NEWPORT, R.I. – One of the most compelling stories of the college football season will take place in Cincinnati this fall. Quarterback Gunner Kiel has set a goal and it is a quest that deserves attention both on the sports pages and in culinary arts publications.
During the season Kiel, a 6-foot-4 junior from Columbus, Ind., plans on cooking dinner at his apartment every Tuesday night for five of his closest friends. Few of us can say we have thrown a dinner party like this. Kiel’s friends are Cincinnati’s starting offensive linemen.
Their average weight is 308 pounds and they aren’t shy about consuming mass quantities of spaghetti.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said, “but he’d better have them on his side.”
That is the plan.
“It’s our job keeping him clean,” left tackle Parker Ehinger, 6-7 and 318 pounds, said earlier this week at the American Athletic Conference media days.
Kiel, who passed for 3,253 yards and 31 touchdowns last season despite being limited by a rib injury and other ailments, has been cooking for his linemen since high school. You might say he understands where his garlic bread gets buttered.
“They don’t get the praise that I do,” Kiel said. “I’ll get the newspaper clippings and pictures and stuff. But they are in the trenches, doing all the dirty work. They deserve all the praise and glory. So to give back to my offensive line, I’ll do whatever I can for those guys.
“It’s always a great time, but it’s hard feeding those big 300-pounders. It’s like three or four pounds of ground beef and ladles of sauce. It’s amazing.”
Kiel calls himself “a pretty good cook” and his bodyguards are looking forward to Tuesday nights. Of course, Ehinger downed five lobsters at the annual AAC clambake Monday night.
“I was trying to go for more, but I just couldn’t,” Ehinger said.
Keeping Kiel healthy could be the difference in the Bearcats turning a winning season into something special in 2015. Those injuries prevented him from playing complete games last season but he still started all 13 games and led the AAC with those 31 TD passes and a 149.4 efficiency rating.
The Bearcats return their top seven receivers, a group of skilled players who caught a combined 33 touchdown passes in 2014.
It’s pretty obvious the Bearcats would like to turn that passing game loose and see what happens. It all starts with Kiel’s health.
“It was awful,” Kiel said of battling injuries as a sophomore. “I hated it. Nagging injuries in my ribs and back. Then in the [Military Bowl] game, I was healthy and coming out, I rupture my eardrum. I hate talking about it. It’s awful and it’s not going to happen again.
“I’ve always been a big believer that the quarterback is the captain and leader of the program. He’s the guy who’s going to take command and be in the trenches when needed. I’m definitely that guy. I’m going to do whatever I can to win games.”
But the magnet that pulls attention to a quarterback has worked against Kiel as well. His history arrived in Cincinnati before he did. Everyone remembered him as the 17-year-old recruit who gave oral commitments to Indiana and LSU before signing with Notre Dame. LSU coach Les Miles, scorned and surprised, said Kiel lacked the ability to lead a program.
He redshirted as a true freshman in 2012 at Notre Dame and then transferred to Cincinnati in the spring of 2013. That meant sitting out another season – and dealing with a reputation.
Now he is finally having fun and that was obvious in Newport.
“When I transferred from Notre Dame, I was kind of down about the decision,” Kiel said. “I was tired of getting bashed and criticized for my decisions. So after I got that first year under my belt and stayed under the radar, it was awesome. Not playing and sitting out that year was the best year. I needed that just to get away from the limelight.
“Coming out of high school as the No. 1 rated quarterback in the nation and then all the transfer decisions I made, de-commitments and commitments. It’s just not good. You try to be the quarterback you want to be, you want to go out there and dominate and have a breakout season and start as a freshman and things just don’t go your way. At the time I didn’t understand that. But as I matured, I understand what happens. As a freshman, you’ve got to come in and earn the guys’ respect. It’s a process. It takes time.”
Kiel needed to hit the weight room when he arrived. But he had another challenge last year. He was never that voice in the huddle that he wanted to be. He was in the shadow of senior Munchie Legaux, who had fought back from a horrible knee injury suffered during his junior season.
As Tuberville says, Legaux was the “starter playing backup,” and Kiel was the quarterback who was “hitting on four of six cylinders.”
“He’s coming in and he’s a new kid on the block,” Tuberville said of Kiel. “You’ve got a sixth-year senior as his backup in Munchie Legaux that every fan, every player and every coach loved because he came back after tearing up his knee against Illinois. He fights his way back. He knows he can’t be the starter but he’s over there itching to play.
“Now Kiel’s got the microphone. There ain’t no Munchie Legaux there. . . He’s got to go. He’s got to be vocal in the dressing room and in the huddle. He’s got a lot of room for improvement.”
Ehringer admits the Bearcats wanted it to be Legaux’s team last season. But Kiel has earned their respect. This should be a fresh – and happy – rebirth for all. If so, it could translate into many, many victories.
“He’s come a long way since last year,” Ehringer said. “He has stepped into a leadership role and it’s awesome. He proved himself last year. Now, he just needs to stay healthy, and prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.”