The long and generally painful offseason is nearing a close. A good sign of the light approaching at the end of the tunnel is the UC football team heading to their annual Fall camp in Higher Ground, Indiana. The Bearcats report today and the practice opens tomorrow August 8th. They will begin their third full season under Butch Jones who will be attempting to guide them to the their 4th Big East title in 5 years. In many ways there shouldn’t be any reason to think that Cincinnati under this regime can’t get it done. Coaching stability is one of the primary factors to sustained success. Just ask Virginia Tech.
But there are quite a few questions that this team still needs to answer before the season begins on September 6th. And no it isn’t at quarterback. Know this. Unless he sustains a serious injury Munchie Legaux is your starter. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Other than that sliver of certainty there are still quite a few storylines to keep an eye out for at Higher Ground over the coming weeks.
1) The Chemistry of the Offensive Line
There are a lot of reasons to feel optimistic about this unit. First of all they will be as big and tall an offensive line as Cincinnati has fielded in years. Secondly they will have the same coach teaching them for the third straight season. Don Mahoney, criticisms of 2010 on the back burner, totally redeemed himself last season. Finally, the OL returns essentially three starters. Sure OT Alex Hoffman is gone but Sean Hooey and Eric Lefeld have tons of reps under their belts. Rounding out the bunch is Austen Bujnoch who dominated at guard last season and has a potential to be drafted after his playing days at Cincinnati are over.
But there are areas for slight concern such as replacing Evan Davis at center, arguably the most important cog of the entire group. Nicknamed the ‘quarterback of the offensive line’, the center is responsible for blocking assignments as well as snap counts, essentially making sure the two players on either side of him are all on the same page. Dan Sprague will be tasked with this role in the upcoming season and it will be interesting to see how he handles the mental and physical rigors of the position. For the unit as a whole, though, the pros outweigh the cons and this should be among the team’s best position groups next year, pending injury of course. Still it will be interesting to see how the offensive line gels throughout camp.
2) Backup Defensive Tackle
Derek Wolfe and John Hughes have taken their massive bodies and loads of experience to the NFL. It will be on Camaron Beard and Jordan Stepp to.. well.. step up. There is without a doubt some concern about the smaller size of interior of the defensive line. But what made the 2011 unit so strong was the depth. Remember, Wolfe and Hughes had a season to forget in 2010 and the reason was because they were overplayed due to the lack of an effective backup. In 2011 they were able to take the field with the piece of mind knowing that Jordan Stepp could come in and give them a breather. They were no longer forced to play beyond the point of exhaustion. But Stepp did more than just allow Wolfe/Hughes to grab a Gatorade on the sidelines. He contributed 33 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and a half-sack in 2011, proving that he could ably plug running lanes along the line of scrimmage. Wolfe, Hughes, and Stepp essentially split reps 40 – 40 – 20 last season and if all goes well that ratio shouldn’t change this Fall.
What we know is that Beard and Stepp will be taking at least 80% of the reps in 2012. However who is given the final 20% is still up in the air. Coming out of Spring practice, former linebacker Mitch Meador was listed as the 2nd string interior lineman, backing up both Stepp and Beard. At that moment it became blatantly obvious that depth here was incredibly thin. As of now it’s unclear if Meador will hold onto that spot or if players such as Elijah Shuler, Brandon Mitchell, or CMU transfer John Williams will take over. This will definitely be something to watch in camp.
3) Rotation of Cornerbacks
Cincinnati’s secondary will be loaded with vets this Fall and especially so at the cornerback position. By most accounts senior Camerron Cheatham is a lock to start, as well he should, but the other corner spot is still undecided. Deven Drane should line up opposite Cheatham this fall but it’s unclear how his recovery has gone since his minor injury back in the Spring. This silver lining is that this has opened the door for redshirt freshman Trenier Orr to get valuable reps with the 1′s in Fall camp and potentially see playing time this season. He’s been receiving tons of praise from the coaches since signing with the Bearcats and some reports have him emerging as a contender to start. If anything it will be interesting to see if Orr pushes Drane and Cheatham in the coming weeks. Finally, I’m rooting for Dominique Battle to get at least some playing time this fall. He’s been battling multiple knee injuries which has slowed him down mightily since the 2009 season. Battle received a medical redshirt after blowing out his knee yet again against South Florida last season and I hope he’s recovered enough to contribute this Fall.
4) Progression of the New One-Two Punch of Legaux and Winn
Collaros and Pead are gone. That fact is damn-near tragic. While I wasn’t completely sold on Zach Collaros’ ability to guide this offense through the air, his leadership and ability to run the ball can’t be understated. And it will be difficult for the Bearcats to match what Isaiah Pead has done here in three illustrious years pounding the rock. So in steps All-Name Team captain Munchie Legaux and George Winn. By many accounts Legaux is as good of it not a better runner than Collaros in a footrace and has the raw tools to fit in the UC passing game perfectly. Unfortunately he had a laundry list of mechanical issues last season. Legaux will be evaluated under the microscope this month to see if his basics has improved.
Another relative newbie in the backfield is senior George Winn who put himself on the map with this remarkable touchdown run in the Liberty Bowl. While it’s never easy to replace an Isaiah Pead, Winn is definitely a capable back and he proved it with that run. He is clearly a downhill runner who is tough to bring down and has a strong understanding of the Bearcats’ offense. However he has never taken the workload of a #1 runningback while at Cincinnati. With UC focusing on the running game next season more than ever, the progression of Legaux and Winn in Fall camp will be important to the flow of the offense in 2012.
5) Avoiding Injuries
A recurring goal among every program throughout the country is to emerge from training camp relatively injury-free. This will be especially so for the Bearcats who are fairly inexperienced at key positions. If Munchie Legaux goes down, Brendan Kay who only has a handful of snaps to his name would take charge. If George Winn was sidelined, a true sophomore Jameel Poteat would be tasked to carry most of the load. If either Camaron Beard or Jordan Stepp were injured, honestly who the hell knows who would take their place.
So while inexperience behind starters isn’t anything new, UC really can’t afford to see theirs go down for an extended period of time and certainly not before the season actually begins. The depth just isn’t there this season like it was in 2011.