabama A & M on September 5th at 7 pm. Tuberville expects the renovated stadium to provide a huge home field advantage.

“It’s very closed-in and the noise is going to be deafening,” he told me. “With the height of the new structure and the buildings on each end of the stadium, I think it’s going to be really difficult for the visiting team to be able to hear and that’s what it’s all about.”

Tuberville takes field (440x316)

After going 9-4 in each of Tuberville’s two seasons at Cincinnati and sharing the American Athletic Conference title last year, the Bearcats figure to contend for the league crown again in 2015.

On offense, Gunner Kiel returns for his second year as starting quarterback, along with his top seven receiving targets and three of the Bearcats’ top four running backs.

“It’s a very hard offense to stop,” said Tuberville. “I talked to Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator Bud Foster – who is probably one of the better ones in the country – after our bowl game and he said he was pulling his hair out trying to find ways to stop the run, stop the short passing game, and stop the deep ball threats that we have. We have a lot of options.”

Defensively, Cincinnati hopes to continue the progress that it made last season. After allowing an average of 40.8 points in their first five games last year, the Bearcats only surrendered an average of 18.8 in their final eight games.

“We’re starting to get better personnel, more depth, more speed, and better athletic ability on defense,” Tuberville told me. “Any time that you follow an offensive head coach which I have done at most places – Terry Bowden at Auburn, Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and Butch Jones here – those guys always lean toward the offensive side of the ball in recruiting. It never fails. So we’re having to put together the defense. We’ve taken some junior college players and have been able to hold our heads above water, but now we starting to move up some of the high school players that we’ve signed as they’ve started to get experience. We’re working on our depth and we’re also working on the speed of our defense. We’re not there yet. Is this going to be the year? I think we’re going to be better, but it’s a growing process knowing that we pretty much had to start from scratch in recruiting.”

Recruiting is Tuberville’s number one off-season priority, but he has had the opportunity for some rest and relaxation since the end of spring practice including a round of golf with the hottest player in the world.

“I had an opportunity to play golf with Jordan Spieth just a couple of weeks after he won The Masters,” said Tuberville. “What a great kid. He just turned 21-years-old and he’s not an overbearing personality or player, but he hits the ball down the middle. He knows where his ball is going – that’s a little bit different from you or me most of the time. That was a lot of fun.”

Tuberville also attended his first hockey game – Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals between Tampa Bay and Chicago.

“To be there in person and watch the contact – I’ve been on the sidelines for many years in football and my gosh, those hockey guys have tremendous collisions into the wall and each other,” said Tuberville. “They’re very quick and athletic and I really enjoyed it. It made me a hockey fan.”

I’m sure that the United Center in Chicago must have been rocking that night for playoff hockey.

I suspect we’ll be saying the same thing about Nippert Stadium when the Bearcats come home in early September.

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Dennard Hopes That Wait Is Over

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

Darqueze Dennard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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