After playing sparingly in the first half of the University of Cincinnati football season, there were those who thought Gunner Kiel’s football career might be over.

But on Thursday night on his radio show, Bearcats head coach Tommy Tuberville announced that Kiel would be the starting quarterback for Saturday’s homecoming game against East Carolina.

“He’s been awful close all year long,” Tuberville told 700 WLW’s Lance McAlister. “It’s his turn. The ball is going to be in his hands. Let’s see what happens because I’ll be his biggest fan come Saturday night at 7 o’clock.”

Kiel threw for more than 6,000 yards and 50 touchdowns as Cincinnati’s starter the past two years. But the senior from Columbus East began this season third on the depth chart behind sophomore Hayden Moore and redshirt-freshman Ross Trail.

When Moore was injured, Trail took over as the starter. Moore returned Oct. 8, but could not lead the Bearcats to a touchdown in a 20-9 loss at UConn.

“We’re struggling right now to score points,” Tuberville said. “We’re struggling in some areas, and I’ve always told everybody, we’re going to play the best one.”

With a bye week last week, Tuberville reopened the quarterback competition. With two weeks to make an impression on first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, Kiel won his old job back.

Tuberville has left the quarterback decision up to Taylor all season.

“He’s the guy that has to make this offense work with whoever he puts in there at quarterback, and this is his choice,” Tuberville said. “(On Thursday), Zac Taylor walked in and said ‘Coach, Gunner Kiel has won the position.'”

Tuberville acknowledged that it would have been a little harder for Kiel to ascend to the starting spot if it wouldn’t have been for the bye week. But with the extra time to evaluate, he had a better chance.

The coach said he had his No. 1 offense going against his No. 1 defense for four hard practices last week.

“It will be a lot of pressure on Gunner, but he’s ready to go,” Tuberville said. “He had two great weeks of practice, and the thing I like about Gunner Kiel … I’ve been a fan of his since I’ve been here because he came here to help the Bearcats. He earned it. He wanted to earn it, and he won the position. Nobody gave it to him.”

During the radio interview, Tuberville shed some light at what might have been keeping Kiel off the field the first six games of the season. Tuberville said Kiel bulked up in the weight room because he had some lower back problems because of a lack of strength, and the coach thought that extra bulk affected his throwing.

So Tuberville talked to his strength coaches at camp this summer, and they decided to rein in Kiel’s weightroom work.

“He didn’t feel the same,” Tuberville said. “He didn’t have that same rhythm that he’s had in the past. It wasn’t his fault. He just wanted to go out and do the best he could with his body, and it just affected his throwing motion a little bit. I think that after having the opportunity to probably lay off the weights a little bit, and we pulled him back some, he probably got his rhythm back.”

Kiel has seen action in two games this season. All of his pass attempts came in a 45-20 loss to South Florida, when he went 3 for 11 for 47 yards in relief of Trail.

In that game and other home games this season, Cincinnati fans have been vocal in support of Kiel.

“It had nothing to do with people hollering at me in the stands and all that,” Tuberville said. “You have to earn it, and Gunner Kiel is out there because he earned the position. Now, he has to keep it because we have two guys that are very hungry and want to get back out there.”

Tuberville said coaches film and grade their quarterbacks in practice and do calculations on completions and reads. Through that process, Kiel earned the starting nod.

“Gunner is excited,” Tuberville said. “The players around him are excited. I think it’s going to give us a shot in the arm. I could see it in his eyes for the last seven, eight, nine days he was not going to be denied. He was bound and determined to be the starting quarterback at Cincinnati at one point, and he’s earned that spot. We’ll all be pulling for him.”

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.