During the spring, Cincinnati coach Butch Jones posed a question to his team.
"Anybody who averaged 35 plays or more last season, stand up," he said.
Nine players got up.
All his quarterbacks remained seated. All his tight ends remained seated. All his running backs remained seated. Go ahead and guess the nine players who stood up, just for fun. The answer key will be down below.
What the exercise stresses is just how young a football team the Bearcats will have headed into 2012. We already knew Cincinnati was losing some pretty important senior contributors, but realizing only nine players averaged 35 plays or more last year really puts the youth movement into context.
Cincinnati is going from being one of the most experienced teams in the Big East to one of the least.
That is why Cincinnati spent so much time this spring not only working on developing new team leaders to replace guys like Zach Collaros, Isaiah Pead, Derek Wolfe and JK Schaffer. Jones said he did more team 11-on-11 drills than he has done previously. Of particular emphasis were team passing drills, where Munchie Legaux and Brendon Kay are competing to replace Collaros at quarterback.
"So many times when you do seven-on-seven drills, that is like going to the driving range," Jones said in a recent phone interview. "I wanted to put as much game-speed reps in, have them slide in the pocket, practice awkward throws, find throwing lanes and windows. We did more than that than we ever had, and that accelerated both their development throughout the course of spring."
The development is particularly important, because Cincinnati is the only team in the Big East that much replace both its starting quarterback and starting running back. That starting running back was Big East Offensive Player of the Year and just went in the second round of the NFL draft. Cincinnati does have guys with playing experience to step in -- Legaux started several games when Collaros got hurt, and George Winn is a senior who had a great game against Vanderbilt in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
But they do not nearly have the same game experience as the guys they are replacing. Neither does Kay. He did not attempt a pass last season.
"Great quarterback play is a lot like being a great point guard in basketball, knowing how to distribute the ball, identifying matchups and taking care of the football," Jones said. "It's the small details. As a quarterback, you have to have great poise under pressure. They've both shown that, and we simulated as many game-like possessions as possible, so I feel they both worked extremely hard and I'm very excited to see how they show up the first day of training camp."
Though the Cincinnati defense lost some of its key players in JK Schaffer, Derek Wolfe and John Hughes (both linemen were NFL draft picks), the Bearcats do return more starters than the offense. Still, what Jones really wants to see is the leadership developed this offseason. Defensive end Walter Stewart could be the new force on the line.
Now here is the answer to the quiz up at the top. Name the nine players who averaged more than 35 plays last year:
Austen Bujnoch, offensive guard
Maalik Bomar, linebacker
Cam Cheatham, cornerback
Deven Drane, cornerback
Drew Frey, safety
Dan Giordano, defensive end
Anthony McClung, receiver
Kenbrell Thompkins, receiver
Walter Stewart, defensive end