Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones is confident the Bearcats have enough skilled starters on both sides of the ball to contend for a third consecutive Big East Conference championship. What concerns the first-year coach is his team's overall lack of depth that was clearly evident during spring practice.
"I'm excited about our 22 players," Jones said. "We're very skilled. It all just goes back to depth."
The Bearcats bring back 13 starters from last year's team that went 12-1, losing only to Florida in the Sugar Bowl. But beyond the first tier, UC lacks experience and depth, particularly on the defensive line.
Cincinnati's defense showed signs of improvement in training camp, but it'll face its first test when the Bearcats open the regular season at Fresno State.
The Bearcats lived off their high-scoring offense en route to an undefeated regular season, falling just short of a BCS title game appearance. But after twice needing more than 44 points to win, UC would rather not tempt fate this year.
The schedule is unforgiving. Following this weekend's opener at Fresno, the Bearcats have Indiana State at home then travel to North Carolina State before facing Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium. Conference play offers trips to West Virginia and Connecticut.
Head coach Butch Jones said as many as seven true freshman could see action this season for the Bearcats. Among them is defensive back Adrian Witty, who challenged Dominique Battle and Cameron Cheatham for the starting cornerback role throughout spring camp.
Sophomore Brendan Kay made a bid to overtake junior Chazz Anderson as backup QB. But Anderson got the nod due to his experience and grasp of the spread offense.
After an injury-riddled 2009 season, RB John Goebel is looking forward to a productive senior season. Goebel rushed for 607 yards and seven TDs as a sophomore before being slowed last season with a pulled hamstring and a broken hand.
SERIES HISTORY: Cincinnati leads Fresno State 1-0 (last meeting, 2009, 28-20, Cincinnati).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: No concerns here. Junior quarterback Zach Collaros has proven himself to be a capable passer, but he brings an added dimension with his ability to run. Most believe junior running back Isaiah Pead is poised for a big year in Butch Jones' system. Three starters return on the offensive line, providing ample protection for Collaros to find his talented trio of receivers in Vidal Hazelton, DJ Woods and Armon Binns. As if defenses didn't have enough to worry about, add to them Ben Guidugli, one of the Big East's top pass-catching tight ends.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: If Cincinnati feels it's lacking respect coming off a 12-1 season and a BCS Bowl berth, it can look no further than its defense, which was shredded in the final eight games. Depth on the defensive line has been a major concern, although the secondary might be among the Bearcats' deepest units with talented sophomore Drew Frey and junior Dominique Battle. Linebacker JK Schaffer and defensive lineman Walter Stewart are the leaders of UC's defense, which must significantly improve for them to make a run at the Big East title.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's one thing to be a part-time starter or a backup who's relieving somebody. And it's another thing to be a starting quarterback on a week-to-week basis and managing all the things that come with that. I think he's ready for that. The experience that he gained last year will be invaluable to him." -- Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones on junior QB Zach Collaros, told to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cincinnati at Fresno State, Sept. 4 -- Cincinnati won the first meeting between the two schools, 28-20, on Sept. 27, 2009 at Nippert Stadium. It's the season-opener for both teams.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Fresno State lost Ryan Mathews, the nation's leading rusher, to graduation. But the Bulldogs bring back their entire offensive line and starting QB Ryan Colburn, who ranked No. 20 in the nation last year in pass efficiency. It's doubtful Fresno could win a shootout with the high-scoring Bearcats. And Cincinnati's defense will be looking to prove that it's much-improved from last season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Zach Collaros -- It's his team now. Collaros, who started four games for the injured Tony Pike last season, has plenty of experience. He's an adept passer but brings an added dimension with his ability to run.
WR Vidal Hazelton -- Praise has been heaped on Hazelton since he transferred from USC. He's finally getting the opportunity to live up to his hype in a game situation.
RB Isaiah Pead -- Pead seems poised for a big year under the new coaching staff which might be more inclined to utilize the running game as a weapon in the Bearcats' offensive arsenal.
WR Kenbrell Thompkins lost his appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility and will miss the season. Thompkins transferred from El Camino Community College after originally signing a letter of intent with Tennessee. He will have two years of eligibility remaining.
Junior LB Alex Delisi underwent successful arthroscopic surgery on his right knee during the offseason. A reserve linebacker and starter on special teams, Delisi saw action in nine games a year ago.
TE Travis Kelce will miss the season due to a violation of an unspecified team rule.
Highly touted freshman LB Solomon Tentman tore his ACL with just four days remaining in training camp.