By Joe Kay
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — Gunner Kiel walked past the construction crew using jackhammers on a concrete curb outside Nippert Stadium. He took the elevator to the fifth floor, walked into the new press box and marveled.
“Whoa!” he said, looking down at the field.
Kiel has never played at Cincinnati’s on-campus stadium, which underwent an $86 million renovation last year. The Bearcats are agog about their return home on Saturday for their season opener against Alabama A&M.
“Just watching it transform into what it is now, it’s awesome,” Kiel said on Tuesday, standing in the back of the press box. “I’m really looking forward to Saturday.”
The Bearcats played their home games at the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium last season and went 9-4 overall, including a loss to Virginia Tech at the Military Bowl. They finished with a share of the American Athletic Conference title.
Kiel was a first-year starter last season and looked like a rookie at times. He tied the school record with 31 touchdown passes, but threw 13 interceptions. Kiel also held onto the ball too long at times and suffered severely bruised ribs that repeatedly forced him to the sideline.
Kiel started all 13 games but made it all the way through only seven of them. Coach Tommy Tuberville gives him a “C” grade for his first season, in part because he missed so much time.
“We’re expecting Gunner to really take a huge step forward this season in running the offense, getting us in the right play, then making the play and finishing games,” Tuberville said.
The Bearcats return three running backs, their top seven receivers and an experienced line, so a lot of the focus is going to be on Kiel making good decisions.
“I threw a lot of picks last year,” he said. “I need to do a better job of controlling the ball. At the same time, I need to do a better job of keeping myself safe, not taking those late hits.”
The biggest question for Cincinnati is how the defense develops. It was their weaknesses for much of last season, giving up 50, 41 and 55 points during a three-game stretch. It got better as the season went along and has a lot more depth and experience this time around.
Also, a feeling that there’s a lot to prove.
“For the first four games, we were bad,” Tuberville said. “We were winning on offense and couldn’t get anything done consistently (on defense). We have no excuse this year. We have better players and more players, more depth.
“They understand that they were the weak link in a lot of games last year, but they got stronger.”
They expect to be better playing at Nippert, which has been expanded from 35,000 seats to a 40,000-seat stadium. The seats are close to the field, providing a much more intimate — and potentially louder — setting than at Paul Brown Stadium.
Kiel is excited about his first game at the stadium.
“I cannot wait, honestly,” he said. “It feels like last year at this time, when I was waking up every day with pregame jitters and asking guys what it’s like to play a college game. So now I’m asking guys what it’s like to play in Nippert Stadium.
“I’m really looking forward to it.”