THE SAFETIES and linebackers are creeping up, switching from Cover Four to man-to-man. It's second-and-eight from the Toledo 11-yard line, and Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel senses a blitz.
He audibles from an outside-zone run to four vertical passing routes, barking out the new call and protection while alerting his receivers with hand signals. Kiel takes the snap, steps up in the pocket and delivers a sizzling spiral before absorbing a hit. The ball whizzes between a collapsing safety and cover corner, a hole the size of a barroom coaster, and hits receiver Nate Cole for a touchdown. Cole is the only one who could have caught the pass, and it Velcroed to his inside shoulder pad with such precision that there's no way he couldn't have.
From the Bearcats' box in Paul Brown Stadium, quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw marvels at the play's complex symphony and says, "That's what the special ones do."
Kiel thrusts his arms up in celebration, delivering a defining image from the Sept. 12, season-opening 58--34 win, in which he completed 25 of 37 passes for 418 yards and six touchdowns. Kiel—who at 21 is only seven months younger than Johnny Manziel yet still has three years of eligibility remaining—said after the game, "I think I silenced the critics." Maybe.
Rivals.com rated Kiel the country's No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2012, alongside the No. 1 dual-threat QB, Jameis Winston. While Winston won the Heisman Trophy last year at Florida State, Kiel had not even taken a live snap since his senior year in high school, 1,029 days before the Toledo game. In that time he had aligned himself with four schools, transferred once, got called out in the press by a prominent coach and took so much grief from fans that he had to quit social media. He earned a reputation as the quintessential millennial quarterback—allergic to commitment, averse to adversity and famous for just being famous.
At 6'4" and 208 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes, Kiel has always looked like the stereotype of a stud quarterback, and Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville says that Kiel's arm and natural talent have never been an issue. "We had to figure out," Tuberville says, "the between-the-ears syndrome." Was Kiel an underappreciative, overparented brat trying to game the system in a billion-dollar business? Or simply a kid who had seen the harsh reality of big-time ball and hoped to avoid getting crushed by it? Was he worthy of all the attention or not even worthy of taking a snap? The years and the questions took a toll. "When he got here, he was broken," says Hinshaw. "His spirit was broken. He had a lot of accolades, and then nothing happened from it. The recruiting process can really screw you up."
DRIVE DOWN Highway 11 through Columbus, Ind., past Flo's Diner and Granny Bea's electronics store, and you'll eventually come to the metaphoric intersection of Mellencamp and Marinovich. The four-acre Kiel spread is easily recognizable amid the soybean and corn fields by the rusting yellow goalpost, full-length basketball court and the airplane-hangar-sized garage that doubles as a workout facility with a drop-down batting cage.
On the living room wall hang portraits of Kip and Aleta's three boys—Drew, Dusty and Gunner—in matching white T-shirts, all holding footballs. Kip starred at Columbus East High, starting at quarterback for the 1980 season, and he went on to play defensive back at Ball State for two years and then at Butler. Kip's brother Blair was a four-year starting quarterback at Notre Dame who played eight seasons in the NFL.
A manufacturing rep by day, Kip coached the boys in junior high and did so well with them that from 2005 through '11 a Kiel boy started every game except one at quarterback for Columbus East, going a combined 75--11. Although Drew, who is five years older than Gunner, was named all-state his junior year, he received scholarship offers from only Central Michigan, Eastern Illinois and Illinois State, to which he committed in 2008. Kip felt that a lack of early exposure had kept Drew from getting bigger offers and decided that wouldn't happen again.
Gunner grew up idolizing his brothers, following them to 5 a.m. backyard workouts and later avoiding soda and sweets as they did. Now Kip had him tag along when the older boys went to camps and combines. One of the first was a summer camp at Illinois State, during which all the participants were asked to introduce themselves. "I remember Dusty getting up and saying, 'Dusty Kiel, quarterback, sophomore, Columbus East,' " says Gunner. "Then I get up: 'Gunner Kiel, 13 years old, Central Middle School, seventh grade.' "
Heads turned, and Gunner felt the room asking, What is this seventh-grader doing here? On the practice field no one questioned if Gunner belonged.
When Gunner was in eighth grade, Scott (Izzy) Isphording, then an Eastern Michigan assistant, visited Columbia East while recruiting Dusty and watched Gunner throw during an open workout. "If I could offer you right now, I would," he told Gunner.
Kip's strategy was paying off. In the summer before his senior year, Dusty committed to Indiana. Two years later, as a sophomore, Gunner held offers from Indiana, Iowa and Purdue. By the middle of his junior year he got the No. 1 ranking, and his offers reached well into the double digits. Nick Saban called from Alabama, Les Miles visited from LSU, and Gunner got off the phone with Lane Kiffin one day and announced, "Mom! I got a USC offer!"
But he did not love the recruiting process, so like Dusty, he committed to the Hoosiers before his senior year. His reaction was not so much joy as relief.
DREW HAD chosen Illinois State to play for hotshot offensive coordinator Justin Fuente, who left two weeks after Drew signed. (He's now the coach at Memphis.) Even without Fuente, Drew earned his first start as a redshirt sophomore and completed 20 of 22 passes in a 30--6 loss to Eastern Illinois. But worse, he suffered a right-thumb injury that cost him the starting job, which he never won back. After his redshirt junior year he left school with a degree in nutrition and a season of eligibility remaining.
At Indiana, Dusty was enduring similar difficulties. Bill Lynch, who had recruited him, was replaced after Dusty's redshirt freshman year by Kevin Wilson, who was bringing in his own players. Still, during Dusty's sophomore year, first-stringer Edward Wright-Baker injured his ankle and Dusty started two games, going 39 for 82 for 427 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Then Dusty too hurt an ankle, knocking him out of the lineup and out of the program's big picture. He left the team with two years of eligibility remaining.
As Dusty struggled, so did the Hoosiers, getting off to a 1--6 start. Gunner began to question his decision. He recalls thinking at one point, I don't want the same thing that happened to Drew to happen to me. I don't want the same thing that happened to Dusty to happen to me.
In late October he reopened his recruitment. Many of the big boys came storming back. Gunner had arranged to graduate in December and head to college in January, creating pressure to make a quick decision, so two days after Christmas he committed to LSU. In early January, Gunner had his belongings shipped to Baton Rouge, but when he woke up on the morning of his departure, Jan. 16, something didn't feel right. "There was tension in the whole family," he says. "It wasn't because of the program, it was because it was so far away. They wanted to see me play, they wanted to see me." Gunner never got on the plane.
After this second change of heart, a narrative took hold: Strong-armed golden boy is indecisive and afraid of competition. When Gunner announced his commitment to Notre Dame the next day—the last day to register for classes—talking heads chattered, blog posts proliferated, message boards filled with screeds. When the story finally faded a few weeks later, Miles revived it by issuing the rare public ripping of a recruit, saying, "There was a gentleman from Indiana that thought about coming to the Bayou State. He did not necessarily have the chest and the ability to lead a program."
Gunner wasn't bothered by Miles's comment—"Every coach I decommitted from probably wasn't happy"—and says he asked Kip if he could take the semester off after the LSU decommit, but his father wanted him in college. Notre Dame made sense. Besides the connection with his uncle (who died in 2012 of a heart attack), the family knew coach Brian Kelly because he'd recruited both brothers—Drew at Central Michigan and Dusty at Cincinnati. "I wasn't going to say no," Kelly says. "Having had the history with the family, once he decommitted from LSU, I was going to take the kid."
ON HIS first night in South Bend, Gunner sat alone at a team training table and looked up to see himself on three television sets. "The other guys are staring at the screen and then just kind of looking [at me]," Kiel says. "So I'm like, Golly, guys, I'm gonna go hide under my shell real quick."
Kiel never truly emerged. In his first snap during seven-on-seven drills, he came to the line and a lineman barked a request for the protection call. Gunner had no idea how to respond, so, rattled, he called timeout. Asking for time in an up-tempo football practice is about as welcome as a cellphone call during a moment of silence in the Grotto.
Redshirt freshman Everett Golson—a dual-threat quarterback ideally suited for Kelly's system—won the starting job and led the Irish to a 12--0 regular season. Kiel tumbled to the scout team, struggling with the offense and the expectations. "You have to come to Notre Dame and become the next Joe Theismann in five minutes, or everyone is wondering what's the matter with you," says Chuck Martin, who was then ND's offensive coordinator.
Not only was he buried on the depth chart, but Kiel also felt overwhelmed academically and out of place socially. He went from being wanted at every school to feeling unwanted at the school he picked. He chafed at the intensity of the coaching. "It was kind of worse," he says, comparing it with his dad's backyard urgings. "You'd get yelled at by Coach Martin, and then you'd go to Kelly and he'd chew you out." His confidence dwindled as football transformed from Let's go have fun to Oh, man, I hope I don't screw up.
Kelly saw Kiel's struggles, but he didn't see him fight for a chance or a place. "He went home every weekend," Kelly says. The Irish staff tried to engage him, putting him on the travel squad for Oklahoma and Boston College. Kiel didn't see that as a compliment or an opportunity. "I knew I wasn't gonna play!" he says. "I'd been with the scout team all week. There was no point for me to go."
When Kiel made the travel squad for Notre Dame's trip to USC at the end of 2012, he told the coaches he'd prefer to go home for Thanksgiving. "I can get a long break," he recalls thinking. "It would be awesome to see the Coliseum and stuff, but I'm good. I just want to go home."
Despite his unhappiness, Kiel didn't transfer at the end of the fall semester, and in January he traveled with the team to the BCS title game in Miami, which the Irish lost 42--14 to Alabama. When spring practice came, Kiel chose not to challenge Golson, an entrenched starter just one year ahead of him. He stayed in school but announced his intention to transfer. The move brought back questions of his "chest," especially when Golson was expelled from school for the 2013 season later that spring.
The fallout got so bad that Gunner canceled his Twitter account, leaving behind thousands of followers. "It kind of sucked getting bashed and hearing them say, 'Oh, I hope you tear your ACL' or 'Go die,' " he says. "I was like, Dang, man, why? I'm just trying to do what's best for me. I didn't mean to upset you guys. Sorry."
Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer has run Elite 11—a national showcase for top-rated quarterbacks who excel at regional camps—for the past five years. Dilfer liked Gunner personally, but he saw something missing. "The kids that make it realize it's a hard road, and the challenge is what they get excited about," says Dilfer. "I didn't see that with Gunner."
Kelly didn't question Kiel's competitiveness, but rather the advice he got. "His dad has been involved in everything that he's done—that's a story in itself," Kelly says. "Sometimes there's a realization: I have to do this for myself. I hope he's to that point."
It was not the first time Kip had been accused of being overinvolved, and he bristled at Kelly's assertion. "All that matters is that my boys have grown up to be responsible young men and good people," he says, noting that he never once called Kelly or Tuberville. "If [Kelly] thinks that I was a meddling father, basically, then that's his opinion. I wasn't overbearing to any of my kids, I don't think."
Before Kip's interview for this story, he called. "I cringe when the first paragraph I read is [Gunner] committed to IU, LSU and Notre Dame," he says. "That drives me insane in a negative way." He later worried about Tuberville's describing his son as "broken down," and said, "please don't mention a whole lot about me." Were these attempts to exert control, or was he simply sharing his thoughts? Either way, Kip has become part of the chatter about Gunner, evidence to detractors that the kid is misguided and lacking will. Gunner embraces all the criticism. "I love it!" he says. "You can call me soft, you can call me not competitive, you can call me a muffin. I don't care."
ON A break from Cincinnati's summer practice last month Gunner Kiel sat at a cafeteria table and pruned the fat from his prime rib. He smiled easily, sprinkling the conversation with golly, jeez and gosh. "The year I sat out was the best year of my entire life," he says. "I was happy. I wasn't in the limelight. It was actually an enjoyable college experience for me."
Kiel chose Cincinnati because of his relationship with Hinshaw, who recruited him at Tennessee. Hinshaw says that day after day of individual attention has brought back Kiel's confidence. The school has brought back his joy.
Kiel adores his teammates, clicked immediately with his roommates and spends the weekends on campus, hanging out and watching movies. He accepted his role running the scout team last year and showed up at 6 a.m. lifts on Fridays and Saturdays without complaint. He says he felt all the things he didn't at Notre Dame—part of the team, embraced by the coaching staff and comfortable enough that he's not compelled to go home all the time.
"He's a completely different person," says tight end Jake Golic, who also transferred from South Bend. "At Notre Dame he more kept to himself because he couldn't be himself there, and now he's at a place where he can be himself."
Tuberville remains judicious with his expectations for Kiel. After his sterling debut against Toledo, Kiel threw four touchdowns and two interceptions in a 31--24 victory against Miami (Ohio). "He was up and down," Tuberville says. "I knew that was going to happen."
Martin, now the coach at Miami, came away impressed at how Cincinnati's pro-style offense highlights Kiel's ability to throw the ball down the field. "They're doing all the stuff that's in Gunner's wheelhouse," Martin says. "He played great, showed competitiveness, toughness, leadership and the whole deal."
Kiel knows there's pressure. Many are reserving judgment until they see him against big-time competition—like Ohio State, the Bearcats' opponent this weekend. But he has no regrets. "It's just normal Gunner Kiel playing quarterback," he says, "doing what he loves to do."
Gunner did not love the recruiting process, so he committed to Indiana before his senior year. His reaction was not so much joy as relief.
BETWEEN SNAPS ...
Gunner's last high school game
Nov. 18, 2011
LSU loses BCS title game
Jan. 9, 2012
Tommy Tuberville hired at Cincinnati
Dec. 8, 2012
Notre Dame loses BCS title game
Jan. 7, 2013
Indiana finishes third straight season with seven-plus losses
Nov. 30, 2013
Johnny Manziel turns 21
Dec. 6, 2013
Jameis Winston turns 20
Jan. 6, 2014
Gunner turns 21
July 23, 2014
Gunner's first college start
Sept. 12, 2014
Passing yards in Kiel's first two college games, both against MAC teams.
Touchdowns Kiel threw for in those two games.
College football starts of all three Kiel brothers.
Photograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated
AJ MAST/ICON SPORTSWIRE (KIEL)
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TUBERVILLE)
MATTHEW EMMONS/USA TODAY SPORTS (MANTI TE'O)
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MANZIEL)
JOHN IACONO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BLAIR)
GOLD BLOOD At Notre Dame, Gunner, with Golson (1), wore the same number as his uncle Blair (left), who was a four-year starter for the Irish in the early 1980s before going on to a eight-year NFL career.
MATT CASHORE/USA TODAY SPORTS (GUNNER AND GOLSON)
[See caption above]
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED