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After long and public journey, Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel finally where he wants to be

Gunner Kiel (11)Gunner Kiel (11) is vying for the Bearcats' starting quarterback spot in 2014. (Lisa Venture/University of Cincinnati)

CINCINNATI -- You may think you know who Gunner Kiel is, but chances are you have no idea. Most people only know him through passing stories and rumors. Those have defined him for years, even though he has yet to complete a pass at the college level.

“People see me as a cocky, arrogant kid who loves him some attention,” Kiel said. “That’s not it at all. I hate attention. I hate talking about myself. I am just a regular, normal young adult who loves football. I watch cartoons and movies and play video games. I hang out with my friends. I play basketball and go bowling. That’s just how I am. That’s how I was raised.”

It’s a 23-degree day in mid-March, and a wintry mix of rain and snow has given way to sunshine. The weather belies the fact that people are moving briskly from their cars to their destinations. Thanks to Cincinnati’s indoor practice facility, honest-to-goodness football is happening. Kiel is taking part in the Bearcats’ final practice before spring break.

Kiel looks like a big-time quarterback, and a few throws reveal why he was so sought after coming out of Indiana's Columbus East High in 2012. Some guys need live-game situations to impress. Kiel, meanwhile, has potential written all over him.

It wasn’t long ago that Kiel was the top-rated pro-style quarterback in the recruiting class of 2012, according to Rivals.com. With prototypical size and arm strength, he had college coaches drooling. He held offers from Alabama, Florida and Michigan, among many other top programs, and appeared destined for greatness.

Just a couple of years later, most people know Kiel as the kid who couldn’t make up his mind. That discounts the fact that his story is still near the beginning.

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Gunner Kiel was born into a football family. His uncle, Blair, who died in 2012, was the starting quarterback at Notre Dame from 1980-83 who spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons. Gunner’s father, Kip, was a quarterback at Butler, and his brothers, Drew and Dusty, were quarterbacks at Illinois State and Indiana, respectively.

The Kiel brothers were so competitive growing up that they would often have to be separated, lest one hurt another. They played backyard football time and again, two on two, with Dusty and family friend Tyler Moore taking on Drew, the eldest, and Gunner, the youngest. Since Gunner was five years younger than Drew, they were at a natural disadvantage. Drew got frustrated because he wanted to win.

“It was definitely competitive around the house,” Kip said. “Fights would break out all the time. Aleta, my wife, would say, ‘Stop fighting,’ shut the door and wouldn’t let them come out until somebody was bleeding.”

As Gunner got older, he began to make a name for himself. He grew to 6-foot-4 and more than 200 pounds, and he threw for 2,500 yards with 25 touchdowns and rushed for 425 yards with six scores as a junior. That’s when the hype started to spread. In July 2011 he committed to Indiana, where he planned to join Dusty. (Dusty would later remain at the school but leave the football program.)

Yet after Indiana endured an abysmal 1-6 start to the 2011 campaign, Gunner reopened his recruitment. He took visits to LSU, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt before committing to the Tigers on Dec. 27. It appeared coach Les Miles had landed another prized prospect.

The marriage didn’t last long. Kiel realized he couldn’t handle the distance away from home and flipped to Notre Dame on Jan. 17, 2012. He admits to getting swept up in the fast-paced world of SEC recruiting, with his jersey in the locker, shiny facilities everywhere and the promise of championship rings. “They were laying out the red carpet and it got me excited,” Kiel said. “Who wouldn’t want to go there?”

Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville believes the business of recruiting can sometimes create situations where perception doesn’t align with reality. “There’s no doubt that these kids don’t really understand what they’re getting into,” Tuberville said.

After Signing Day, Miles took a not-so-subtle shot at Kiel during the school’s “Bayou Bash” for the Tiger Gridiron Club. LSU’s student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, posted the video online, and although Miles didn’t mention Kiel by name, it was easy to decode who he was talking about. “There was a gentleman from Indiana that thought about coming to the Bayou state [who] did not necessarily have the chest and the ability to lead a program,” Miles said.

The comment spread around, but Kiel doesn’t blame Miles for saying what he did. It was just another learning moment in a career quickly filling with them. “That’s just me being dumb again,” said Kiel. “When I called him and told him I wasn’t coming, I knew he was going to be angry. I know coach Miles. I have nothing but respect for him. I can’t get mad about that. I honestly probably would’ve done the same thing if a young, dumb kid was going to come to my school and he backed out that day and ended up at another school.”

Gunner Kiel Gunner Kiel (11) was a five-star prospect coming out of Columbus East (Ind.) High in 2012. (AJ Mast/Icon SMI)

Notre Dame was supposed to be Kiel's new home when he enrolled in the spring. That wasn’t the case. Kiel redshirted in 2012. He had trouble making friends. He struggled to learn the offense and was slotted behind redshirt freshman Everett Golson -- who led the Fighting Irish to the ‘13 BCS title game against Alabama -- and veteran Tommy Rees on the depth chart.

It wasn’t the right fit. Notre Dame wasn’t the haven Kiel envisioned. He changed his mind one more time, even though he hated the attention it brought with it.

“People bashing me for decisions, having bad practices, I just lost all confidence in myself,” Kiel said. “I wasn’t happy anymore. I didn’t really hang out with anybody. I stuck to myself. Especially being an early enrollee, when I’m supposed to be in high school and I’m watching kids in my high school having fun while I’m at Notre Dame.”

The decision to transfer to Cincinnati came in the spring of 2013. It was his first visit. He had a couple more trips scheduled, but opted to cancel them. Kiel had developed a prior relationship with quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw from Hinshaw’s time at Tennessee, and the fit made sense. The Bearcats’ top two quarterbacks, Munchie Legaux and Brendon Kay, were set to be seniors. Kiel would sit out in ’13 due to NCAA rules and have a chance to build his confidence before competing for the starting spot in '14.

In short: Gunner Kiel would focus on school, football and getting back to being Gunner Kiel again.

“I don’t know what happened at Notre Dame,” said Tuberville, “but when [Kiel] came in he was pretty deflated.”

Golson was suspended from Notre Dame for the 2013 season for cheating on a test, but Kiel didn’t waver. His mind was made up. After a long and public saga -- one that stretched from Bloomington to Baton Rouge to South Bend and beyond -- he was finally ready to move on.

“It’s all in the past,” Kiel said. “I don’t know why people keep bringing it up. It’s over. People love to talk about it. But it’s old. It’s just going to force me to work even harder.”

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The small-town kid has learned to love the city. Gunner Kiel relishes the culture Cincinnati’s coaching staff has created, which emphasizes having fun rather than keeping a strictly business-like mentality. For the first time in years, the pressure and attention on Kiel are minimal. He noticed a change almost immediately.

“To sit out that year was probably the best thing for me,” Kiel said. “It just taught me a lot about myself and taught me I need to sit back and relax. Things are going to happen naturally. You just have to bust your butt and overcome adversity each day.”

This fall, Kiel will have the chance to write a different story than the ones that have already been written. He isn’t guaranteed to start, but he should be considered the frontrunner after spring practice. Juco transfer Jarred Evans is gifted but acclimating to the playbook. Legaux, who was granted an extra year of eligibility after suffering a gruesome knee injury in a loss to Illinois last September, has not fully recovered.

Kiel looked loose and confident on the practice field, joking around with teammates and calmly executing the two-minute drill. He dazzled in the Bearcats’ spring game on April 5, going 17-of-22 for 300 yards, including completions of 42, 46 and 47 yards.

Drew Kiel admired Gunner’s performance, but he also saw things Gunner needed to improve. Still, he believes his brother’s journey the past few years has shaped him as a person. “It’s not always about football,” Drew said. “It’s about can you take that criticism, can you persevere from it and really build your character? Football is only going to last so long. Experiences like that are going to carry over into his life later.”

Kip said the public has the wrong impression about his son. Gunner is the guy who gets a group of teammates together when they’re homesick, bringing them to his parents’ house and welcoming them into his family. He is the guy who is always playing -- and, as roommate and Bearcats tight end Tyler Cogswell gleefully points out, losing in -- Madden.

It might be easy to write off Kiel as another five-star prospect gone bust, but he has three years of eligibility remaining. The American Athletic Conference appears wide open following Louisville’s exit to the ACC and UCF quarterback Blake Bortles’ departure to the NFL. And after two games against MAC opponents Toledo and Miami (Ohio) to open the season, the Bearcats have a real opportunity to make some noise with a matchup at Ohio State on Sept. 27.

Given Kiel’s uncommon perspective, the next chapter of his story could take on a very different feel than the last one. Now, people will discuss his play rather than the decisions he made along the way.

“It’s up to me what my destiny is going to be,” Kiel said. “I understand what happened in the past is always going to be a part of [me]. It’s overcoming that and focusing on myself, my family, my teammates, my faith and school. That’s all I have to focus on. With that, good things are going to happen.”

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