Will It Be Better?
By Scott King
Cincinnati is surrounded by turnover… again.
The offense turned the ball over 29 times in going 4-8 last season, while it's defense created only 14 takeaways - ranking 119 out of 120 teams in turnover margin. Which had the result of putting a suspect defense in bad positions and gumming down the formerly high powered offense. How gummed down, you ask? It averaged just six yards per play and scored under 20 points six times, blowing all six of those games. Before that, UC had scored under 20 points just five times in three seasons.
Fixing this problem starts at the QB position. Zach Collaros had a good season, earning First Team All-Big East honors, but he threw 14 interceptions and killed drive after key drive. He suffered an injury that knocked him out of the last drive against South Florida, and he wasn't the same after that - throwing ten interceptions to just six touchdowns. Before the injury, he completed 62% of his passes with 20 TDs and four interceptions, and he needs to get back to form for the offense to rebound.
That's an issue made all the more important as the Bearcats don't really have a back up for Collaros. Sophomores Munchie Legaux and Jordan Luallen, a Georgia Tech transfer, are fighting for the position. Both have shown flashes of ability, and the fight for the back up spot could last until the opener. Legaux played some receiver last season, and his transition back to QB has shown promise.
Isaiah Pead is the first returning 1,000 yard rusher for the Bearcats in a decade. Pead is the engine for the Cincinnati offense. When he is going, like games against Rutgers (31-213-4 TDs) and Oklahoma (21-169), the Bearcats offense is hard to stop. Unfortunately, Pead saw games where he didn't get a lot of touches. Part of that can be attributed to the Bearcats trailing and part because Pead had some trouble with fumbles. His fumble in the Bearcat Bowl was written about as a thing UC needed to eliminate by nearly all UC reporters. The back up situation behind Pead is up in the air. George Winn got a lot of garbage time carries, but didn't show a whole lot. Darrin Williams has potential, but an ankle injury sidelined him most of last season. Jameel Poteat is a highly regarded freshman, who could seize the back up spot.
The turnover extends to the depth chart. The Bearcats are losing three of their starting offensive linemen, and three of their top six receivers. The talk of the spring offensively has been receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. From Coach Jones, to the players, to the fans, everyone is excited for what he can bring to the table. Thompkins has big shoes to fill, as he's taking the Mardy Gilyard/Armon Binns spot.
The other receiver spot is up in the air, but expected to be filled by Anthony McClung. McClung had 22 catches for 217 yards and two TDs, most of them late in the season. McClung was fourth on the team in yards. Dyjuan Lewis, a top recruit a year ago, is expected to get on the field after having issues getting cleared. Shaq Washington is a freshman who could fill the slot role. Adrien Robinson is expected to fill in for Ben Guidulgi at tight end.
Receiver DJ Woods might be the microcosim for the Bearcats season. Woods had giant games, but also had complete meltdowns at inopportune times. Woods finished with nearly 900 yards, and if he can cut the drops and fumbles, he could be a surprise name at the top of the Big East receiving charts.
The Bearcats line is missing a few parts, but the players taking over have experience. Evan Davis will take over at center. Davis played guard a year ago. Sean Hooey is expected to take over at left tackle. Randy Martinez is one of the returning starters, and will be back at left guard. The right tackle will be Alex Hoffman, who takes over as the leader of the group. Andre Cureton lost over 80 pounds, and is expected to be the right guard. Austen Bujnoch is in competition for a spot according to Jones. The group gave up 33 sacks and 80 tackles for loss a year ago. That's a big part of the turnover battle. If the line can't seal, the pressure on everyone else ramps up. The Bearcats line needs to come through.
Now some good news: the men in charge of forcing the turnovers have all 11 starters coming back. The unit was very young last season, and are now a bunch of juniors and seniors. UC was very good against the run, giving up 3.4 yards a carry, but terrible against the pass, at 234 yards a game, and 25 TDs.
All 11 may be back, but the Bearcats made a change. Walter Stewart was the fourth leading tackler, but has moved from linebacker to defensive end. Jones said that Stewart is going to be a hybrid, but it's expected that he'll play more as a rush end. Stewart had three sacks in the spring exhibition. Stewart had a great winter and spring, winning half of the Iron Bearcat Award. He joins a very solid group up front, anchored by Derek Wolfe (48 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4 sacks). Brandon Mills broke out at the tail end of the season finshing with 12.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks. Both of those numbers led the team.
The leading tackler for the Bearcats is back as well. JK Schaffer had 111 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT, tied for the team lead in passes broken up and defended, and forced two fumbles on top of that. He's the clear leader of the group. He's joined by the break out player from last year, Maalik Bomar. Bomar was second on the team with 70 tackles. Bomar looks to improve on his great season. The big question is who is going to take the spot of Stewart. The options are freshmen Nick Temple and Dwight Jackson. Both got a lot of reps during the spring, and it'll be interesting to see which one seizes the job.
The giant hole for the Bearcats was the secondary. The group only had 7 INTs, 2.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. The coverage was also not a strong suit, as guys had trouble finding the ball, which led opponents having big plays. The Bearcats get a starter back from injury, Dominique Battle. Battle is joined by Reuben Johnson, who was the third leading tackler on the Bearcats, with 62. Cam Cheatham is also fighting for a spot. Cheatham played well to close the season, had a strong winter, and was the other recipient of the Iron Bearcat Award with Stewart.
The Bearcat safeties struggled with injury and coverage. Wes Richardson was a ball hawk, with three fumble recoveries and two INTs, but was marred by an injury. Drew Frey had two INTs, but his inexperience was tested a lot. Malcolm Murray is a JUCO transfer who is expected to fight for a starting spot. He turned heads during the spring. The secondary needs someone to be a playmaker.
The Bearcats talk of the spring has been largely positive. It's year two for Jones, and the coaching staff stayed together during the off-season. A lot of key players are returning. The pieces are there for a turn around - which is the kind of "turn" bearcat fans are hoping for.