Camp Begins With 3-Way Battle At QB

As the most recognizable coach in the American Athletic Conference, Tommy Tuberville was a popular interview subject for the assembled reporters at the league’s annual media days in Newport, Rhode Island. Most interviews with the Bearcats’ head coach included the same two questions.

“Who is going to be your quarterback and what do you know about Big 12 expansion?” said Tuberville.

While conference realignment talk was unavoidable at the two day event, Tuberville’s more immediate concern is the other question – identifying his starting quarterback.

“We don’t have a quarterback that we can say right now is going to be our guy,” Tuberville told me. “We thought we would, but Gunner (Kiel) has battled injuries the last two years. If he can stay healthy and do what we think he can do, he could be the guy to take us to another level.”

But the senior is not the only proven quarterback on the roster. Sophomore Hayden Moore came off the bench for an injured Kiel at Memphis last year and passed for a school-record 557 yards in three quarters of action. The following week, Moore made his first career start against the University of Miami and led the Bearcats to a 34-23 win.

“I think it’s a great problem to have,” said Temple coach Matt Rhule. “As a coach, you can sleep well at night when you have two guys that have proven that they can play at the Division I level.”

And yet, there’s a third candidate for the starting job in redshirt freshman Ross Trail who had an impressive performance in Cincinnati’s spring game.

“I think it will be a tremendous battle,” said Tuberville. “Ross Trail is a heck of a football player. He just doesn’t have the experience.”

The uncertainty at quarterback is a big reason why Cincinnati was not among the three schools to receive votes for winning the overall conference title in the AAC’s preseason media poll. Houston, coming off a 13-1 season and a win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl, received 27 of a possible 30 votes. USF (2) and Temple (1) received the others.

“If you look at the teams at the top, they probably have the three most obvious quarterbacks that played well last year,” said Tuberville.

Cincinnati did receive six first place votes to win the East Division crown, finishing third behind USF (15 votes) and Temple (9 votes).

“Cincinnati is always a team that’s going to be in contention,” said USF coach Willie Taggart. “They get good athletes, Tommy is a great football coach, and you have to come ready to play any time you face Cincinnati.”

“We know the level of talent they have,” said Rhule. “A veteran defense, two great quarterbacks, and two great tailbacks, so we know our work will be cut out for us.”

“We have a chance,” said Tuberville. “We’ll have a better defense, our kicking game will be better, and we’re going to have to run the ball a little bit more just because our receivers are going to be younger. But we’ve got to find a quarterback.”

The QB battle begins when UC holds its first training camp practice on Wednesday afternoon, and Tuberville plans to name a starter by the middle of August.

“I would probably say two weeks after we start,” Tuberville told me. “That will be after our second scrimmage.

“We have got to get a first team quarterback that’s with all of the first team receivers, running backs, and offensive line to work our technique and get our timing right. I’d would say within a couple of weeks we’ll have that roster filled.”

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Discipline Key As Bearcats Embark On 2016

When it comes to scenery and gluttony, it’s hard to top the American Athletic Conference media days in historic Newport, RI.

Bearcats flying to media days 2016

On Monday morning, UC seniors Deyshawn Bond and Eric Wilson joined head coach Tommy Tuberville on a private plate to travel to the yacht-filled summer resort. On Monday night, coaches and players from all 12 AAC schools mingle with the media at a New England-style clambake where the steak and lobster is plentiful.

“First private jet and it will be my first time trying to eat a lobster,” said Wilson. “It should be interesting.”

“Every time we travel it’s exciting, but this one is special,” said Bond. “It’s an honor that me and Eric got selected because only a few people get to do this.”

At last year’s kickoff event, Cincinnati was the preseason media pick to win the conference. Houston, coming off a 13-1 season, is likely to be the favorite this year and the Bearcats say they’re not concerned about where they are projected to finish.

“It’s not that big of a deal to us,” said Bond. “We’ll try to work our way up no matter where we are picked.”

“The end of the season is what matters,” said Wilson. “I’m trying to get us to the top of the list on that one.”

The Bearcats finished 7-6 last year despite ranking sixth nationally in total yards at 537.8 per game and setting 18 school records on offense.

“We made too many mistakes,” said Tuberville. “We turned the ball over and had too many penalties. We averaged 37 points a game, but you can’t play defense like we’ve been playing and turn the ball over on offense. If you do that – I don’t care how good of a team you have – you’re not going to win many games.”

Their turnover ratio was especially glaring. Cincinnati had 33 turnovers and only 14 takeaways to finish -19.

“We were number one in the league in yards, but when it came to turnovers, we had the highest number there as well,” said Bond. “That didn’t balance out very well. This year we want to be number one in yards and have the fewest turnovers.”

Last season the defense was devastated by injuries, including the loss of starting cornerbacks Adrian Witty and Grant Coleman by week four. Ten freshman eventually started on that side of the ball.

“Last year we were a little young on defense,” said Wilson. “Now the younger guys feel more comfortable and know what they have to do instead of just trying to learn on the run.”

“There’s always going to be a drop-off between the first and second team – that’s the reason why you have a first and second team,” said Tuberville. “But if it’s a dramatic drop-off – which we had last year after we lost nearly our entire secondary – then we struggled to play defense and get our offense back on the field.”

The Bearcats will begin practicing on Wednesday with a three-way battle to be the starting quarterback. Senior Gunner Kiel has been the starter when healthy for most of the past two seasons, but he’s currently listed third on the depth chart behind sophomore Hayden Moore and redshirt freshman Ross Trail.

“Gunner has the talent to be our starter, but he couldn’t be evaluated in the spring – he only practiced one or two times because he had a pulled muscle in his back,” said Tuberville. “That’s no fault of his because he was working hard and was playing and practicing well. He’s done everything we’ve asked in the last six months and he’s ready to go.

“These next two weeks will tell the tale on our starting quarterback. Whoever is going to be the starter is going to have to impress our coaches going into the first couple of scrimmages. After that, we’ve got to get ready for the season.”

When Tuberville, Bond, and Wilson return from Rhode Island on Tuesday, they will almost immediately step into the first team meeting of training camp. Coach Tuberville knows what word he’ll be emphasizing on day one.

“Discipline,” he said. “Not in terms of doing things right off of the field – I always want that. But it’s doing things in critical situations where you don’t’ have an offensive lineman move and go from third-and-one to third-and-six. Or you turn the ball over and let somebody run it back for a touchdown from 60 yards out. Those are things you can’t overcome. So Tuesday when we have our first team meeting that will be the first word spoken out of my mouth.”

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Zampese Takes Charge

Preseason predictions obviously don’t mean much.

Prior to last year, Sports Illustrated picked Baltimore to beat Seattle in the Super Bowl (neither team qualified) and had the Bengals finishing 6-and-10.

This year, I will not be surprised if most prognosticators expect the Bengals to win fewer than the 12 games they captured last season – after all, it’s hard to win that many – but I must admit I was stunned when one writer from predicted that the Bengals will go 4-and-12.

His reasoning for the drop of eight wins is connected to the departure of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

For the record, I think Hue did a tremendous job in Cincinnati and was an excellent hire by the Cleveland Browns as their new head coach. But let’s take a look at some numbers.

Last season, the Bengals finished 7th in the NFL in scoring with 419 points. In 2013, Jay Gruden’s final year as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, the Bengals finished 6th in the NFL in scoring with 430 points.

In other words, Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and one of the league’s best offensive lines should help any coordinator have success.

“It’s the quarterback and the players all the time,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “Good players make smart coaches.”

Ironically, “smart” is among the first words mentioned when Cincinnati’s offensive players are asked about their new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.

“He’s really smart,” said Dalton. “I think that’s one of his best traits. He understands by certain ways that guys line up how teams are attacking us and how we can attack them.”

“Coach Z is a real energetic guy,” said wide receiver Brandon LaFell. “He’s always upbeat and preaching this and that, but everything he says is gold as far as football.”

Maintaining continuity on offense was a key factor when the Bengals elected to promote Zampese from quarterbacks coach to coordinator. But will fans notice a significant difference now that Ken is calling the plays?

“They won’t notice anything different,” said Zampese. “We’ll do the same things that got us to this point. There will be some things that show up that may be different and highlight particular players. The offense is always driven by the skills of players and it’s a matter of how you get it to them.

“We have a couple of new pieces offensively, and I need to find out what those guys are, their skill set, and how to get them the ball.”

“He knows the type of players that we have and he knows what’s been successful here so there’s no need to change things drastically,” said Dalton. “There will be some new stuff and he’ll have his own twist on things – that’s just all part of it.”

While the X’s and O’s aren’t drastically different, there is a change in the offensive coordinator’s personality from the boisterous and extroverted Jackson to the analytical and businesslike Zampese.

“With every coordinator that I’ve had, there’s always a learning period where you learn them and they start to understand you,” said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. “That won’t be any different. But what I know about Ken from being around him for 11 years is that he’s going to give us everything that he’s got. He’s extremely bright and extremely talented.”

Hue Jackson has a unique ability to connect with the wide variety of personalities in a football locker room. Zampese says that’s just as important as anything found in the playbook.

“It’s up to you to reach them,” he said. “And whatever that means is what it means. It’s different with each guy. Guys are coming from many different backgrounds. It used to be that guys wanted to be like everybody else. You wanted to do what everybody else did and wear what everybody else did. It’s different now and that’s a good thing. And it’s up to us to find the good in it and not the other way around. Everybody has something to offer and it’s up to us to find it. The guys are here for a reason. They put something on tape and did something when we talked to them that made them exciting to us and we need to put it together in such a way that we get the best out of each guy and the best out of the group in the process.”

Zampese has been an offensive coordinator once before at Northern Arizona in 1985. Three years later he began his NFL career as an assistant in Philadelphia and now, after 18 years with the Eagles, Packers, Rams, and Bengals, he finally gets his chance to run an offense at the highest level.

“I am very happy that it’s here,” Ken told me. “I love being here and I appreciate the way the organization has treated me and my family – particularly in recent years. I enjoy our head coach a lot. I like his style and his delivery. He allows us to coach and do our thing and then he oversees it all. I really like the players that we bring in here and I think all of those things suit me. I like family loyalty and I would rather do this here than anywhere else.”

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Alford Is Getting Up To Speed

When the Bengals used their seventh round draft pick on wide receiver Mario Alford last year, the reason was obvious.

“We just couldn’t pass up his speed,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.

Alford was timed at a blistering 4.27 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his West Virginia pro day, but his transition to NFL football wasn’t as fast.

“When you come in as a rookie it’s a little complicated to adjust,” Alford told me. “Everybody goes through it.”

But it was even more challenging in Alford’s case because he had not been a wide receiver before his two seasons at WVU. Mario was a quarterback in high school and played running back for two years at Georgia Military College.

So when his first season as a pro ended, the 24-year-old went back to college.

“I trained in West Virginia back at my school and did stuff that I need to work on like route running and getting in and out of my breaks,” said Alford. “Little stuff like that.”

Mario Alford

Alford spent his rookie season on the Bengals 53-man roster, but only saw action in one game making a 15-yard reception at Cleveland. During the Bengals’ OTAs and minicamp, he showed flashes of his big-play potential.

“Mario needs to continue to be consistent,” said receivers coach James Urban. “As I tell him all the time, he’s like a tease. You see, ‘Hey look what you can do.’ And then the next (play) it’s, ‘Ahh.’ He needs to make the ‘Ahhs’ go much more away.”

“Mario Alford has been a 50-50 proposition,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “They’ve figured out ways to feature him – sometimes he’s delivered and sometimes he hasn’t.”

Following the departures of free agents Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the 5’9”, 180 pound speedster is clearly in the mix to be one of the receivers on the Bengals’ 53-man roster.

“We have bigger guys, we have smaller guys, we have guys that can really run, and we have guys that are really crafty,” said Urban. “We’ll put ‘em all in the pot, stir it up, and see what the best ingredients are.”

“I’ve got a great opportunity,” said Alford. “I’m not worried about what number I am (on the depth chart) right now, I just have to go in and work my tail off. We’ll see. It’s going to be interesting.”

After returning two kickoffs for touchdowns as a senior at West Virginia, he’s also a candidate to return kickoffs and punts.

“I feel 100% confident going into this season about what position I’m going to play and what role I’m going to have on this team,” Mario told me. “I feel very good about the upcoming season.”

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Iloka Gets Contract But Wants Ring

When George Iloka signed a 5-year, $30 million dollar contract extension with the Bengals in March, he checked off one of his goals as a professional football player.

“I think every player’s goal when he gets to the NFL is to win the Super Bowl and get paid,” George told me. “Honestly, that’s everyone’s goal.”

One down, one to go. He’s got the contract in hand, but lacks the ring on his finger.

“The Super Bowl is the highest team accolade that you can achieve and that’s everyone’s goal on this team,” said Iloka. “When you’re done with this game you want some type of hardware that you can keep for the rest of your life. Trophies and rings are with you forever.”

Iloka INT

Iloka is entering his fifth NFL season and the long-term contract extension was a definitive statement that the Bengals view him as a defensive cornerstone in their efforts to win a championship.

“George is a young player with still a big upside,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “He has size and length and speed and we expect his contributions to keep growing.”

Iloka has started 47 of a possible 51 games over the past three seasons and has a skill set that allows the Bengals to be flexible in how he’s used.

“Safeties are increasingly valuable in today’s NFL, and he’s one who can play centerfield or in the box,” wrote Andy Benoit from Sports Illustrated’s MMQB website. “At 6’4”, 225 pounds, and with arms so long he can practically tie his shoes without bending over, Iloka has the innate physical traits to be elite.”

The 26-year-old will be the Bengals most experienced safety following the departure of NFL interception co-leader Reggie Nelson as a free agent.

“I think now that Reggie is gone I’ll try to do a better job of communicating and making sure that everybody is on the same page,” said Iloka. “I’ve been in this system for four or five years and if I don’t know it by now I’m doing something wrong. So I’ve been trying to communicate better, but I’m still trying to be myself. If there’s a time where I need to be vocal I’ll do that, but I’m not going to be something that I’m not.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is how the former fifth round draft pick views himself.

“I went to a small school and think I was a two-star recruit coming out of high school,” said Iloka. “It was actually zero stars – they only gave me two because I committed to Boise State and they said, ‘I guess he’s decent; give him two stars.’

“I just have to keep that mentality and continue to build on it and get better because I don’t think I am where I can be. The only person that can get me there is me. I have to put the work in to get where I want to be.”

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Opportunity Beckons For Clarke And Hunt

Last season, defensive end Wallace Gilberry was on the field for 669 of the Bengals’ 1,156 defensive snaps (58%). Now that Gilberry has signed with Detroit as a free agent, Margus Hunt and Will Clarke are the most obvious candidates to get a bump in playing time.

“What we’re looking for them to do as players is break through to be productive guys – game changing players,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “We’re going to put it out there and let them go that way. It’s a good situation to be in – hopefully for them and for us.”

“I don’t want that workload to go to Carlos (Dunlap) and Mike (Johnson) – they already are in for enough plays as is,” said Clarke. “There’s definitely an opportunity for myself and Margus to get those reps and get out there and help the first team guys – whether it’s playing inside or outside.”

Clarke, a third round draft pick in 2014, was on the field for 139 defensive snaps (12%) last season and is eager to earn more.

Will Clarke

“It’s not how I planned for it to be,” Will told me. “I definitely would have liked to be more of a help to the team and played more of a pivotal role. The best way to do that is to keep your head down, keep working, and keep moving forward. Don’t try to do anything crazy or different, just keep listening to the coaches, follow the older guys, and stay on the path.”

Hunt was only on the field for 57 defensive snaps (5%) last season. The second round pick in 2013 was coming off of back surgery and did not see action in the first seven games.

“It’s good now,” said Hunt. “I’ve been able to do power lifting and that puts a lot of pressure on your back and it’s been feeling awesome. It was really bad last year. In the beginning when I was able to start doing football drills, my back felt weak and it took a while to get the strength back. After that I needed to get the flexibility and the movement back and a lot of different things went into it.”

Margus Hunt vs Colts

In addition to a more rigorous weightlifting routine this offseason, Hunt worked privately with one of the NFL’s all-time leaders in sacks Kevin Greene. The 5-time Pro Bowler will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.

“Marvin put us together,” said Hunt. “He wanted me to work with him last year but the back issue came up. This offseason Marvin called me up and said, ‘Can you get three days out of your schedule to go work with him?’ I said, “Absolutely. I’d be happy to.’ Thankfully Kevin had enough time in his busy schedule with the Hall of Fame and everything going on to work with me.

“We worked out in his front yard. He had sleds and cones and everything set up and he walked me through what he did for 16 years and why he was so successful. It was a really great trip.”

Greene was undersized at 6’2”, 245 pounds but managed to have 10 years with double-digit sacks, including 12 in his final season at age 37.

“Little things end up being big things,” said Hunt when asked what he learned from Greene. “He taught me how he did the pass rush for 16 years and how he got 160 sacks. Then we watched film of it. We put him on and he taught me and showed me how he did it. Marvin sent him film of me and we had a similar look but I wasn’t able to utilize the rush.”

Hunt is entering the final year of his rookie contract while Clarke has two years remaining. Do they view 2016 as a critical season?

“Every year is critical in this line of business,” said Hunt. “I’m just trying to keep it simple. I’m not worrying about whether it’s a big year or a small year, I’m trying to have fun and the rest of it will take care of itself. If I take care of the small things day after day, they’ll add up to bigger ones.”

“I think that every year is important, but I believe that taking another step forward is the important part,” said Clarke. “Stepping up to a more pivotal role and being able to help this team out more on defense, special teams, and the team as a whole.”

The Bengals brought 36-year-old free agent Dwight Freeney in for a workout in May and could still sign the seven-time Pro Bowler. But regardless of that possibility, Clarke, Hunt, and other young defensive lineman like Brandon Thompson, Marcus Hardison, DeShawn Williams, and Andrew Billings will look to grab some of snaps that Gilberry received last season.

“In the decade-and-a-half that Marvin Lewis has been here as a head coach, he just wants to see you perform,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “There’s no prejudice to when you were drafted, how you were drafted, or even if you were drafted. When you get here, what are you going to do? It doesn’t matter that Margus Hunt was a second round pick and Will Clarke was a third round pick, they have to step up and perform. I know that if I were in their situation that I would feel pressure to take full advantage of every opportunity I get. When you’re in competitive situations like that, it raises the level of performance. Competition breeds excellence.”

“There’s always a battle between us, but at the end of the day it’s all of us working together,” said Clarke. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re a first team guy or a second team guy because we’re rotating. There could be a game where it’s Carlos and Margus out there. It could be Domata (Peko), myself, Andrew Billings, and Mike (Johnson). There’s always a battle to make ourselves better, but at the end of the day we’re all helping each other.”

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NFL Peers Recognize Dalton’s Growth

The NFL Network’s annual Top 100 players list is not exactly a scientific poll, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

Dalton Seattle

When Andy Dalton was recently named the league’s 35th-best player in a survey of his peers, it was evidence that his stellar play in 2015 resulted in increased respect for the Bengals quarterback throughout the NFL.

“It’s obviously cool to be selected to the Top 100,” Andy told me. “It’s the first year that I’ve been in it so it’s definitely a cool thing to know that the other guys in the league view you that way. It’s cool to know that other people around the league see what you’re doing and think that you played at a high level.”

Although the entire list has not been revealed yet, we do know that Dalton will be the 8th highest-rated quarterback. Drew Brees (#30) and Ben Roethlisberger (#21) appeared on the list this week, and I’m guessing that the top five QBs still to come (listed alphabetically) will be Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson.

“I think he’ll be excited about it, but I don’t think he’ll be satisfied with it,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “I think if he had been able to play the entire season and had the playoffs that I think he might have had based on the way he was performing, he may have finished even higher.

“He was as good as there was in the NFL when the Bengals started out 8-0. He was in the conversation for MVP and rightfully so. I do think it was a year where he definitely grew.”

Dalton ranked first in the AFC in passer rating and set a Bengals record at 106.3. He also established career highs in completion percentage (66.1%) and yards per attempt (8.42) and had a touchdown/interception ratio of 25 to 7.

“You just see his maturation over the years,” former Steelers safety Will Allen told NFL Network. “From him changing the play calls to looking off defenders and NFL safeties – I think that’s what he’s evolved to over the years. The coaches are putting more in his hands and more on his shoulders and he’s taking it like, ‘I want it. Let’s go.’”

Dalton in cast (440x248)

In addition to his outstanding stats, the Bengals were 10-2 when Dalton broke his thumb. Cincinnati was the top playoff seed in the AFC at the time and shared the best record in the conference with Denver and New England.

“I felt like it was the best year of my career,” said Dalton. “I never lacked confidence, but it gives you more confidence and shows other guys that you’re doing the right things and trying to give your team the best possible chance to win.”

This season, the 28-year-old from Katy, TX will have to deal with significant changes including the elevation of Ken Zampese from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after Hue Jackson left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

“I love Hue and everything about Hue,” said Lapham. “He’s a dynamic leader and Hue got a lot out of Andy Dalton. But I think with Kenny, there’s going to be more room for Andy Dalton’s personality to come out to the football team, because Hue was such a people person and such an animated guy and knew all the buttons to push. He was vociferous you know? There wasn’t a whole lot of room left. Kenny’s not that type of guy and that gives Andy more space in the room to take that to another level. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see that part of his game grow as well as his on-field stuff.”

“Our quarterback continues to blossom with his own leadership and his personality,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “Kenny provides a new space for him to continue to do that.”

Dalton will also have to adjust to the loss of free agent wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Newcomers Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd are expected to help replace that duo and both say they’ve been impressed with Dalton’s timing and accuracy during OTAs and minicamp.

“His ball placement is automatic every time,” said LaFell.

“As soon as I get out of my break and turn my head around the ball is coming,” said Boyd. “You know when a quarterback’s timing is on. When you don’t get a chance to actually see him throw it and when you look back in the air it’s already coming.

“You just have to do your assignment. I know that if I do my job he is going to do his for sure.”

In recent years, the national narrative has been “Bengals will go as far as Dalton will take them,” and questioned Andy’s ability to lead the team to postseason success. Dalton’s exceptional play in 2015 quieted many of his critics, but he knows that overall theme remains.

“Usually the team goes as far as the quarterback will take them,” he said. “I think that’s a typical thing. Most teams that win the Super Bowl have a quarterback that’s playing at a high level. You can think about it any way that you want, but I think most teams go as the quarterback goes.”

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