by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Cincy head coach Butch Jones raised expectations last season with a 10-3 mark including a Liberty Bowl win against Vanderbilt. Coming on the heels of his disappointing 4-8 debut in Cincy in 2010, it was a much welcomed confidence-builder. A high bar was set by Jones’ predecessor Brian Kelly, as the Bearcats went 33-7 SU in the three years prior to Kelly’s departure for Notre Dame, rising to as high as #4 in the country before his move to South Bend. Now Jones, who was named Big East Coach of the Year for his efforts in 2011, will be expected to deliver another team worthy of a bowl despite facing a severe rebuilding job.

The Cincy defense lost its top tackler (MLB J.K. Schaffer; 114 stops) and a pair of defensive tackles taken in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. The offense was similarly stripped of top-grade talent as Big East Offensive Player of the Year RB Isaiah Pead (1259 YR) and TE Adrien Robinson similarly went to the NFL in the early rounds. Multi-talented, conference QB Zach Collaros also ran out of eligibility after triggering the second-best attack in the Big East last season.

The first order of business in spring was for Jones to pick a starting QB...which he didn’t do! Weather cancelled the spring game, so the coach played it cagey and claimed the competition for the job remained open. Although true frosh Bennie Coney enrolled in school early and was in spring drills, and Jones was impressed with big (6-4, 237) sr. Brendon Kay and redshirt frosh Patrick Coyne, it will be jr. Munchie Legaux (right) at the controls. Legaux got some extensive playing time, rushing for 185 yards and throwing for 749 subbing for an injured Collaros in the final four games last season, and looked much-improved in his final appearance, throwing for 217 yards and 3 touchdowns in the win over UConn in the regular-season finale. That victory gave the Bearcats a share of the league title.

Unfortunately for Cincy fans, the offensive line was also stripped of talent as well, losing three regulars including a pair of all-conference performers. The loss of Pead and the guts of the OL won’t crush the offense as much as might be expected. The line returns three players with a combined 28 starts in jr. G Austen Bujnoch, sr. T Sean Hooey and soph tackle Eric Lefeld, and Ohio State transfer Sam Longo won the center job. Pead will be replaced by a committee of running backs led by soph Jameel Poteat, who was a highly-touted prep star and showed some flashes of talent in rushing for 4.7 ypc last season. Senior George Winn (5.5 ypc LY) also figures to take advantage of his added workload now that Pead has moved on.

If Legaux can improve his accuracy, he’ll have some a pair of excellent targets in returning starting WRs Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins, who combined for 93 catches last season. Thompkins, who originally played for Tennessee, stepped up his game considerably in spring and looks ready to take another step forward. The Bearcats play just twice in the season’s first four weekends, so the extra prep time should help the new offensive “grafts” grow into their roles.

The defense should be in better shape, as despite the loss of a pair of pro defensive tackles and a first-team all-conference linebacker, the remaining crew should be just fine. Safety Drew Frey (left) had 73 tackles and made the all-conference squad, and he leads a group of three returning starters in the 2ndary. 2011 DE regulars Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart are both seniors who’ve been starting for 2-3 seasons and combined for 68 tackles and 11 sacks in 2011. LB Maalik Bomar (61 stops) has an inside track on all-conference honors.

Cincy’s special teams could really help tip the scales, as the Bearcats boast the league’s best punter in 6-5 Pat O’Donnell, and one of the top return men in the Big East in the person of Ralph David Abernathy IV, a speedster who avg. 27 yds. per KO return and 82 all-purpose yards as a frosh.

Summary: The cupboard’s not bare, so Jones should be able to retool and get another bowl bid this season. However, unless Legaux and Poteat turn in breakout years, it will be difficult to equal 2011’s double-digit win total.


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