One of the main reasons Vidal Hazelton chose Cincinnati after transferring from USC in 2008 was to be closer to his grandfather. James Hazelton, who Vidal describes as one of his biggest fans, had been diagnosed with cancer at his home in Georgia.
"He couldn't get on a plane anymore, and I wanted him to be able to drive to my games," Hazelton said. "He's doing well now, going through the radiation process. He's really excited for the season."
Bearcats fans share that same enthusiasm about the idea of finally seeing Hazelton playing for their team this season. The senior receiver was denied a waiver for immediate eligibility by the NCAA and sat out the 2009 season under transfer rules. Now Hazelton may be ready to make the biggest impact of any Big East newcomer in 2010.
He was the No. 3 prospect in the recruiting class of 2006, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc. As a sophomore with the Trojans, he caught 50 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns. His junior year was marred by an early ankle injury.
Though Cincinnati had a superstar wideout last year in Mardy Gilyard and another highly productive one in Armon Binns, coaches would say that Hazelton was at times the best receiver in practice.
"The scout team was kind of like my motivation, because that was the only thing I had to look forward to every day," Hazelton said. "The coaches would be on me every day to make sure I gave a good look to the defense."
Still, first-year Bearcats coach Butch Jones says sometimes it's easy for a player to go through practice without the pressures of knowing the entire offense or having to perform on game day. Jones saw Hazelton go through a transition in spring practice as he tried to knock the rust off and get down to serious preparation. Now, he looks ready.
"He's hungry, and he's a football junkie," Jones said. "You'll see him carrying a laptop around and be on YouTube watching different receiver videos and all that.
"I think you'll see an individual who can make all the plays. He's a very good route runner, and he's going to be a playmaker."
At 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Hazelton has the size and strength to be a good blocker, something he says he takes pride in, and to go over the middle. He's got speed to stretch defenses as well, and he wants to show that he can average more than the 10.8 yards per catch he posted at USC.
"I don't want to be labeled as a possession receiver," he said. "So when I get the ball, I just want to do good things and make a lot of plays."
Cincinnati needs Hazelton to replace the playmaking abilities of Gilyard, who was one of the most prolific receivers in Big East history. If he comes close to doing so, the Bearcats should have the best receiving corps in the conference and one of the best in the nation. Binns, also a senior, had 888 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while junior D.J. Woods caught 51 passes for 640 yards and four scores.
"Everybody brings something different to the table," Hazelton said. "Binns, if you throw it up, he's got unbelievable ball skills in the air. D.J. is fast and runs really good routes, so he's an excellent slot guy. Bones [Marcus Barnett], for somebody who's kind of skinny, he's got a lot of heart. He's not afraid to catch the ball over the middle."
Hazelton said he expects his grandfather to make the seven-hour drive to watch each of the Bearcats' home games this year. With that receiving group, James Hazelton should never be bored.