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March 28, 2011

Bearcats try to find winning touch again

After losing coaches Mark Dantonio to Michigan State and Brian Kelly to Notre Dame, Cincinnati fans should understand not all good things can last forever for the Bearcats.

Last season might have been pushing it, though.

Cincinnati slipped from 12-1 to 4-8, achieving the rare feat in the BCS era to go undefeated in the regular season one year to missing a bowl game the next (Texas joined the Bearcats in that ignominious category last season).

After winning back-to-back Big East titles, Cincinnati won only two Big East games last season.

The defense that was good enough for the Bearcats in 2009 was simply awful in 2010; the Bearcats allowed at least 30 points in five of their last six games. The two previous Bearcats squads had been among the best in the country in turnover margin, but Cincinnati ranked second-to-last nationally in that category last season.

For better or worse, Cincinnati returns every starter on defense. The unit should be improved thanks to more experience but also because coaches will bolster depth with redshirt freshmen and one key junior college transfer. The turnover problem could be fixed by a better defense, but coach Butch Jones is looking to his offensive line to give quarterback Zach Collaros better protection.

Here's a look at Cincinnati as the Bearcats enter spring practice.

CINCINNATI AT-A-GLANCE
Zach Collaros returns at quarterback as Cincinnati tries to turn things around.
THE BASICS
Coach: Butch Jones
Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-5 in the Big East
Spring dates: March 29-April 16
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (5): QB Zach Collaros, T Alex Hoffman, G Randy Martinez, RB Isaiah Pead, WR D.J. Woods.
Defense (11): LB Maalik Bomar, CB Cameron Cheatham, SS Drew Frey, E Dan Giordano, T John Hughes, CB Rueben Johnson, E Brandon Mills, FS Wesley Richardson, LB J.K. Schaffer, E/LB William Stewart, T Derek Wolfe.
Special teams (1): P Patrick O'Donnell.
Positions of strength

Zach Collaros' first full season as a starter wasn't as impressive as his brief stints as a replacement for Tony Pike in 2008 and '09, but he put together a solid campaign under the circumstances. Collaros, a senior, passed for 2,902 yards with 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions despite playing behind a porous line. Senior RB Isaiah Pead is coming off the best season of his career, rushing for 993 yards over the final nine games last season. With senior WR D.J. Woods, Cincinnati has one of the best quarterback-running back-receiver trios in the league. On defense, all 11 starters are back. That means there is a lot of experience, but Cincinnati had one of the worst defenses in the country last season. LB J.K. Schaffer and T Derek Wolfe, though, are legitimate all-conference players.

Help is needed

There's that defense, for starters. Everyone is back, but this is the same group that ranked 106th nationally in pass efficiency defense and contributed to a minus-15 turnover margin. The Bearcats were awful against the pass, but Connecticut and Pittsburgh closed the season by rushing for a combined 508 yards and eight touchdowns on them in the last two games. If anything, Cincinnati will have more depth and more competition at key spots on the defense this season. The offensive line wasn't as ineffective as the defense, but it struggled mightily. Bearcats quarterbacks were sacked 33 times last season. That number may have been worse if not for Collaros' mobility. Only two starters return along the offensive line.

3 guys to watch

TE/DE Travis Kelce: Kelce is the brother of former starting C Jason Kelce. Travis sat out all of last season for a violation of team rules, but he's back and could help the team in a handful of ways. He's a tight end by trade, where he could replace the reliable Ben Guidugli. He could be a pass-rush specialist as a defensive end, too. In his last full season in 2009, Kelce also took direct snaps out of the "Wildcat" formation.

WR Dyjuan Lewis: A constant for the past four seasons at Cincinnati has been a formidable receiver duo. Now, D.J. Woods is poised to become the No. 1 receiver, and the secondary options at receiver are open to Lewis, sophomore Anthony McClung and junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins. Lewis, a four-star recruit in 2010, wasn't academically eligible to play or practice last season, but he's a full part of the team this spring.

S Malcolm Murray: The Bearcats will look to this junior college transfer to immediately boost the secondary. Murray will get a long look at free safety as returning starter Wesley Richardson will miss the spring while recovering from injury.

The pressure is on

CB Dominique Battle: A starter on the Sugar Bowl team in 2009, Battle played just four games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. After last season's struggles against the pass, the secondary needs Battle to return at full strength.

The buzz

Cincinnati won 33 games from 2006-09 before enduring its first losing season as a Big East member last season. With a returning starter at quarterback and veterans on defense, Cincinnati should be able to improve this fall. The spring will be a key time for the coaching staff to look at position battles on defense and begin to find answers on the offensive line.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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