Tuesday April 27th, 2010

CINCINNATI -- The opening quote from a Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press story on Central Michigan's first spring practice under Butch Jones looked awfully familiar.

"What we want to do is find our identity," said Jones, who replaced Brian Kelly, who led the Chippewas to a MAC title before leaving for Cincinnati prior to the 2007 season.

A check of the tape from a conversation with Jones earlier this month on the field at Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium explained the déjà vu. "We're creating an identity right now," said first-year Cincinnati coach Jones, who replaces Brian Kelly, who led the Bearcats to consecutive Big East titles before leaving for Notre Dame prior to the 2010 season.

If Jones sounds as if he's reading from a script, it's because he is. He wrote that script when he inherited a program Kelly raised to new heights and took it even higher. After Jones took over at Central Michigan, he won two MAC titles in three seasons. Now, he finds himself in the unique position of replacing the same coach at a second school.

Jones should know exactly what to do. Every culture tweak he made at Central Michigan should work at Cincinnati. The Chippewas, who had bought into Kelly's program, adapted to Jones' more physical, hair-on-fire style with little resistance. So too should the Bearcats, who certainly seemed to enjoy Jones' attitude during a scrimmage earlier this spring.

From the press box hung a flag. For most of spring practice to that point, the flag had been red (walkthrough speed) or yellow (touch but don't tackle). On this particular Saturday, Jones had seen enough red and yellow. "All right!" he screamed. "We're full go!" A green flag replaced the yellow. Offensive and defensive players roared. What happened next? What happens at a NASCAR race when a green flag replaces a yellow?

Everyone runs wide open.

The Bearcats moved as quickly and with as much purpose as the USC players I'd seen at their high-octane practice a few days earlier. The Cincinnati players hit. And hit. And hit. Near the goal line, shoving matches erupted between linemen certain they either had paved a path for a touchdown or stuffed the ballcarrier inches short of paydirt. After one touchdown, guard Alex Hoffman tore off his helmet and howled in celebration. The bridge of his nose oozed blood, the result of a collision with linebacker Dorian Davis. "Me and Dorian met up head-up," Hoffman said with a wicked smile.

Defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs, the only holdover from Kelly's staff, said Kelly typically ran 20-25 live plays per practice. This kept players healthy, but there was a trade-off. Toughness is forged by contact, and under Kelly the Bearcats lost a little of the hard edge they'd had under previous coach Mark Dantonio. That's not a criticism of Kelly -- his way produced conference titles and a 24-4 record the past two seasons -- but Jones would like to marry the Dantonio teams' toughness with the Kelly teams' ability to execute.

"When Brian came, he was perfect at that time," Coombs said. "We needed excitement in this city. We needed to generate crowds. We needed to win at a higher level. At this time, Coach Jones is the perfect guy for the University of Cincinnati. He's already followed Brian before. He understands how to take what's there and make it better."

Kelly certainly didn't leave Jones empty-handed. The Bearcats return 13 starters, including receiver Armon Binns, tight end Ben Guidugli, all-conference linemen Hoffman and Jason Kelce and four of the top six tacklers on defense. Cincinnati lost starting quarterback Tony Pike, but the Bearcats aren't exactly starting over at that position, either.

Zach Collaros replaced the injured Pike during last year's win at South Florida and then went 4-0 with a 199.03 passer efficiency rating as the starter. Backup Chazz Anderson, meanwhile, started two games in 2008 as the Bearcats persevered through a string of quarterback injuries. Thanks to Kelly, both are well-versed in running the no-huddle spread Jones prefers. Though there are a host of technical differences, including new footwork for the quarterbacks, the product should look quite similar on the field. And since both quarterbacks have game experience, Jones knows Collaros and Anderson know what to expect.

"You can try to simulate it in practice with crowd noise, putting them in pressure situations, but until you're really playing for real, it's different," Jones said. "Knowing that you have two guys who have been in live situations in big games obviously helps."

Knowing exactly how to replace an accomplished outgoing coach helps even more. Jones is reluctant to go too deep into specifics of what he and Kelly shared during this baton pass, but the men definitely have a deep respect for one another. "I called him the day of the Sugar Bowl," Jones said. "There were 35,000 UC fans there. I said 'You'd be very proud of this football program.'"

Still, Jones must put his own stamp on the program. "I understand that the expectations are extremely high," he said. "I understand I'm the caretaker of the Cincinnati football family. I'm very excited about that. I'm very excited about the challenge. I believe we haven't reached anywhere near the potential this football program can accomplish."

Jones has tried to build a bond with his players, whose trust was shattered momentarily when Kelly left for Notre Dame. During Jones' first meeting with his new team, he pulled out a pen and began writing on a board ... 5-1-3, it began. It was Jones' cell phone number. If a player needed him, he said, he'd always answer.

Jones has also introduced longer practices and more hitting. The Bearcats will have to get tougher if they hope to compete outside the Big East. Though it's difficult to tell how much of the Sugar Bowl loss can be blamed on the turmoil in the program at the time, the 51-24 shellacking by Florida proved to the Bearcats that they must get tougher. "We need to turn it up," Hoffman said, "to a whole new level."

Jones will try to help Cincinnati reach that level, even if the Bearcats bloody a few of their own teammates' noses along the way. That's OK. Brothers quarrel sometimes, but Jones has developed a simple-yet-brilliant strategy to keep that aggression on the practice field and focused in a positive direction. After each practice, offensive and defensive players line up on the 50-yard line for handshakes, just as we all did after every Little League game growing up.

"Before that moment, he wants you to compete, offense against defense, man against man, as hard as you can." Coombs said. "Try to beat that man in front of you, and if you have to beat him up, beat him up. But when it's over, it's over. Shake his hand and go on. You're back to being teammates."

Kelly's former Central Michigan players adopted that attitude from Jones and kept right on winning.

The script suggests Kelly's former Cincinnati players will do the same.

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