Butch Jones had a trying first season as head coach at Cincinnati. Brian Kelly’s was indeed a tough act to follow, producing consecutive Big East championships and BCS bowl berths. Jones needed a season to acclimate, but once he did, he returned Bearcat football to the form at which his Central Michigan-turned-Cincinnati predecessor had it performing.
UC won a share of its third Big East title in four seasons and defeated Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl for a third 10-plus win season. It’s possible, if not likely that UC would have played in the Orange Bowl and finished the regular season a top 10 team were it not for quarterback Zach Collaros’ ankle injury. The Bearcats suffered their only conference defeats in mid-November after Collaros was sidelined.
Collaros’ absence did allow reserve Munchie Legaux valuable playing time and thus gave him experience for 2012 — experience the Bearcats are sorely lacking in other positions.
The coming season will again test Jones in some ways similar to his 2010 debut. The offense takes on a new identity with the exhaustion of eligibility from both Collaros, and versatile running back Isaiah Pead. The St. Louis Rams selected Pead in the second round of April’s NFL Draft, and if his college career is an accurate indication, they got a gem. He finished his collegiate career with 3288 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, as well as 87 receptions for 721 yards and another six scores.
That’s a lot of production for Jones to replace. George Winn would seemingly take the reins as a redshirt senior and the third leading rusher in 2011. Jameel Poteat and former scout team player Adam Fearing each garnered some carries and scored touchdowns in limited opportunities. R.D. Abernathy was in the same boat, but at 5-foot-6, 160 pounds is a prototype third back. Anthony King played in all 13 games, but had just seven carries.
There are options, but uncertainty. Legeaux is the facet of the running game most proven, having rushed for 185 yards and a pair of scores. But can he become as effective a weapon in that aspect of the offense as Collaros? Jones oversaw the development of Dan LeFevour as one of the nation’s most prolific dual threat QBs at CMU; perhaps Legaux can evolve into a similarly dangerous player.
But that would be contingent on Legaux finding his touch in the passing game. He completed just 47.4 percent of his attempts for 749 yards, and was intercepted almost as frequently (four) as he scored (five).
When Legaux replaced Collaros, an optimist could have examined the situation akin to 2009. The Bearcats’ national championship aspirations took a hit when Heisman candidate Tony Pike was injured, but the offense did not miss a beat under Collaros. The transition to Legaux worked out more typically of a mid-season quarterback change.
That isn’t necessarily to say he played poorly, but if UC is to thrive this season with the offense fully entrusted to him he must become more consistent.
UC also faces change on defense, though not as many as the offense. The Bearcats put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than any team in the FBS except Texas A&M. Derek Wolfe’s 9.5 sacks led a UC team that recorded 45 altogether. He’s gone. As are All-American J.K. Schaffer (114 tackles, 13 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and John Hughes (12.5 TFL, 5 sacks, and direction of several ’80s comedic classics…surely, I am the first writer to ever make this joke…right? Right?).
However, the UC line is among the nation’s most talented with the returns of Walter Stewart, Dan Giordano and Brandon Mills. With that triumvirate providing pressure, a secondary that includes Deven Drane and Camerron Cheatham. The UC defensive backs combined for six interceptions, with a team leading three each. The Bearcats may need to rely on their defensive prowess while feeling out an offensive identity.