Top 25 Team Previews
Top 25 Athlon Team Previews: Cincinnati Bearcats
2009 Record: 12-1 (7-0 in Big East)
Head Coach: Butch Jones
Zach Collaros :: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
at Fresno State
at NC State
SE Missouri State
at Oregon State
at Miami (Ohio)
at South Florida
Florida (Sugar Bowl)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Zach Collaros, QB: A threat to run and pass, he should continue the tradition of solid QB play for Cincinnati.
JK Schaffer, LB: With two years of experience, he should be the leader of a defensive unit that's looking for an identity.
Isaiah Pead, RB: He could become a 1,000-yard rusher with more carries this year.
Tony Pike, QB: He was the best quarterback in the Big East last year.
Mardy Gilyard, WR: He was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.
Aaron Webster, S: He was a first-team All-Big East selection in 2009.
34: Quarterback Zach Collaros has won 34 straight games as a starter dating back to his junior year in high school, where he won back-to-back Ohio state titles.
Cincinnati scored points quickly and in bunches under Brian Kelly, and that doesn't figure to change much under successor Butch Jones, who runs a similar spread offense and has an offense loaded with talent at his disposal.
Junior Zach Collaros will likely start at quarterback after passing for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns last year during his four-game starting stint in relief of the injured Tony Pike. He also rushed for 344 yards. Junior Isaiah Pead emerged as Cincinnati's primary running threat in 2009, gaining 806 yards and averaging 6.7 yards per carry, and could be poised for a breakout year.
The receiving corps is loaded with the return of Armon Binns and D.J. Woods, the Bearcats' second- and third-leading receivers in 2009. Although he has yet to catch a pass at Cincinnati, the most talented receiver of the group might be senior Vidal Hazelton, a transfer from USC who sat out last season. Senior Ben Guidugli, a second-team All-Big East selection, is also a receiving threat at tight end after catching 27 passes for 364 yards in 2009.
Five starters return from a defense that got pushed around quite a bit during the last five games of 2009. The Bearcats have potential all-conference performers in defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, linebacker JK Schaffer and strong safety Drew Frey, but this is a young group, with only one senior listed as a starter. They're also operating under their third and fourth defensive coordinators in three years, with co-coordinators Tim Banks and John Jancek.
The emphasis during spring was on getting a pass rush from the edge, and Banks thinks he has a good pass-rusher in defensive end/linebacker Walter Stewart, a sophomore who showed flashes of brilliance last year. Another sophomore, defensive end Dan Giordano, also saw significant playing time last year in a backup role and will be counted on to make an impact this season.
The departure of electrifying kick returner Mardy Gilyard leaves a huge void that Hazelton and reserve tailback Darrin Williams will attempt to fill. Senior Jake Rogers handled both kicking and punting duties last season and, after two years of inconsistency, matured into a fairly reliable placekicker and a competent punter. There's a good chance he'll surrender the punting duties this year to sophomore Patrick O'Donnell, who was recruited to replace All-American Kevin Huber but wasn't ready in 2009. Woods is back to return punts.
It's only natural for the rest of the Big East to assume that with the departure of Kelly, Pike and Gilyard, Cincinnati will not be the offensive force it has been the last two years. Those doubters could be in for a surprise when they see Collaros throwing to Binns and Hazelton and running the ball when the opportunity arises.
The biggest question mark surrounding this team is its defense. The Bearcats couldn't stop anybody near the end of last season, putting a lot of pressure on the offense to score almost every time it had the ball. The '09 Cats were fun to watch, and their approach worked well enough to result in a second straight Big East title, but it's tough to continue to win that way against good teams. If the defense can muster some resistance, this could be another formidable Cincinnati team that could challenge for the Big East crown. If not, Cincy will finish in the middle of the pack.