For a 9-4 team, the Bearcats were kind of disappointing last season. Forget the 2 losses at the end, Louisville and a much-improved North Carolina were good teams, but losing to Illinois and South Florida in the first half of the season were bad. To be fair though, the team were mourning the loss of redshirt freshman Ben Flick in the USF game, who had died in a car accident after the previous game. The passing game was great, although an inconsistent running attack hampered the team, and Cinci struggled in redzone, coming away with just 36 TDs and 6 field goals in 57 attempts. The Bearcats also turned the ball over 28 times. The defense was strong most of the year, apart from that Twilight Zone episode against the Fighting Illini. Last season was just the second time in 7 years that the Bearcats haven’t won at least 10 games (4-8 in 2010), and they’ve had 3 different head coaches (technically 5) in that span. They’re a well-drilled, talented team, who must be considered one of the favorites for the AAC crown this season.
The problems with the running game started up front, as the offensive line lost starting center Dan Sprague to injury before the season began, with freshman Deyshawn Bond taking over. Even with a rookie in the middle, everyone else returned from the previous year, so expectations remained high. Then left guard Austen Bujnoch hurt his foot, which slowed him considerably, and it was obvious the line was struggling. Even so, they were excellent in pass protection until the bowl game. Bujnoch and right guard Sam Longo were both out, and the unit gave up 5 sacks. At running back, the Bearcats used the troika of Hosey Williams, Ralph David Abernathy IV and Tion Green, who combined for 1585 yards and 16 TDs on 338 carries, but no one looked dominant. At quarterback, Munchie Legaux somehow beat out Brendon Kay in camp, but lasted only 2 games into the season before a gruesome knee injury ruled him out. Kay was back at the helm, and picked up where he left off in 2013, passing for 3289 yards and 22 TDs, although he also 12 interceptions. Kay also pitched in with 6 scores on the ground. The senior had a fine bunch of receivers to throw to, with Anthony McClung (72-939-5), Shaq Washington (77-785-1) and Chris Moore (45-645-9) all contributing regularly, and the reserves were deep.
The offensive line will again be key this year, but only returns 3 starters, losing guards Bujnoch and Longo, as well as Bujnoch’s backup Andre Cureton, who played regularly. Bond should man the center, with all-MAC left tackle Eric Lefeld and right tackle Parker Ehinger also back. Just like the bowl game, Ehinger will likely slide inside to make way for Cory Keebler, who started in the bowl game, while Kevin Schloemer will step in at left guard. Lefeld, Ehinger and Schloemer all missed part of spring camp, setting the line back in its development. The running back corps will remain essentially the same, with Hosey, Abernathy and Green splitting carries. Ideally, someone will step forward to provide a consistent threat, but no has done so yet. Keep an eye on EJ Junior, who has turned some heads in camp. Quarterback looks to be in great shape based on Gunner Kiel’s spring performance. He still has to hold off JUCO Jarred Evans and Legaux in the summer, but the passing attack definitely looks promising. All the receivers return, with the exception of McClung and tight Blake Annen, but the depth remains strong. If JUCO Casey Gladney can’t win a starting job, expect Max Morrison (29-447-3) or Mekale McKay (16-485-7) to push hard for increased playing time.
The defense was the driving force of the team last season, and made opponents work for almost every yard. Their forte was run defense, but the coverage held its own, despite some injury problems. Starting corner Trenier Orr was lost for the year after just 2 games, but Howard Wilder (35 tackles, 2 interceptions) stepped in and the secondary didn’t miss a beat. Opposite him, Deven Drane missed a couple of games, but still made the all-conference team. He picked off 3 passes and broke up 5. Zach Edwards and Adrian Witty split the strong safety spot, combining for 119 tackles, 11 PBUs and 3 interceptions. The defensive line was strong, and made life a lot easier for the secondary with a pass rush that netted 27 of the teams 35 sacks. Jordan Stepp and Adam Dempsey clogged the middle, accounting for 16 tackles for and 9.5 sacks, while defensive end Silverberry Mouhon led the team 9.5 sacks and 7 hurries. On the opposite side, Brad Harrah and Terrell Hartsfield split time, to the tune of 14.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The success of the defensive line meant the linebackers needed to blitz less, and could devote their time to their other duties. Even so, Nick Temple still came third on the team with 5.5 sacks from the strongside. He combined with middle linebacker Greg Blair for 185 tackles, 20.5 for loss. Jeff Luc shouldn’t be forgotten about on the weakside – he made 44 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and forced 3 fumbles.
Entering 2014, the Bearcats need to replace 5 starters, including the middle of their defense with Stepp, Dempsey and Blair gone. In the secondary, Drane and free safety Arryn Chenault have graduated, and Orr, a potential starter, has transferred to Sam Houston State. Wilder should be a lock at one spot, while Leviticus Payne saw plenty of action, making 24 tackles and breaking up a pass. Witty and Edwards both started at safety and linebacker last season, and Witty also started at corner, so they could man the safety spots, but there is a scenario where one could move to weakside ‘backer. This would involve Luc moving inside to replace Blair, which he did last season for 1 game. Temple will stay on the strongside. The other alternative will see JUCO Marcus Tappan or Mouton’s brother Kevin, who is one of the top linebacker recruits this season, take the middle or weakside. The line loses its heart with both tackles graduating. All 3 contributing ends return though, which is a huge bonus. Another JUCO, Hakeem Allonce, should be ready to contribute, but the Bearcats don’t have a lot of experience outside of senior Camaron Beard. There is good talent though, as Tommy Tuberville recruited hard in this area in the offseason.
After looking good in his first couple of years, kicker Tony Miliano had a rough year, making just 7 of 17 field goals. John Lloyd was a decent punter, averaging 42.7 gross, but he only punted 33 times, with Kay punting 15 times. Abernathy and Rodriguez Moore averaged just over 21 yards per kick return between them, but McClung only averaged 4.1 on points. Washington had a 35-yard return, but wasn’t much better otherwise. The kick coverage was okay, but the punting team gave up 15.5 yards per return and a TD.
Everyone is back except McClung and Kay, but Milano will have to hold off redshirt freshman Andrew Gantz. The unit needs to work on both coverage and returns, as this was not a great group last season.
With some big losses on offense and defense, and a paltry special teams unit, there should be cause for concern for the Bearcats. However, thanks to realignment, UC are basically back in Conference USA for the first time in 10 years. Their time in the Big East/AAC gives them an edge in talent over their new conference-mates, and it should serve them well in 2014. There are some tough conference matchups, but if the Bearcats can start fast, they should be favored in all of them.