A program that has won at least 10 games five times since 2007 finds itself entering a critical season. Picked by many to win the AAC in 2015, Cincinnati became the epitome of inconsistency and finished at 7-6, including a 42-7 loss to San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl.
The Bearcats’ 2015 fluctuations are impressive: They lost to Temple, Houston and Memphis by a combined 17 points, but lost to SDSU and South Florida by a combined 73 points. They only beat lowly Miami (Ohio) by four points, but beat Connecticut and UCF by a combined 69 points. They scored 46 points and lost and scored 19 points and won. They lost to Houston despite out-gaining the Cougars by nearly four yards per play. They followed six of their seven wins with a loss. They set a school-record with 6,990 yards of offense, but finished with a minus-13 turnover ratio. The loss to San Diego State was their third straight blowout bowl loss in as many seasons under Tommy Tuberville.
A scary head injury vs. Memphis and “family reasons” limited quarterback Gunner Kiel to 10 starts in 2015. True freshman Hayden Moore replaced him and impressed at times, but ended the year with 11 interceptions against 9 touchdowns. Cincinnati will transition from the Air Raid to a more pro-style offense under new offensive coordinator Zac Taylor, who ended 2015 as the Miami Dolphins’ interim offensive coordinator. Keil didn’t play in the spring game due to injury and has not formally won the job, but he’s still a good bet to start in the opener.
Three running backs topped 720 yards for Cincinnati last season. Two of them, Mike Boone and Tion Green, are back. The pair combined for 17 touchdowns in 2015 and should form another balanced rushing attack. If the Bearcats want to add a third back to the rotation, junior Deionte Buckley and freshman Gerrid Doaks, a top-40 player at his position, are most likely to find a role.
The real shakeup is at wide receiver: the top seven receivers (by yardage) are all gone, including NFL draft pick Chris Moore and team receptions leader Shaq Washington. Cincinnati won’t be relying on a bunch of freshmen to replace them though. LSU transfer Avery Peterson and Virginia transfer Jamil Kamara are eligible after sitting out 2015. Kamara is a former top-150 recruit and an Army All-American. Top returning receiver Nate Cole, junior Tshumbi Johnson, sophomore Kahlil Lewis and junior college transfer Devin Gray are expected to contribute. Tight end D.J. Dowdy should see increased targets in the new offense that uses the position more.
The offensive line returns three starters but loses both its starting tackles, including fourth-round draft pick Parker Ehinger. Center Deyshawn Bond and guard Ryan Leahy, each a second-team all-conference selection in 2015, return for their senior seasons. Junior Korey Cunningham, sophomore Ryan Stout and junior college transfer Kendall Calhoun will compete to fill the tackle spots. New offensive line coach J.B. Grimes comes over from Auburn, where he spent the last three seasons.
Eight starters are back from 2015, so experience won’t be as big a problem as it was in 2015. Playing a lot of underclassmen, Cincinnati gave up 31.2 point per game and had one of the nation’s least effective front sevens. Tuberville named defensive line coach Robert Prunty and linebackers coach Joe Koonz co-defensive coordinators. They replace Steve Clinkscale, who left to the secondary coach at Kentucky.
Cincinnati lost its best and only consistent pass-rusher, Silverberry Mouhon, but returns the bulk of its experience on the defensive line. Junior Mark Wilson, sophomore Landon Brazile and sophomore Kevin Mouhon are expected to be the primary rushers, with the younger Mouhon even getting a little time at outside linebacker. Four-star defensive end Joel Dublanko was a late addition to the 2016 class and should also get a look in camp.
Leading tackler and outside linebacker Eric Wilson (second-team all-AAC) returns for his senior year. Bryce Jenkinson started nine games at linebacker in 2015 as a true freshman and is a candidate to break out with a more secure role. The team’s best overall defender is senior safety Zach Edwards, a four-year starter and a second-team all-AAC selection. Playing next to him is promising sophomore Tyrell Gilbert, who started eight games in 2015. Junior Linden Stephens, junior Grant Coleman, sophomore J.J. Pinckney and senior Mike Tyson are the primary corners. All started at least four games last year.
Cincinnati enters 2016 with two new coordinators, a new offensive line coach and an entirely new receiving corps. Change could be exactly what’s needed after a strange 2015, or it could fail and Cincinnati stays in the middle of the conference.
There’s enough offensive talent to score close the same pace it did last year, but Kiel and the offense need to reduce turnovers and work with a very inexperienced group of receivers.
Cincinnati must improve on its poor run defense (192 yards per game, 4.9 yards per carry) and find a pass rush (13 sacks in 13 games). The defense has more experience than it did in 2015, but experience will be worth little if the younger players who played significant snaps last season don’t develop. The defense is going to be similar scheme-wise under the new coordinators, but wants to be more aggressive and attacking instead of passive like it was at times last season.
There’s enough returning talent here on both sides of the ball to be a top team in the AAC, but Cincinnati is going to need to develop defensively, settle into its revamped offense and find new pass-catchers to actually reach that level. Another 7-6 season would be a disappointment.null