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WEST HARRISON — Quarterback Gunner Kiel, who was a lightning rod for criticism as he wavered on his college football plans after leaving Columbus East High School, now only has to deal with the real thing.
Lightning, that is.
While going through drills with the University of Cincinnati on Wednesday at the Higher Ground Conference Retreat Center, Kiel was forced to join his teammates in a quick jog to a makeshift locker room as a bolt of lightning struck just a short distance away.
Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville immediately put an end to an important morning practice session. It wasn’t something Tuberville wanted to do since preseason camp was quickly coming to a close. Not everything goes according to plan.
That could be Kiel’s theme.
After graduating from East in 2012 as the next best thing, Kiel waffled when it came to choosing a new home. He set his mind on Indiana and LSU, but eventually changed his mind.
So Kiel landed at Notre Dame, a program where the circus always is in town.
On Wednesday at Higher Ground, a large tent bordered two practice football fields, but the circus had been left behind. The evergreens surrounding the fields provided a calm, serene feel to the Bearcats program, an atmosphere that seems to fit Kiel right down to his spikes.
At Cincinnati, a program searching for recognition despite years of success, a hangnail is pretty much a hangnail. At Notre Dame, a hangnail can become an aggravated slice on a critical digit of an upper extremity.
Things can get blown up under the Dome.
Kiel got blown up in the media when he decided that his career would be better served with a move from South Bend. Sure, redshirt freshman Everett Golson had taken the Irish to the national championship game and appeared to be a lock for three more seasons.
When Kiel left, he was criticized for not wanting to compete for the job. And when Golson was ruled academically ineligible for 2013, that criticism grew.
Kiel has a simple explanation for why he transferred to Cincinnati. He feels, even as a player who is ineligible to play (due to his transfer) until next season, that he is being included in everything the team does.
That was apparent during Wednesday’s drills. Sure, Kiel is asked to run the scout team offense at times.
But he also gets second-team snaps as if he was playing in Cincinnati’s opener Saturday against Purdue at home.
“First of all, since he got here, we’ve been working on the playbook,” said Cincinnati quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw, who originally recruited Kiel as a Tennessee assistant. “And we have been working on getting him a lot of repetitions and a lot of developmental work.
“He has to understand where to go with a football and just being able to perform. It’s like people say about riding a bike. You fall off, fall off, then all of a sudden you are doing wheelies. But we also feel that he could compete for the (starting) job right now.”
Although Tuberville has said that Kiel joined his program because of the offensive system, in reality, Hinshaw probably was the biggest draw.
“I am 100 times more comfortable here,” Kiel said following the practice. “I feel like I’ve gotten my game back.
“Coach Hinshaw is a teacher, and that was exactly what I needed.”
That teaching role hasn’t been all roses for Kiel. He explained how Hinshaw wants him to have a wider base when he throws to increase his power. There are other footwork requirements that buck the system he learned at Notre Dame. At times, it has been slow going.
But at the end of the day, away from the practice field, Hinshaw will spend time working with Kiel.
“He puts things up on the board, and we just have to draw it up,” Kiel said. “Everything is visual. I like it.”
Kiel, Hinshaw and Tuberville all are new to a program that has joined the American Athletic Conference. It appears to be a great opportunity for all involved to make their mark.
With senior Brendon Kay handling the starting duties this season for the Bearcats, it appears the job will be wide open when Kiel becomes eligible next season.
“I told Gunner that this is like a grease board, you have to wipe it clean and start over,” Hinshaw said. “Don’t worry about what anyone else says. Just worry about Gunner.
“Do the same thing when you play. I told him when you go out there with the second team, lead them down the field and score touchdowns. Make them better.”
He appears to be doing just fine in that regard. At 6-foot-4 pounds, Kiel looks similar in stature to Kay, who is the same height but beefier at 230 pounds. They both wear No. 11 since Kiel can’t dress for games this season.
When No. 11 zips a ball on a deep post, it’s hard to tell whether it is Kay or Kiel. If next season’s players don’t look through the facemask, they might not even realize there has been a change.
Kiel wore No. 11 when he was piling up awards at Columbus East. He asked for the number at Cincinnati, even though there is no big story behind it.
“It was just the number that (East head coach) Bob Gaddis handed me when I was a freshman at East,” Kiel said. “It just stuck.”
That No. 11 could be a fixture at quarterback for Cincinnati for quite some time, but Tuberville said that nothing is a given.
“I don’t know many coaches who start a freshman quarterback,” Tuberville said. “It takes a good year to pick up a system and to be adequate and successful with it. That’s the luxury of him having a year to learn our offense.
“But he also has certain areas he needs to strengthen different areas. He definitely has to work on his footwork. He needs to strengthen his arm.
“We have designed a special program for him in the off-season.”
Kiel never has been told he needs to have a stronger arm. But that’s OK.
“Actually, yes, I could make my arm stronger,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve thrown in pads.”
While Tuberville isn’t afraid to note Kiel’s faults, he also realizes his possible future starting quarterback is special.
“No. 1, he understands football,” Tuberville said. “He has all the things you want.”
Those football skills attractive another recruiting frenzy when Kiel announced he was leaving Notre Dame. It didn’t matter if he was being criticized for his decisions.
“You know, you grow up fast when you go to college,” Tuberville said. “It’s a crazy process just going to college. Now go to college and be a football player ... a quarterback. That’s huge.
“I really think he has done well with everything. He’s a kid. I think he has handled things well and he has been honest with me.”
Kiel, who is majoring in health education and exercise fitness, now has everything he wanted, except the chance to play this season.
“What I miss the most is playing,” he said as rain started to pelt the practice field in the background. “I know I came out of high school with a lot of hype and now everyone has their doubts whether I can compete. That ticks me off.
“I want this year to fly by. I’ll be selfish. I want to dress for the games and get things rolling.”
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