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Spring Practice Primer: Cincinnati

Posted on: April 7, 2011 5:15 pm
Edited on: April 7, 2011 5:27 pm
Posted by Chip Patterson

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football  will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Cincinnati , who started spring practice last Tuesday.

Can Butch Jones and Cincinnati prove that 2010 was just a fluke, and get back on track in 2011

When Brian Kelly left Cincinnati, he had the Bearcats sitting high and mighty. Coming off three-straight 10+ win seasons and back-to-back Big East titles, the thought was that new head coach Butch Jones was walking into to a dream setup. Jones, a promising young coach from Central Michigan, had succeeded Kelly at his previous job as well. He took the Chippewas to three straight postseason appearances and finished 2009 ranked 25th in the final AP Poll.

But Jones did not enter the season without doubters. With only three years of head coaching experience, Bearcats fans were worried that Jones might not be ready for a job of this magnitude yet. From a program standpoint, finishing 2010 4-8 after Kelly's success is either a fluke or disaster. Jones' job beginning in spring practice will be to prove that last season was the former rather than the latter.

Cincinnati returns all eleven defensive starters from 2010's squad. Normally, that would be an immediate sign of good things to come. But with the Bearcats' defensive performance in 2010, it only serves as a starting point for improvement this spring. Cincinnati ranked dead last in scoring defense (28.0 points per game), and next to last in total defense (369.4 yards per game). But the defense will not magically improve just by being a year older, they need to begin improving as a unit this spring.

One thing working in their advantage is another year with the same staff and scheme. Co-coordinators Tim Banks and John Jancek are back, and it will be the first time in three seasons the defense has not had to adjust to a new defensive coordinator. The front line should be strong, as evidence by Cincinnati's (relative) success against the run last season. But the secondary still is a point of major concern for Jones. In 2010 the secondary gave up 234 yards per game through the air, ranking dead last in the Big East. Keep an eye on junior college transfer Malcom Murray, who will get to see some time at safety this spring with Wes Richardson sitting out with an injury. Jones also is hoping that an open competition among a handful of corners will breed development that should benefit the position heading into fall practice.

Offensively the Bearcats aren't as stacked with returning starters, but there are enough key pieces returning and new additions to expect little drop-off from last year's production. Cincinnati did lead the conference last season with 417.3 yards per game of total offense. Much of that success can be credited to senior quarterback Zach Collaros. Collaros led the Big East in passing yardage and touchdowns last season, and was unanimously selected to all-Big East first team. On paper, not a bad finish for Collaros' first full season as a starter, except for 14 interceptions and that 4-8 record. As a senior Collaros must not only improve his own turnover count, but become a leader for this offense and this team. Leadership is one of the things that many have felt the Bearcats lacked in 2010, and that can not be changed alone by a second-year coach. Collaros was on the roster for the peak of Cincinnati football, and he knows what it will take to get back into Big East title contention.

Collaros loses one of his primary weapons from a season ago, but gains a few new pieces that have turned some heads so far this spring. Gone is Armon Binns, the first-team all-conference wide receiver who was the only 1,000 yard wideout in the Big East. But back is D.J. Woods, the big-play threat who finished second in the conference right behind Binns with 898 yards on the season. But the receiver who has been making a strong impression so far this spring is Kenbrell Thompkins. Thompkins was a JUCO transfer originally signed with Lane Kiffin at Tennessee. When Kiffin left, so did Thompkins. Now after sitting out last year it is time for him to live up to the hype. Most observations from practice thus far make it sound like he is doing just that.

The Bearcats offense also gets Isaiah Pead returning at running back. Pead saw an increase in his workload in 2010, and responded with his first 2010 season. Like Collaros, he was on the roster for both Big East titles and will be a crucial extension of the coaching staff in the locker room. But one of the biggest stories this spring on offense is the return of (now) tight end Travis Kelce from his one suspension.

Formerly a defensive end, Kelce has been turning heads since making the move to tight end in the offseason. Kelce, a 6-foot-6, 252 pound junior, was recruited to Cincinnati as a quarterback to join his older brother Jason -- the Bearcats' starting center in 2010. Kelce ran the Wildcat occasionally in 2009, but was suspended for a year just before the Sugar Bowl for an off-field issue. Kelce spent the entire 2010 regular season as a member of the scout team, awaiting his return to the Bearcats.

 “He came to work every day,” Jones said of Kelce's efforts while suspended. “It’s hard for an individual when they know that they’re not going to be playing and it seems like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of times they’ll pace themselves and go through the motions. He was one of the individuals that brought it every day on the scout team. He was extremely competitive and I thought he made the most of his situation.”

Kelce has been described by his teammates as a "freak." He is physical, fast, and the coaching staff has been complimenting his ability to block and use his hands. He has honed skills all over the field, playing that defensive end position while on the scout team last season. Now making the move to tight end, Kelce has the possibility to be a nightmare for opposing defenses. Even scarier? Coach Jones has not ruled out the possibility of using Kelce on the defensive end.

"Travis can be a weapon," Jones said. "He can do so many things. When we feel comfortable with him, we may cross train him to be a third-down specialist at the defensive end position."

Attention will be paid on all aspects of the Cincinnati team this spring. Normally falling from 12-1 to 4-8 would be grounds for a coaching change, and Jones knows that. Many of the players have admitted that they didn't quite buy into the new coaching staff last year, but after watching the disastrous results they have no choice. The players must buy into the toughness and attention to detail being preached in spring practice. With so many returning starters there is little learning curve necessary, and Cincinnati should be able to improve quickly. However, it also means there is less room for excuses should the win column not improve as well.

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