Cole Expected To Catch And Coach

Beneath wide receiver Nate Cole’s number 84 jersey and shoulder pads, you’ll find a Batman t-shirt.

Nate Cole run

“I always grew up watching Batman and that’s my favorite cartoon character,” said Cole. “So it’s like a good luck shirt. I’m going to wear it under my jersey in every game and every practice.”

That’s appropriate because just as his favorite superhero had a duel identity as Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader, Cole will have two roles on the UC football team this season.

“Nate is huge – not just as a player but as a coach,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “He’s going to be instrumental in being a leader in that room with all the young receivers.”

Cole is the only senior among the 14 wide receivers on the Bearcats’ roster, as well as the only one with more than four career catches at the Division I level.

“I feel like an assistant coach out there,” Nate told me. “Being the oldest guy and having the most experience in the receiver room, I’m teaching as we go along. I’m still learning myself, but I’m also trying to teach the younger guys because they have to step up soon.”

“His experience means a lot,” said receivers coach Blake Rolen. “Mostly off the field – in the classroom, in the meeting rooms – that’s where he can help us.

“After a practice where we’ve had too many missed assignments he can’t be goofing around. He’s got to be that extra voice in our room. He’s earned that and the kids will listen to him because he has the most reps of anybody coming back.”

Cincinnati lost six senior receivers from 2015 including the school’s all-time leader in receptions in Shaq Washington and its all-time leader in TD catches in Chris Moore. Cole enters his final season with 38 career catches for 446 yards (11.7 ypc) and looks forward to being a more frequent target in the passing game.

“Of course – what receiver doesn’t?” said Cole. “It should be fun this year, but I want to see other people shine too.”

“We’re counting on him to have a good year,” said Tuberville. “He’s got the experience and he’s made a lot of big plays since I’ve been here. He’s one of the few guys that we have that has caught passes in a game.”

Nate Cole, Obi Melifonwu

“It’s crazy being the only guy that’s left,” said Cole. “I had a real brotherhood with those guys and it’s kind of different not having them around here but I have a new group of brothers now.”

The turnover at the wide receiver position is one of the biggest question marks on this year’s roster heading into the September 1st opener against UT-Martin.

“Everybody is saying that all of the receivers are gone and with all these new receivers we’re not going to be as good,” said quarterback Hayden Moore. “That’s really just fuel for them. They know what’s expected and they’re ready to go.”

“We have a lot of talent in the receiver room,” said Cole. “We’re going to surprise a lot of people this year.

And just as Batman frequently needed assistance from his butler Alfred and sidekick Robin, Cole is counting on help from his younger teammates.

“I can’t do it by myself,” Nate told me. “I need these guys to step up and help me out and we’re going to have to get each other open. If they don’t know what they’re doing, I can’t get open and if I don’t know what I’m doing, they can’t get open. We need each other.”

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‘Cats Counting On Confident Lewis

Sophomore wide receiver Kahlil Lewis does not lack confidence. That’s obvious by simply looking at his Twitter handle: @_DBkiller.

“I’m a DB killer,” Kahlil told me. “That’s what I do.”

Kahlil Lewis catch

But he didn’t get many chances as a freshman to show that he was deadly to defensive backs. With six senior wide receivers on the roster last year, including three that are currently in NFL training camps (Johnny Holton, Mekale McKay, Chris Moore), Lewis finished with 3 catches for 53 yards.

“We wish we could have redshirted him last year, but knowing that he needed to be one of our top receivers this year we had to play him,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “You can’t redshirt a guy and then all of a sudden say, ‘Here it is.’ You have to be in a game. He was in some tough situations last year and made some catches and I think that’s going to help him this year.”

“We knew losing six seniors that really filled the two-deep that Kahlil might not get a lot of reps, but we thought it would be a good experience for him,” said receivers coach Blake Rolen. “Even traveling week to week, game-planning week to week, and getting those 10 to 20 reps a week adds up at the end of a season. I think he hopefully learned and that will reveal itself this year.”

“Even though I didn’t play that much I worked hard at practice,” said Lewis. “Obviously I was in a tough spot with all the senior receivers. Three of them were invited to the NFL combine, so I learned from them and paid attention.”

In fact, the 18-year-old from Hollywood, Florida can cite specific traits that he picked up from each of the six seniors.

“From Shaq Washington I learned better footwork on my routes,” said Lewis. “From Chris Moore I learned how to use my hands at the top of the route to get open. Mekale McKay was really aggressive. From Johnny Holton I learned how to use my speed. From Max Morrison it was his patience in his routes. With Alex Chisum it was his ball skills. There’s so much stuff that I learned from those guys to add to my arsenal.”

“He’s all about football, growing in the sport, and understanding how to run routes,” said Rolen.

Cincinnati’s leading returning receiver is senior Nate Cole who finished with 19 catches last year. No other wide receiver on the roster has more than four career catches, so Lewis is being counted on to play a much bigger role in his second season.

Kahlil Lewis kick return

“I think he’s a playmaker,” said offensive coordinator Zac Taylor. “He’s a guy we’re really going to have to move around and put him in the best spots to get the ball because he’s just a natural football player with good hands and good quickness.”

“He’s going to be a good player for us,” said Rolen. “We’re going to depend on him this year. He’s got the natural athletic ability and now he just has to put it all together.”

Defensive backs beware.

“He’s confident, but like a lot of young receivers he has to understand the difference between confidence and cockiness,” said Rolen. “It was good for him to see what the elite receivers looked like last year. It probably brought him down to earth a little bit, but at the same time you do want your receivers to have a little chip on their shoulder and a little edge about them to go out there and compete on an island one-on-one.”

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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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