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Tuesday, October 13, 2009
O-line the secret to Cincinnati's spread success



Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


Cincinnati's offense is full of sound and fury. Heisman Trophy candidate Tony Pike, star receiver Mardy Gilyard and the rest of the skill players garner most of the attention.

 
 Rich Kane/Icon SMI
 Cincinnati prefers nimble, athletic offensive linemen, and even 313-pound Jeff Linkenbach is light on his feet.
Hardly anybody ever talks about the Bearcats' offensive line, though. And that might just be the biggest key to Bearcats' 5-0 start and 42 points-per-game average.

"We don't get a lot of notoriety, but that's kind of how we are," senior center Chris Jurek said. "We like not getting our names called. We create for everybody else."

Consider this stat: The offensive line has allowed just three sacks this year despite 188 pass attempts. That's one sack for every 63 passes. The Bearcats rank fourth in the FBS in fewest sacks allowed but have thrown the ball more times than the three teams in front of them.

Some of that stems from the fact that Pike is often in the shotgun, and head coach Brian Kelly's offense is designed to get rid of the ball quickly to receivers in the open field. Still, you shouldn't underestimate how much the offensive line has contributed to the most prolific attack in Kelly's three-year tenure at Cincinnati.

"The biggest change in our offensive structure has been the offensive line," Kelly said. "[Previous coach] Mark Dantonio did a great job of building his offense here, but the offensive linemen, quite frankly, didn't fit the same profile" as Kelly's offense.

"So Year 1 and Year 2 were really about getting our offensive linemen to fit our style. In Year 3, we're so much further along in their ability to play in space, to be more of a zone team than a gap team, a team that can put their linemen out and get out in screens and things of that nature."

Dantonio -- who's now at Michigan State -- liked a Big Ten-style line, with big, hulking guys who could plow holes for the power run game. Kelly has a high-tempo offense that often requires the linemen to run down the field and spring receivers free. That requires svelte, athletic players.

"It's been a pretty significant progression in terms of our body types and conditioning," Jurek said. "Coach's style is to get smaller guys who are more athletic and put good weight on them. That's one of the things I've seen here, and we've been able to do it with a high level of success."

Other than left tackle Jeff Linkenbach, no Cincinnati offensive lineman weighs more than 293 pounds. And even Linkenbach's 311 pounds don't sit heavily on his 6-foot-6 frame. Jurek, Linkenbach and left guard Jason Kelce all started on last year's Orange Bowl team. Alex Hoffman and Sam Griffin are first-year starters who have made the right side just as formidable.

The line will face its biggest test of the season on Thursday night at South Florida. The Bulls' defensive front four, Kelly said, "is as good as you're going to see. They can match up with any SEC or Big Ten teams." Defensive ends George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul have been terrorizing tackles, and the interior linemen are nearly as fast and aggressive. The Bulls' No. 1 goal is to get to Pike and disrupt his timing.

"I don't feel as if these guys have been challenged up front like we are going to do on Thursday," South Florida linebacker Kion Wilson said. "They haven't been hit and been physically abused yet. That's what we plan on going out there and doing."

"Their offensive line plays very well together," Selvie said. "But I think we can do a very good job against them. We've just got to be aggressive, let them know we're ready to play and that it's going to be a long day for them."

Kelly will surely design his game plan around quick throws and screens, rolling the pocket and other things to slow down that South Florida pass rush. The rest of the job will fall on the offensive linemen. If that group remains anonymous Thursday night, then you know they got the job done.

"It will be a tough challenge for us Thursday night," Jurek said, "but I think we'll be up for it."