By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Cincinnati Bearcats 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 10-3, 5-2 Big East
Spring practice: March 1-April 17
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 7
Passing: Munchie Legaux, 55 of 116, 749 yds., 5 TDs, 4 INTs
Rushing: George Winn, 40 car., 219 yds., 2 TDs
Receiving: Anthony McClung, 49 rec., 683 yds., 6 TDs
Tackles: Maalik Bomar, 61
Sacks: Walter Stewart, 6
Interceptions: Two players tied with 3
Redshirts to watch: OL Parker Ehinger, OL Daniel Murray, DL Brandon Mitchell
Early Enrollees: DB Kevin Brown, RB Deionte Buckley, DL Jonathan Burt, LB Errol Clarke, QB Bennie Coney, TE DeShawn Dowdy, DB Marcus Foster, QB Trenton Norvell, DL Josh Posley
JUCO transfer to watch: RB Aaron Harris
Transfers to watch: OL Sam Longo (Ohio State)
Sept. 15 Delaware State
Sept. 29 Virginia Tech (Landover)
Oct. 6 Miami (Ohio)
Oct. 20 at Toledo
Big East conference schedule for 2012 has yet to be released.
Offensive Strength: The Bearcats suffered some heavy losses through graduation and return only four starters on offense in 2012. The receiving corps should be a strength, especially with Anthony McClung (49 catches) and Kenbrell Thompkins (44 catches) back in the mix.
Offensive Weakness: With so many losses, a number of positions need to be highlighted as a weakness. Munchie Legaux has experience, but Zach Collaros will be missed at quarterback. Isaiah Pead is gone after earning Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors last season. The Bearcats lose three starting offensive linemen, including guard Randy Martinez and tackle Alex Hoffman (both All-Big East selections last year).
Defensive Strength: Some key players are gone, but Cincinnati returns enough of a core to remain one of the best defenses in the Big East. Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills, Jordan Stepp and Walter Stewart is a good starting point up front, while three starters return in the secondary. Pass defense was a weakness for Cincinnati last season, but safety Drew Frey is back (a first-team All-Big selection last year), and help could come in the form of Malcolm Murray, a junior college transfer that missed last season with a knee injury.
Defensive Weakness: Although Cincinnati feels good about this group in 2012, it won’t be easy replacing linebacker JK Schaffer and tackle Derek Wolfe. Schaffer and Wolfe were both first-team All-Big East selections in 2011. While the secondary has a lot of bodies returning, it’s uncertain if that will translate into improvement.
Spring Storylines Facing the Bearcats:
1. The Bearcats engineered quite a turnaround last season. After finishing 4-8 in 2010, Cincinnati was predicted by most to finish in the second half of the Big East standings. However, credit coach Butch Jones and the staff for making the proper adjustments throughout preseason, as the Bearcats finished 2011 with a 10-3 record and a Liberty Bowl victory over Vanderbilt. Jones appears to have Cincinnati on the right track and received a contact extension in January, ensuring he should stick with the Bearcats for the next couple of seasons. Stability for Cincinnati is important, as Mark Dantonio was there for only three years before bolting for Michigan State, and Brian Kelly spent three seasons before jumping to Notre Dame. One concern for Jones and the coaching staff was the loss of co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks to Illinois. John Jancek shared the defensive coordinator title with Banks last season, but will be in charge of the all of the playcalling duties in 2012.
2. The glaring offensive question mark for Cincinnati in 2012 will be who replaces quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead? Munchie Legaux started three games in relief of Collaros last year and finished with 749 yards and five touchdowns through the air. He also added 185 yards and two scores on the ground, but completed only 47.4 percent of his throws. Jordan Luallen threw only four passes as a backup last year, but will also get a chance to compete for the No. 1 position. Luallen has excellent mobility, but the coaching staff needs to find out if he can be a consistent threat as a passer. Legaux was rated as the No. 12 dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school by one recruiting service and will get better with more playing time. If Legaux and Luallen are unable to secure the No. 1 quarterback spot, the Bearcats will have to turn to true freshmen Trenton Norvell and Bennie Coney or redshirt freshman Patrick Coyne under center. The early frontrunner has to be Legaux, but how much he improves as a passer during the year will be critical to Cincinnati’s Big East title hopes.
3. It’s unlikely Cincinnati will be able to replace Isaiah Pead’s production (1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns) from just one player in 2012. George Winn is the team’s top returning rusher after recording 219 yards and two scores last year. Winn will likely share carries with sophomores Jameel Poteat and Ralph David Abernathy IV. Poteat averaged 4.7 yards on 23 attempts last season, while Abernathy made his biggest impact on special teams with an average of 26.5 yards per kick return. Poteat has a good mix of size and speed, while Abernathy is best suited as a change of pace option at 5-foot-6. The Bearcats won’t need 1,000 yards from one back, but they have to spread that production among Winn, Poteat and Abernathy. One other concern for the rushing attack will be three new starters on the offensive line.
4. After finishing seventh or worse in the Big East in scoring, passing and total defense in 2010, Cincinnati had one of the most improved defenses in the conference last season. The Bearcats ranked sixth in the Big East in total defense, but held opponents to 20.3 points a game and ranked second nationally with an average of 3.5 sacks a game. With a couple of key players and co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks gone, can Cincinnati continue to improve on this side of the ball? Four starters depart, including All-Big East first-team selections in linebacker JK Schaffer and tackle Derek Wolfe. However, the defensive line is solid with four key contributors back, and the secondary cannot be any worse than it was last year. A big reason for the improvement on defense was 33 forced turnovers last season. The Bearcats need to stay aggressive and keep their forced turnovers and sack numbers high in 2012. With inexperience stepping in at quarterback and running back, the defense may need to carry the day for Cincinnati early next season.
5. Assuming the Big East finds an eighth team for 2012, the Bearcats figure to catch a break in the schedule. Cincinnati had an unbalanced home/away schedule in conference play in 2011, as it hosted three games and played four Big East foes on the road. If the schedule from last season is reversed, the Bearcats will host Rutgers, South Florida and Pittsburgh – all teams predicted to be in the same tier next season. Cincinnati will have to travel to Louisville, but the schedule seems to be very manageable for a run at the Big East title.
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