Cincinnati enters its third season under coach Tommy Tuberville as the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats return an explosive offense, headlined by quarterback Gunner Kiel and a deep receiving corps. However, question marks remain on defense.
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Previewing Cincinnati’s Offense for 2015
Quarterback Gunner Kiel came out firing in the 2014 opener with six touchdown passes in his collegiate debut. Kiel, a former No. 1 quarterback recruit who began his career at Notre Dame, finished with 31 TD passes to tie the Cincinnati single-season record, and his top seven receivers return. One question is durability. Kiel, now a junior, made all 13 starts last season, but he left several games with rib and/or back injuries. The UC training staff has worked with Kiel to improve his core strength.
Possession receiver Shaq Washington (66 catches, four TDs) is on pace to become the UC career leader in receptions. Mekale McKay and Chris Moore (eight TD catches apiece) are the deep threats in UC’s four-wideout offense.
UC ranked 13th nationally in passing offense but only 72nd in rushing, and the preseason focus is to improve the run game. One problem was that top backs Hosey Williams and Tion Green missed most of 2014 with injuries. Mike Boone led the club with 650 yards rushing and nine TDs as a true freshman. Boone and Williams will battle for the No 1 job in preseason camp.
The line loses three-time all-league left tackle Eric Lefeld. Three starters return: Parker Ehinger (moving from right guard to left tackle), right tackle Justin Murray and center Deyshawn Bond.
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Previewing Cincinnati’s Defense for 2015
A 55–34 midseason thrashing by the Miami Hurricanes left the Bearcats dead last nationally in total defense, leading coach Tommy Tuberville to say: “We can’t tackle anybody on defense. We look like the Bad News Bears.” Two weeks before that, UC had allowed 710 yards in a 50–28 loss to Ohio State. The schedule lightened up in the second half of the season, and the Bearcats gradually rose to No. 96 in total defense. But UC’s relative lack of defensive speed has been exposed by Power 5 schools.
Key losses include linebackers Jeff Luc (134 tackles) and Nick Temple (113) and defensive end Terrell Hartsfield (AAC-best 9.0 sacks). Defensive end Silverberry Mouhon is the top returnee among the front seven.
Ball-hawking safety Zach Edwards (121 tackles) is back, and the secondary should benefit from the return of veteran cornerback Adrian Witty. A vocal team leader, Witty missed most of 2014 with a leg injury.
UC has its third defensive coordinator in three seasons under Tuberville, with Steve Clinkscale promoted from secondary/cornerbacks coach. Last year’s coordinator, Hank Hughes, left to become defensive line coach at Nebraska.
Previewing Cincinnati’s Specialists for 2015
The special teams also will have their third coordinator in Tuberville’s third UC season as Ty Linder joins the staff from TCU. Placekicker Andrew Gantz returns after a solid debut season that saw him earn second-team All-AAC honors after making 16-of-20 field goal attempts. Punter Sam Geraci also made his UC debut last year and improved as the season progressed, finishing with a 39.4-yard average. The coverage teams were better after a dreadful 2013 season, but UC again produced little in the return game.
After two consecutive 9–4 seasons and two bowl losses under Tuberville, some believe UC is running in place. The Bearcats did share the AAC title last year, but they lack a signature win in Tuberville’s brief tenure. Tuberville turns 61 in September, and he has not had a team finish in the final AP top 25 since 2007 (Auburn). The 2014 Bearcats don’t look like a top 25 team, either, but they should be considered the favorite in the East Division of the expanded American Athletic Conference. There are some issues on defense, but the offense, led by Kiel, will put UC in position to win eight or nine games once again.