Even as most people were praising Cincinnati's receiving corps as one of the best in the nation this preseason, head coach Butch Jones was quietly nervous about the depth.
Sure, the starters were great, but Jones' up-tempo system demands that a lot of players rotate in at receiver to stay fresh. The depth started taking hits when junior college import Kenbrell Thompkins was ruled ineligible, when highly touted freshman Dyjuan Lewis wasn't cleared and when Jamar Howard got hurt in the spring.
All of those developments, however, pale in comparison to the loss of Vidal Hazelton.
The USC transfer, who was arguably the most talked-about newcomer in the Big East this season, is already done for the year after tearing his ACL on a kickoff return in the Fresno State game. Hazelton had six catches for 63 yards before the injury. You've got to feel terrible for a guy who sat out all of last year under transfer rules only to get less than one game his senior season.
Hazelton did not redshirt at USC, so there's a possibility that he could gain another year of eligibility. That's something that won't be determined until after the year, however, and who knows with the NCAA?
Hazelton brought size, strength and big-play ability to the wide receiver group. Now there's even more pressure on Armon Binns to be the Bearcats' No. 1 wideout. D.J. Woods had a strong first half against Fresno State and is one of the better slot receivers in the league. Marcus Barnett will assume Hazelton's role on the outside opposite Binns.
Barnett was a star his freshman year before finding himself in Brian Kelly's doghouse as a sophomore and junior. He has a lot of experience and ability, but his skinny frame -- his nickname is "Bones" -- means he will not be the same physical target that Hazelton was. He seems better suited as a slot guy.
"I don't think it will affect [us] that much in terms of what we do offensively and in terms of personnel groupings," Jones said. "But any time you take a person like Vidal out of the offense, obviously it concerns you a little bit because of his talent and playmaking ability.
"I'm excited for Marcus Barnett. ... Now is his opportunity to come in and make amends for the last couple of years, so we'll see how that goes."
Cincinnati, surprisingly, already has some offensive question marks after scoring just 14 points against Fresno State -- its lowest total in almost two years. Zach Collaros was sacked eight times and hurried even more. While Jones said not all of the sacks could be blamed on the offensive line -- Collaros clearly held onto the ball too long on several plays -- he's considering some personnel changes up front.
We all thought the Bearcats would have an explosive offense in 2010. Now that's not as certain. And with games coming up this month at NC State and against Oklahoma, Jones and his team could find themselves in an early hole if they don't make the right adjustments.