Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The 2011 season was another strong one for the
Cincinnati Bearcats. For the fourth time in the last five seasons the Bearcats
finished with 10 or more wins along with a top-25 ranking. The Bearcats also
split the Big East Conference crown, giving them at least a share of the
conference title in three of the last four seasons.
After a 72-10 thrashing of FCS opponent Austin Peay to begin the season, the
Bearcats were outclassed on the road against Tennessee (45-23). After that loss
though, Cincinnati won six straight games including three against conference
opponents and an authoritative 44-14 triumph over NC State of the ACC. The
streak catapulted the Bearcats into the national rankings for the first time
during the season and set up a showdown with conference favorite West Virginia.
The Bearcats led 21-17 in the contest mid-way through the fourth quarter, but
couldn't hold in a 24-21 loss. The following week, Cincinnati lost again at
Rutgers (20-3), but the Bearcats rebounded nicely from there with wins against
Syracuse (30-13) and Connecticut (35-27) to end the regular season to earn a
share of the Big East title.
The Bearcats earned their first bowl win since 2007 with a 31-24 defeat of
Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl. Cincinnati ended the season with a 10-3 overall
mark, which tied with West Virginia for the best overall record (10-3) in the
conference and placed the Bearcats at No. 25 in final rankings, while earning
Butch Jones Big East Coach of the Year honors.
OFFENSE: The success of the 2011 squad was predicated largely on the play of
running back Isaiah Pead and quarterback Zach Collaros. Pead led the Big East
in rushing in 2011 (1,259 yards) and Collaros completed 61.0 percent of his
passes and threw 15 touchdowns despite battling some injuries during the
season. Both are now gone leaving big holes for Jones to fill if the Bearcats
hope to compete this season.
Taking over for Collaros will be Munchie Legaux who showed some big play
ability (749 yards passing) in three starts last season. However, he will need
to improve his accuracy (47.4 completion percentage). Brendon Kay and Patrick
Coyne could challenge for snaps if Legaux struggles.
"The quarterback of our offense must be able to manage the offense effectively
and make good decisions with the football. Protecting the football is a
critical element of the game," Jones said.
Aiding Legaux will be the return of two starting wide receivers in Anthony
McClung and Kembrell Thompkins, as well as tight end Travis Kelce. McClung and
Thompkins combined for 94 receptions and 1,223 yards last year and return as
one of the best duos in the conference.
Replacing Pead will be a bigger challenge. Last year's backup George Winn (219
yards) has the most experience and will get the first look, but prized recruit
Jameel Poteat is the future in the backfield and will push for carries.
Although Poteat may be knocking on the door Jones is confident in Winn after
the senior had a strong spring.
"George Winn is an individual who (had) a very impressive spring, not only
on the field but off the field as well in a leadership role," Jones said.
There will also be three returning starters on the offensive line in tackles
Eric Lefeld and Sean Hooey and guard Austen Bujnoch.
DEFENSE: The defense was a surprising strength last season, especially against
the run where the Bearcats ranked sixth nationally in yards allowed per game.
Cincinnati was also very opportunistic, taking advantage of opponents mistakes
en route to the 9th best turnover margin (+12) in the country.
John Jancek is now the defensive coordinator after sharing the role with Tim
Banks, who left for Illinois.
Just like the offense, there are some big holes to fill especially the ones
left by Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year defensive tackle Derek Wolfe
and leading tackler J.K. Schaffer.
Still there are seven players returning on defense and the strength comes in
the secondary, the most experienced and skilled unit. The secondary is led by
strong safety Drew Frey who was named to the All-Big East First-Team a season
ago and is joined by top returning tackler Camerron Cheatham.
Maalik Bomar and Nick Temple return as starters in the linebacking unit which
will start sophomore Solomon Tentman in place of Schaffer. The defensive line
will need ends Walter Stewart and Dan Giordano to get pressure, while the young
interior linemen develop.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The strength of this unit is punter Patrick O'Donnell, who had a
Big East leading 43.8 average in 2011 and enters the 2012 season on the
preseason Ray Guy Award watch list. Tony Miliano will handle the placekicking
duties yet again and should improve after gaining experience as a freshman.
David Abernathy was second in the league in kickoff returns in 2011 (26.5 ypr)
but may be utilized more in the passing game this season.
OUTLOOK: Winning games has not been a big issue for Cincinnati in the past few
seasons but that may change with such a shakeup on the depth chart. With a
number of key contributors gone the Bearcats will need unproven players to
really step up to make another run at the Big East title.
The team will get an early test opening the season at home against conference
foe Pittsburgh. Three of the next four games are winnable contests for
Cincinnati, including a pair of FCS opponents, but a date versus Virginia Tech
in between will keep the Bearcats honest. Cincinnati will not go long stretches
away from Nippert Stadium with back-to-back road contests against Toledo and
Louisville the longest stretch away from home, although the Bearcats will close
the season on the road against Connecticut.
It'd be a lot to ask of such an unproven roster to match the 10-3 overall mark
or even the 5-2 conference record of last season. Still the Bearcats figure to
be a team that will put up points with skill and speed on the edges. Add in a
mostly favorable non-conference slate and a bowl game should be within reach.
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