- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Cincinnati coach Butch Jones will kick off his second spring practice with the Bearcats on Tuesday, looking to improve upon a disappointing 4-8 debut campaign. I caught up with Jones to preview the spring, and here's Part I of our conversation.
After the rough year in 2010, how are the players' attitudes heading into the spring?
Butch Jones: I've been very pleased. I think we've had a very, very productive offseason. I've liked our leadership, and that's the biggest thing -- teaching our players about leadership and team unity. We've talked about each day is a different challenge. Each day you've got to win the day. We've talked about how before you can even be in contention to win a championship, your team has to be comprised of individual champions. Yesterday our winter quarter grades came out, and we have 83 players, scholarship and non-scholarship. We had a 2.9 GPA, which is very impressive. So they've answered that challenge, and they've answered the challenge in the strength and conditioning area. And now we need to answer the challenge for spring football.
It's the second year for your system now, and your entire coaching staff returns. How much positive impact will that have?
BJ: You win with continuity. At Central Michigan, we were very fortunate to keep our coaching staff intact. This year was extremely challenging, because we had four staff members be offered other BCS, high-caliber, high-profile jobs. And all four stayed. I think that speaks volumes about how they feel about the direction of our program and our players, loyalty, all that stuff. You look at what our defensive players have gone through, with three defensive coordinators in three years, and I'm just a firm believer you win with continuity. Everyone knows what's expected. That's been a huge benefit this offseason.
Looking at your defense, you have all 11 starters back. But the defense obviously struggled last year. So do you look at it as a good thing that every starter is back, or that there needs to be some major change there?
BJ: The key there is, we can't just be older; we must get better. We have to take major, major strides on that side of the ball. It comes first and foremost with a physicality and presence, and we've got to get much more tougher, much more physical. When I say tougher, it's both mental and physical. It's being able to handle sudden changes, it's creating turnovers, it's third down and getting off the field. So there's so much that goes into improving the defense and making us a better tackling team. This spring is going to be very, very physical. We're going to challenge them as we did in our winter conditioning.
When you talk about building toughness, does that mean you change your spring practice drills, focus on more hitting and tackling or anything like that?
BJ: I think toughness is something you've got to live every day. It's not something you just turn on and turn off. It's combative drills you do in practice and the offseason. Everybody is saying they've got to get tougher. Everyone says to win you've got to be able to stop the run and be able to run the football, which is true. We're exactly the same. We've just got to live physicality every day.
You moved Walter Stewart to defensive end full time?
BJ: Walter Stewart will play our hybrid position, as a rush defensive end, and also we'll be able to use him in different things. We've asked so much of this young man just because of a lack of depth. This spring, he's going to get much more time at the defensive end position, work to master pass-rush techniques and the ability to get off blocks, be gap conscientious and all the things that go with being a great defensive lineman.
I'm not sure Derek Wolfe gets enough publicity, and he had to play a ton of snaps last year. How much of a leader is he for your defense?
BJ: Derek has had an extremely productive offseason. He's trimmed down a little bit but yet gained in strength. He's the strongest player we have in our program right now, and he's really answered the challenge of individual improvement on a day-to-day basis. And now, Derek has to be able to take the weight room to the field. He's got to have, along with John Hughes, a level of physicality and toughness that has to be an anchor for our defensive line and our defense.
Let's talk about the back end of your defense. You gave up a lot of big passing plays last year. How will that improve, and how does junior college transfer Malcolm Murray fit in?
BJ: Everything we do in our program is based on competition, and starting at the corner position, that should be a great competition. Probably one of the most competitive positions we have this spring. We return Dominique Battle, who missed most of the year with an injury, he's back. Cam Cheatham had one of the best winters of any individual we've had in our program. Adrian Witty is another young man who's had a great offseason and has really developed into one of our leaders on defense, and Devin Drane gained some valuable playing time as a freshman. That position, with Reuben Johnson as well, will be competitive every day.
The safety position, we have to get better there. Drew Frey has been a rock of stability for us there, and I think he'll continue to get better. Wes Richardson will miss the spring with an injury, so that lets us force feed Malcom Murray a little bit. He'll get a ton of reps. Arryn Chenault is another individual who needs to develop, along with Pat Lambert.
Who steps in at linebacker for Stewart?
BJ: Again, that's a position at linebacker where we have to find some depth. That's been one of our issues. JK [Schaffer] has been a complete rock of stability. He continues to be consistent in everything he does. Maalik Bomar has added the weight he needs to, now he needs to maintain that weight. I'm excited about those two, and we have two high school seniors coming in, Dwight Jackson and Nick Temple, who are going to be thrown into the fire right away. We need some individuals to step up at the linebacker position.
You mentioned Camaron Beard the last time I talked with you. How excited are you to see what he can do at defensive end?
BJ: I'm excited to see our young players, from Camaron Beard to Brad Harrah. Not only are they the future of the defensive line, but we talked about the amount of reps Derek Wolfe and John Hughes had to play. Those individuals need to step up and have a big spring. Another guy who played sparingly as a freshman, Roney Lozano, this is a really important spring for him. And Jordan Stepp needs to continue to progress. I'd like to think that would be one of our deepest positions this year, and we're going to have competition when you look at our defensive ends with Dan Giordano, Walter Stewart and now Brandon Mills. We want to be able to play at least 10 defensive linemen in our scheme. So it's a big, big spring for our young kids.
How hard was it to redshirt players last year when the team was struggling and you didn't have much depth?
BJ: It was a challenge. We're really down a recruiting class. Sometimes what that does is, it forces you to play individuals who are maybe not quite ready to play yet, but you have no choice. What I try to stress to Devin Drane and Lozano is, 'Hey, you lost a year, and you're playing catch-up right now. Every rep you take, whether it's in the weight room or the conditioning area or spring practice, is critical.'
Hopefully when we're in Year 3 or Year 4 and we're having this conversation, we're not talking about having to play a lot of freshmen. Freshmen playing is inevitable, and it's going to happen around the country; programs that win consistently year in and year out play a few true freshmen, but not a lot like we were. So it's developing depth, developing players and not having attrition by keeping players in your program, and I'm excited that we're doing that.
In today's society, everyone is so results-oriented that a lot of times we don't care how you get results as long as you get them. Now when you don't worry about it is when it's short lived. So we're just making sure we're continuing to build from the ground up.
10hSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf