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Cincinnati’s man to beat


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Once again, Gunner Kiel was standing along the sideline Saturday without his helmet. Only this was different.

The former Columbus East phenom, who hasn’t suited up since his final high school game Nov. 18, 2011, had thrown for 300 yards in the first half when he wowed the 5,000 fans who came to watch the Bearcats’ spring game at Paul Brown Stadium.

Kiel was given the rest of the day off, only he didn’t take it off.

He bounced around the sideline, patting teammates on the head and dealing out double doses of enthusiasm. He was wild, emotional, excited.

He was happy.

And why not? When it comes to Tommy Tuberville’s high-octane, in-your-face offense, it’s obvious that Kiel is something else.

He’s the man.

Tuberville can’t say it right now because that’s an unwritten rule of college football. When you go into spring with no set starter from the previous season, you never proclaim that anyone has won the quarterback job. That keeps all contestants in the quarterback sweepstakes on their toes.

The Bearcats coach even noted that it will be a three-man race when practice begins in August. Munchie Legaux, the original 2013 starting quarterback, was granted a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a severe knee injury last season against Illinois and he will be in the mix. The third guy is junior college transfer Jarred Evans, who needs to do some catching up in terms of learning the Cincinnati offense.

But whether Tuberville called Kiel his starter or not, it certainly won’t affect the Columbus native’s work habits. It’s obvious that this guy has higher goals than just being a college starter.

From a practice session I attended last fall to the Spring Game, it was obvious Kiel is bigger. Much bigger.

“I’m the same weight,” insisted Kiel, who is listed at 6-foot-4, 210, but looks more like 230.

And what about those arms that could bench press a pair of offensive linemen?

Kiel said he was been spending a lot of time with Cincinnati’s strength coaches. From the looks of him, he’s not sleeping much.

Although Tuberville doesn’t want to do any public drooling over a player who hasn’t thrown a pass in a college game, he has to be excited. Kiel simply flicks the ball around the field, throwing darts to his wide receivers in the flats.

Those passes sometimes separate the mediocre college quarterbacks from the really good ones. It was on display on Saturday as Kiel, who is a sophomore, would make a quick turn, then effortlessly throw a bullet along the line of scrimmage to the wide out. When those passes have a lot of zip on them, it allows the wide receiver an extra instant to size up the defenders. It makes a big difference.

And if Cincinnati’s opponents have to creep closer to the line of scrimmage to stop those short passes, it makes it that much harder to cover the deep routes. Anyone in the stands on Saturday could tell Kiel can throw the long ball.

When you add Kiel’s physical strength to the mix, it’s obvious he is going to shake off a few potential tacklers, and his receivers will have that much more time to get open.

However, none of that gets to happen until Sept. 12 when Kiel, barring any kind of physical setback, makes his collegiate debut against Toledo at Paul Brown Stadium. It’s a long way off, but Kiel was feeling better after Saturday’s scrimmage. He got a taste of it.

“This was just like a game for me,” Kiel said. “Last night I watched tape and went over our protections and coverages. Today I ate breakfast, got ready, listened to music so I could block out everyone.”

Kiel, who originally committed to Indiana and LSU before landing at Notre Dame, has less people to block out these days. He is getting less questions about recruiting problems and transfers and more about football. Imagine that?

“That’s my story,” he said after the scrimmage. “A lot of people have bashed me. And I haven’t played in three years. I wanted to come out today and silence the critics. I want to change people’s minds about me.

“Some say I was dumb. I agree with them.”

It would safe to say that the 5,000 fans in attendance don’t care if he was dumb. They were just glad that he was wearing a Cincinnati uniform.

“I went out there with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I want to get better, and have fun.”

Fun was in abundance in Cincinnati.

“It’s just a family here,” Kiel said. “There are no cliques.

“I love it.”

Jay Heater is the Republic sports editor. He can be reached at jheater@therepublic.com or 379-5632.

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