For Kiel, future is now

The college football experience for Markell Jones has been all sunshine and rainbows thus far. Jones was Purdue’s leading rusher as a freshman last fall, and the Boilermakers seem ready to build their offense around him this coming season.

While Jones, who was chosen as Indiana’s Mr. Football in 2014, appears set to explode onto the national scene, the football future is far more uncertain for another former Columbus East superstar.

Gunner Kiel, who was named Mr. Football in 2011, was the nation’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit in 2012 — with analysts split on whether he or Jameis Winston was the better prospect.

Kiel committed to Indiana, then changed his mind and verballed to LSU. He then spurned both and enrolled at Notre Dame in January of 2012. But after sitting at No. 4 on the depth chart as a freshman, watching as the Fighting Irish reached the national championship game, Kiel transferred to Cincinnati.

While Kiel sat out his transfer season in 2013, Winston won the Heisman Trophy and led Florida State to the national title.

Meanwhile, Kiel’s roller-coaster ride seemed to flatten out a bit in 2014 when he became the Bearcats’ starting quarterback. Cincinnati finished 9-4, with Kiel throwing for 3,254 yards, 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Last fall, the former East star missed a pair of midseason games but still wrapped the regular season with 2,777 yards passing. The Bearcats, though, were just 7-5 heading into the Hawaii Bowl — a game Kiel did not make the trip for due to personal reasons.

Back with the team in the spring, Kiel missed almost all of the team’s spring practices due to an injured shoulder, and Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville declared the team’s quarterback race “wide open” going into the fall.

On Wednesday, he reiterated what he had told the Cincinnati Enquirer in June — that Kiel was entering his final season at No. 3 on the depth chart, behind sophomore Hayden Moore and redshirt freshman Ross Trail.

Tuberville’s declaration turned some heads around college football, and with good reason. Kiel entered college being compared side by side with Winston, who went 26-1 at FSU, was the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and now starts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and despite his ups and downs, many still consider Kiel a viable pro prospect.

His chances would be hampered considerably if he’s not even the starter for a Cincinnati team that hasn’t really made waves nationally since former coach Brian Kelly departed for South Bend.

It’s been a long, winding journey for Kiel since his senior year at East, but he’s approaching the end of the road. Any potential future in professional football hinges largely on whether he can have a strong season in 2016, and doing so probably requires being able to win the starting job.

The good news is he’s still got an opportunity to do so. Although Moore did start three games, including the bowl game, in 2015, Kiel has a clear edge in experience. And while Tuberville is calling him the No. 3 for now, the coach made it clear Wednesday that nothing is set in stone.

“He’s worked hard,” Tuberville said of Kiel before a crowd of Bearcat supporters. “He’s got a shot. Whoever is the best quarterback in two-a-days and in our scrimmages is going to be the guy.”

Jones has no such worries at Purdue. The world appears to be his oyster, and he’s got plenty of time left to continue his rapid ascent.

For Kiel, on the other hand, time is no longer an ally. When Cincinnati begins practice Wednesday, opportunity will be knocking on Kiel’s door for perhaps the final time.

Will he answer?

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.