Butch Jones inherited a Bearcats team last year that had won two straight Big East Conference Championships and had won a combined 23 games during that two year stretch. But with many of the playmakers that made that run possible gone, Jones’ team struggled to a 4-8 season and Cincinnati missed a bowl game for the first time since 2005.
On the plus side, the Bearcats return may key pieces from an offense that scored an average of 27.1 points on 260.7 passing yards a game (good for 28th in the NCAA). On the downside, the Bearcats will need to continue to develop a young defense that gave up 28.0 points a game (68th in the NCAA) and 135.4 rushing yards per game. That task will be easier given that the Bearcats return 11 defensive starters.
Players to watch (offense):
ZACH COLLAROS (QB): Collaros has the opportunity to be a star. The senior was a first-team All-Big East performer last year, throwing for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns. On the flip side, Collaros threw 14 picks and completed just 58.7 percent of his passes. If Collaros wants to take the final step into stardom, he’ll need to improve his decision making skills.
D.J. WOODS (WR): Woods has big play potential each time he’s on the field. The senior caught 57 passes for 898 yards and eight scores. Even more impressive was his 15.8 yards per reception.
Players to watch (defense):
WALTER STEWART (DE): The Bearcats coughed up more points than anyone else in the Big East last season. Stewart will be one of the players to change that in 2011. The junior was switched from linebacker to defensive end in the offseason, and will look to build on his 60 tackles and two sacks from last year.
J.K. SCHAFFER (LB): The middle linebacker led the Bearcats, along with the entire Big East, with 111 tackles last season. Said Schaffer to GoBearCats.com: “I love being the underdog and underrated. The driving force behind my whole life is going out and proving people wrong, so I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Fearless Prediction: While, Cincinnati will be one year older and wiser, look for the Orange to pick up a win at home.