March 31, 2009

Cincinnati must overhaul almost entire defense

Cincinnati is coming off perhaps the best season in school history, and it looks as if coach Brian Kelly has the personnel returning to put together another powerful offense.

But rebuilding a defense that lost 10 starters means there are a lot of questions about the Bearcats. Cincinnati also will have a new defensive coordinator.

Here's a look at the Bearcats as they begin spring drills.

CINCINNATI AT-A-GLANCE
Brian Kelly led the Bearcats to perhaps the best season in school history.
THE BASICS
Coach: Brian Kelly
Last season: 11-3, 6-1 Big East. Lost to Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Spring dates: March 31-April 25
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (8): WR Marcus Barnett, WR Mardy Gilyard, TE Ben Guidugli, C Chris Jurek, G Jason Kelce, T Jeff Linkenbach, QB Tony Pike, RB Jacob Ramsey.
Defense (1): SS Aaron Webster.
Special teams (1): K Jake Rogers.
Positions of strength

With the defense being overhauled, an offense that welcomes back eight starters will need to carry a big load. Quarterback Tony Pike needs to continue to develop timing with a strong group of wide receivers. The offensive line should be solid, and having Kelly on the sideline is a big boost. He is one of the nation's top coaches. How long will he remain in the Queen City?

Help is needed

Retooling a defense that lost 10 starters is the top priority. The good news: Many reserves saw significant action last season, so it should be a smooth transition. But the secondary, especially cornerback, could be a problem spot. The Bearcats lost senior stalwarts Mike Mickens, DeAngelo Smith and Brandon Underwood in the secondary.

Keep an eye on

CB Dominique Battle: He is the only corner with any experience, so Battle needs to be a quick study as a leader for this young corps. The sophomore still needs to add upper-body strength to be a better tackler.

DT John Hughes: All-American Terrill Byrd and steady Adam Hoppel are gone, which means Hughes - a sophomore - needs to step up in the middle of the Cincinnati defense. He should get help from junior Derek Wolfe.

CB Trammell Williams: During bowl practices, he switched from running back to cornerback, and staffers like his potential. He's incredibly strong for his weight, benching almost double his weight (183-370). Trammell, a sophomore, also is fast. He just needs to learn the nuances of the position.

His time is now

Now a senior, defensive tackle Ricardo Mathews needs to claim a starting spot on a line that will lack experience. He netted plenty of playing time as a backup earlier in his career and showed flashes of being a solid player. Stopping the run has been a big key to Cincinnati's success. Last season, the Bearcats ranked No. 19 in the nation against the run. Mathews needs to make sure the Bearcats have the same kind of success in 2009.

The buzz

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco who arrives from Virginia and replaces Joe Tresey will have his work cut out for him this spring as he looks to cobble together a defense that lost 10 starters from an Orange Bowl team. The offensive staff needs to continue to devise ways to become more effective running the ball. Last season, Cincinnati's rushing attack ranked 95th in the nation. That has to improve if the Bearcats want to have a shot at defending their Big East title.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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