NCF Nation: Anthony McClung

It is no secret that Cincinnati has gotten inconsistent play out of its receivers the past two seasons, and it's one huge area that has to be addressed going into 2013.

[+] EnlargeAnthony McClung
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsWR Anthony McClung was one of the key players in the Bearcats' win against Duke in the Belk Bowl.
Perhaps a guy like Anthony McClung is ready for a featured role.

McClung has been reliable, if unspectacular, during his Bearcats career. But he certainly caught the attention of new coach Tommy Tuberville during the Belk Bowl against Duke. McClung had three catches for 110 yards and a touchdown -- just the second 100-yard game of his career.

Now, he has seemingly picked up where he left off this spring. In the first major scrimmage the team had, McClung was one of the biggest stars, with four receptions for 151 yards and three touchdowns. On his 73-yard scoring catch from Munchie Legaux, McClung faked out two defenders and sprinted into the end zone. In a second, smaller scrimmage, McClung had three catches for 28 yards.

With the Bearcats taking the week off for spring break, it is probably safe to say McClung has been one of the early standouts during practice. He certainly has ample opportunity to prove himself, with Alex Chisum banged up and incoming junior college transfer Johnny Holton set to come in this summer.

McClung is going into his senior year, and has a new coaching staff. Those could be providing him some big-time sources of motivation. Another source of motivation should be the top of the depth chart. Only three receivers caught more than 20 passes last season -- Kenbrell Thompkins (34), McClung (34) and Damon Julian (24). Only McClung returns. Tight end Travis Kelce -- who led the team in receptions and receiving yards -- also is gone.

There clearly is a huge opening for McClung to capture for himself. So far this spring, it appears as if he is rising up to the challenge.

Big East all-bowl team

January, 10, 2013
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It's time to unveil the Big East all-bowl team, honoring those players who had the best performances in the postseason.

OFFENSE

QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville. What more can I say about Bridgewater, who began his 2013 Heisman campaign with a big game against Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl? Bridgewater went 20-of-32 for two touchdowns in the decisive 33-23 win.

RB: Prince-Tyson Gulley, Syracuse. Gulley was a running machine, busting free for a career-high 213 yards and three total touchdowns in a 38-14 win over West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

RB: George Winn, Cincinnati. Winn capped a great senior season, running for 130 yards and a touchdown in a 48-34 win over Duke in the Belk Bowl.

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse. There is a reason Pugh has declared early for the NFL draft. He showed why he is one of the best tackles in the country in the win over West Virginia, helping pave the way for 369 yards rushing and protecting Ryan Nassib well.

OT: Alex Kupper, Louisville. Those who have followed the Cardinals believe Kupper had one of the best performances of his career in the win over the Gators. For the first time in a four-game stretch, Louisville was able to get its run game going.

C: Mario Benavides, Louisville. Benavides has been the best center in the Big East for several years, and he played well in the final game of his career.

OG: Austen Bujnoch, Cincinnati. Bujnoch played with a foot injury after missing most of the bowl practices and had another great game as the Bearcats ran for 222 yards.

OG: Zack Chibane, Syracuse. Chibane teamed with Pugh on the left side to open huge holes all day.

TE: Travis Kelce, Cincinnati. Kelce capped his monster season with a monster game, catching five passes for a career-high 123 yards -- including the 83-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 44 seconds left.

WR: Anthony McClung, Cincinnati. McClung had three catches for 110 yards and a 25-yard touchdown against Duke in the Belk Bowl in one of the best performances of his career.

WR: Devin Street, Pitt. The Panthers had a dreadful day on offense, but Street was a bright spot with seven catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in a 38-17 loss to Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

DEFENSE

DL: Marcus Smith, Louisville. Smith came through in a big way on the line in a dominating performance against Florida. His name does not show up often on the stat sheet, but he made his presence felt.

DL: Brandon Sharpe, Syracuse. Sharpe was a big reason why Geno Smith was flustered all day long. Sharpe finished with four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble on the day.

DL: Jamil Merrell, Rutgers. Merrell had a huge game in a 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech, notching a career-high two sacks in the game as the Scarlet Knights held the Hokies to 196 yards of total offense.

LB: Siriki Diabate, Syracuse. Diabate led the way with 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and half a sack, and he contributed to a safety early in the win over the Mountaineers.

LB: Greg Blair, Cincinnati. Blair set a Cincinnati bowl record with a game-high 15 tackles. He forced and recovered a fumble early that changed the momentum against the Blue Devils.

LB: Preston Brown, Louisville. Brown finished with 13 tackles -- 1.5 for loss -- and one pass breakup in the win over the Gators.

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. Greene was a stalwart once again, finishing the loss to Virginia Tech with 11 tackles, half a sack and one forced fumble he recovered in the end zone -- the only Rutgers touchdown of the game.

CB: Terell Floyd, Louisville. Floyd's 38-yard interception return for a touchdown on the opening play of the game set the tone for the Cardinals. It was Louisville's first defensive score of the season.

CB: Brandon Jones, Rutgers. Jones set a career high and Rutgers single-game bowl record with two interceptions against the Hokies.

S: Jason Hendricks, Pitt. Hendricks had a great game in a loss to the Rebels, with a whopping 17 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception.

S: Calvin Pryor, Louisville. Pryor had six tackles and registered his fifth forced fumble on the season when he recorded his first sack of the season in the third quarter.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Matt Yoklic, Pitt. Yoklic had plenty of opportunities to punt in this game and made the most of them, leading all Big East postseason punters with a 48.3-yard average on six punts.

K: Tony Miliano, Cincinnati. Miliano led all Big East kickers during postseason play with 12 points -- making both his field goal attempts and all six extra-point attempts against Duke.
When Cincinnati receiver Damon Julian saw the ball sailing through the air toward him in the closing seconds against Virginia Tech last week, all he could think was, "Catch the ball this time!"

This was his opportunity to make up for an earlier dropped touchdown pass, a play that left Julian extremely frustrated. His coaches preach "snap and clear" as a way for players to erase an earlier mistake and just focus on the next play. So he looked the ball in, extended his arms and made absolutely sure he cradled the ball to his chest as he dove to the turf, to leave no doubt that he indeed made the catch.

[+] EnlargeDamon Julian
Paul Frederiksen/US PRESSWIREFrom backup to starting WR, Damon Julian is helping the Bearcats put points on the board this season.
That 39-yard touchdown reception from Munchie Legaux gave Cincinnati a thrilling 27-24 victory over the previously ranked Hokies, and sent folks scrambling to their DVRs to rewind the incredible touchdown reception. At the time, Julian just thought he was doing his job. It was not until he watched the film later that he realized what he had done.

"When you go through something like that, you don’t think about how it happened," Julian said in a phone interview with ESPN.com this week. "But when you go back and look at it ... It opened my eyes a lot. It is making more confident in myself, making me know that I can make certain plays."

Julian was an unknown headed into this season. He played sparingly last year, seeing time in three games and did not have a reception. Before the year began, Cincinnati figured to have players like Alex Chisum, Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins step up at the receiver position. Damon was a backup.

But he began turning heads in practice with all his hard work, and soon caught the eyes of his coaches. He earned the starting nod against Delaware State, and had four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. He followed up that game with his spotlight-making performance against the Hokies.

"I can’t say enough about Damon Julian,” coach Butch Jones said. “He’s really dedicated himself for his senior season. He’s got a very quiet confidence about himself. He loves the opportunity to compete. After the game, he makes that winning catch and says, ‘Thank you, coach. I love you.’ I couldn’t be more proud of an individual, the work he’s put in to make this all possible."

While playing high school football in New Jersey, the schools that showed the most interest in him wanted him to play linebacker. Julian had his heart set on playing receiver. He decided to go the prep school route to bring his grades up and make a name for himself at his preferred position. He then transferred to Pierce Community College in Los Angeles.

In 2010, Julian led his team with 57 receptions for a team-high 1,073 yards and 11 touchdown. A former high school teammate of his, Reuben Johnson, kept bringing Julian's game film to the coaching staff. They took a look and set their sights on Julian. When he arrived last season, though, Julian said he was not fully committed to being the best he could be.

"I wasn’t as consistent as I should have been," Julian said. "Going into practice sometimes, I didn’t keep the same mentality. I would tend to bring on whatever my daily problems were so I didn’t have a game mentality. So when I go to practice now, keep the same mentality, a game mentality."

So far that has paid off for Julian. And the Bearcats.

Cincinnati overcomes mistakes to win

September, 15, 2012
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This is not the type of performance out of Cincinnati that coach Butch Jones wanted to see.

A week after an impressive opening victory over Pitt, the Bearcats made way too many mistakes in a 23-7 victory over Delaware State. Cincinnati had six total turnovers -- including three in the red zone; four belonged to starting quarterback Munchie Legaux, who threw two interceptions and fumbled twice.

It could have been uglier -- Cincinnati had three fumbles that it successfully recovered, including one in the red zone late in the game that led to a field goal instead of a touchdown.

Jones played Legaux and his starters on offense for the entire game, something he probably never expected to do going into Saturday. After jumping out to a 20-0 halftime lead, Cincinnati managed a field goal the rest of the way.

On the bright side, Cincinnati did rush for 259 yards and relied on its ground game for most of the second half. George Winn had 24 carries for 147 yards.

One injury to note: starting receiver Anthony McClung left the game with a right elbow injury. Cincinnati has another bye next week, then plays Virginia Tech at FedEx Field on Sept. 29 ... the same Virginia Tech team that lost to Pitt on Saturday. That would be the same Pitt team that Cincinnati beat handily last week.

Offensive production: Receiver

March, 19, 2012
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The best receivers from the Big East last season are gone. Mohamed Sanu, to the NFL. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, to the Big 12.

Much like the quarterback position, the title of best receiver in the Big East is there for the taking in 2012.

Here is a quick glance at who returns as the most productive wideout in the league:

[+] EnlargeAlec Lemon
Richard Mackson/US PresswireAlec Lemon is the Big East's top returning receiver.
Alec Lemon, Syracuse. If you saw my earlier post, then you also know Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib returns as the most productive at his position as well.

Lemon had a career year in 2011, with 68 receptions for 834 yards and six touchdowns. All three stats are tops among returning receivers in the league. Who else returns among the top 10 statistical receivers in 2011?
Yes, that means only three of the top 10 receivers in the league return to their respective teams.

This is among the most wide-open positions headed into spring practice. Not because there is inexperience. In fact, a lot of veteran players return, guys such as Mike Shanahan, Sterling Griffin, Michaelee Harris. Marcus Sales is back for the Orange as well.

But as noted above, many of these players now have the opportunity to become the best in the league. Players we have waited on to blossom perhaps have opportunities now -- players such as Mark Harrison and Brandon Coleman at Rutgers, for example.

I will have more on the receivers as a whole in my spring video series looking at positions across the Big East later week, including players I believe have a great opportunity to emerge this season.
It is time to evaluate the receiver position in the Big East. For the postseason rankings, I am going to include tight ends as well. Before the season started, I did them separately, but it makes more sense to do them together.

This is a position group that has a clear-cut 1-2. To me, the rest are pretty interchangeable, as no other group really stood out to me this season.

1. West Virginia. Slam dunk to have the Mountaineers on top, given the way Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey performed this season. Each had 1,000-yard seasons -- the first time in school history two players hit that mark. Bailey led the Big East with 12 receiving touchdowns, and was No. 1 in receiving yards per game. Austin was third in receiving yards per game and second in receptions per game. Add in Ivan McCartney, also ranked among the top-10 receivers in the Big East and that says it all. Preseason ranking: No. 2.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey
Kim Klement/US PRESSWIREWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey led the Big East in touchdowns and yards receiving per game.
2. Rutgers. Mohamed Sanu had an unbelievable season for Rutgers with a school and Big East record 115 receptions. He dominated at receiver, leading the league in receptions per game and finishing second in receiving yards per game. That domination meant his teammates did not get as many opportunities -- Brandon Coleman only had 17 receptions; Mark Harrison 14, Quron Pratt had 32. But when you have an unstoppable force like Sanu, you keep going to him. Preseason ranking: No. 1.

3. Syracuse. When you think of the Orange, you don't necessarily think of high-profile receivers. But Alec Lemon and Nick Provo teamed to have outstanding seasons this year. Both posted career years, Provo made the Big East first team and Lemon made the second team. The two combined for 119 catches and 13 touchdowns. Depth wasn't great, but the performance of Lemon and Provo make up for that and vaults Syracuse here. Preseason ranking: No. 5.

4. Cincinnati. I thought the Bearcats receivers had a down year. D.J. Woods didn't really live up to his potential, and Anthony McClung led the team with 683 yards. That is the fewest yards for the team's leading receiver since 2006. What really sticks out: when Zach Collaros got hurt, the receivers as a whole never really stepped up the way they should have to help Munchie Legaux. Preseason ranking: No. 3.

5. Louisville. The Cardinals did get much better play out of their receivers, and were helped with the impact freshman DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers made. They didn't have anybody with eye-popping numbers, but they did have consistent enough performances out of this group. Preseason ranking: 7.

6. USF. The Bulls were really hurt by injuries at this position, and never really had a go-to guy emerge. Sterling Griffin was en route to a good season before he got hurt; A.J. Love got hurt as well. That left the position in the hands of many young, inexperienced guys. I thought Deonte Welch really had a nice second half. He was their best receiver when Griffin was out. Preseason ranking: 6.

7. UConn. Considering the way the Huskies struggled in the pass game, Kashif Moore, Isiah Moore and Ryan Griffin all put together solid seasons for UConn. Both Moores ranked in the top 10 in the Big East in receiving, and Griffin was the second-best tight end behind Nick Provo. Depth was lacking at the position -- as only five players caught double-digit passes, and only three are true wide receivers. Preseason ranking: 8.

8. Pitt. The Panthers got their tight ends and running backs involved heavily in the pass game, probably because there was depth lacking at the actual receiver position. Devin Street put together a solid season, with 754 yards receiving, and Mike Shanahan was decent. But otherwise, big plays were lacking. Passing game woes obviously had an impact. Preseason ranking: 4.

Big East recruiting needs

January, 23, 2012
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National signing day is inching ever closer, so it is time to take a look at the biggest recruiting needs for every team in the Big East.

Cincinnati

Defensive line. Cincinnati loses a host of seniors from this position, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Monte Taylor, and Rob Trigg. Factor in the key contributors for 2012 will be seniors in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart and it is time to reload at this position.

Receiver. There is some promising young talent on the roster, but several guys are going to be leaving in the next few years. The Bearcats really need a guy who can stretch the field and make some big plays to join Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum.

Secondary. The Bearcats are going to take a hit at this position after 2012, losing a ton of seniors-to-be, including Cam Cheatham, Drew Frey, Dominique Battle and Reuben Johnson. Senior safety Wesley Richardson is already gone. The lone four-star commitment the Bearcats have is from a safety, Marcus Foster.

UConn

Quarterback. This need has been addressed in this recruiting cycle, with junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran already enrolled in school.

Tight end. With the impending departure of Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt, the Huskies could use another young player to be groomed to take over. Tight end is a critical part of the UConn offense.

Offensive line. UConn is losing its two best linemen in Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan. Of the 16 linemen currently listed on the roster, seven are juniors or seniors. Linemen generally take a redshirt season, so it never hurts to sign more to be able to restock.

Louisville

Linebacker. The Cardinals are losing Dexter Heyman and have a lot of juniors and seniors on their roster at this position. It is no surprise, then, that three of the top players coming in are linebackers -- Keith Brown and James Burgess are already enrolled; four-star recruit Nick Dawson has given a commitment.

Offensive line. Louisville has young players here, but not much depth, as evidenced this season when several true freshmen were forced to play much earlier than anticipated. It never hurts to build depth here, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge commit from four-star guard Abraham Garcia out of Miami.

Running back. This was an area the Cardinals struggled in this season, having to move quarterback Dominique Brown to the position. Victor Anderson is gone, and this team could really used another back to carry the load.

Pitt

Quarterback. This one is pretty self explanatory if you watched Tino Sunseri play. Mark Myers and Trey Anderson are also on the roster, but the Panthers are in definite need here -- which is why so many fans are looking forward to commit Chad Voytik coming to town.

Linebacker. This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers, who lose their best player in Max Gruder. There are some young players with talent in Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, but this position could definitely use an upgrade.

Receiver. The play of the offense was disappointing this season, and that includes the receivers. Pitt could use some players to stretch the field. Ronald Jones was a start this season. But when you consider that Cameron Saddler, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will all be upperclassmen in 2012, this is a definite area of need.

Rutgers

Receiver. Mohamed Sanu is gone, and Mark Harrison is a senior to be. There is plenty of young talent, but there is a reason Rutgers has commitments from four athletes. This gives the Scarlet Knights the flexibility to try them at receiver or running back, another area of need.

Running back. Once Savon Huggins got hurt this year, Rutgers had Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering at running back and that was about it. Depth has to be developed here.

Offensive line. Strides have absolutely been made at this position, but coach Greg Schiano likes to reiterate that the Scarlet Knights aren't going to pull themselves out of the hole they were in overnight. They need another solid draft class at this position to keep building.

USF

Secondary. Injuries and inconsistent play this season showed the Bulls really lacked some depth and need some immediate help in this area, which is why they signed junior college cornerbacks Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown. One of their top four-star commitments is cornerback Chris Bivins.

Quarterback. Beyond B.J. Daniels, a senior in 2012, the Bulls have Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd as the two heirs to take over. Eveld has been less than impressive, and we don't know much about Floyd. The Bulls would be served to get another quarterback in as they prepare for the future.

Running back. Darrell Scott is gone, and the Bulls are really in need of a game breaker at this position. Demetris Murray is going to be a senior, and nobody else really has stepped up at the position. Depth has to be built here, because USF goes into spring practice with four running backs on the roster.

Syracuse

Defensive line. The Orange are losing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich and could really used some difference-makers up front who can help get after the quarterback. Depth is an issue here. One of their big commitments so far has been defensive end Josh Manley out of Georgia.

Secondary. This was one of the weakest parts of the team and now the Orange lose Phillip Thomas and Kevyn Scott, and there was a lack of depth when injuries hit this position in 2011. Brooklyn prep safety Wayne Morgan would be a huge get to add to this unit.

Receiver. Alec Lemon is a senior, Van Chew is gone and who knows what happens with Marcus Sales. The bottom line is the Orange are in major need of a game-changer to turn 15-yard passes into 40-yard receptions.

West Virginia

Quarterback. Geno Smith is a rising senior and after him it is crickets in the form of one player behind him in Paul Millard. So consider this need majorly filled with Ford Childress, ranked No. 139 on the ESPNU 150.

Offensive line. The most inconsistent part of the team in 2011, West Virginia has a major need here. The Mountaineers struggled so badly here they started converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt late in the season. Don Barclay is gone, and Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are all upperclassmen.

Defensive line. Julian Miller, Josh Taylor and Bruce Irvin are gone, and there are depth concerns here. West Virginia has four commitments from defensive linemen already.

Big East offseason to-do lists

January, 20, 2012
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Every team has plenty to do in the offseason. Today, I present to you my top priorities for each Big East program headed into the 2012 season.

Cincinnati
  • Settle on a quarterback. If 2011 was any indication, then Munchie Legaux seems a sure bet to start next season. He showed flashes, but he needs to spend the bulk of his offseason developing a nice rhythm and chemistry with his receivers. That was one of the biggest roadblocks for him when he took over for Zach Collaros. Cincinnati has some good talent at receiver -- with Anthony McClung, Kenbrell Thompkins and Alex Chisum coming back -- so this must be a top priority.
  • Develop senior leadership. The Bearcats are losing the best senior class in school history, filled with leaders left and right. With guys such as Collaros, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer gone, who is going to take the responsibility of leading this team? That is something that must be worked on throughout the offseason.
UConn
  • Find a quarterback. Sounds the same as last season, right? The Huskies never really found one in 2011 and that is a big reason why they struggled. Spring practice has the potential to have five different quarterbacks taking reps in Johnny McEntee, Scott McCummings, Michael Nebrich, Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran. Somebody has to emerge to take a hold of this offense.
  • Work on improving the secondary. The weakest part of this team last season ranked No. 113 in the nation, so this is a clear area that has to get better. The Huskies were hurt when starting cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury, and they also had to rely on freshmen in Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown. This group will be much more experienced, so you have to hope they will be much better, too.
Louisville
  • Mature. The Cardinals were one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, and their immaturity showed at times. But now they enter the offseason with exceedingly high expectations. Many preseason lists have them ranked in the Top 25 and challenging for the Big East title. This team will still be young in 2012, so it will be imperative for coach Charlie Strong to help get this group to mature quickly and stay focused.
  • Work on the run game. Strong wants the run game to be the bread-and-butter of the offense, and this was an area that took a step back in 2011 with Bilal Powell gone. Louisville went from being ranked No. 1 in the Big East to No. 5 in the Big East, averaging 121.5 yards per game. That is down over 50 yards per game. Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright are back, but they have to be consistent and the Cardinals probably need somebody else to emerge.
Pitt
  • New identity. A new coach means a new identity, so it will be interesting to see how the Panthers look under Paul Chryst and his new staff. We will find out when spring practice opens in March. There is plenty of talent on the roster, but the big question is how will the talent be utilized?
  • Is Tino the man? This is starting to sound like a trend, right? The Panthers have quarterback issues as well after Tino Sunseri had a season to forget. Much of his performance can probably be laid at the feet of former coach Todd Graham, who stubbornly tried to run an offensive system that was not suited for the players he had. You can be sure Chryst will open up the quarterback competition to see who emerges.
Rutgers
  • Handle expectations. The Scarlet Knights have not been so good in the past when the pressure is on. All you have to do is look back at what happened this season, with a shot to win a share of the Big East title. Now they are getting some preseason love and probably have their best team since 2006. So coach Greg Schiano is going to have to do a good job of managing preparation and focus because expectations were raised off a successful 2011 campaign.
  • Quarterback derby. Yet another Big East team with a quarterback question mark. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova ended up splitting the starts this past season. Now there is the possibility that former quarterback Tom Savage transfers back in. I don't know if Schiano can afford to keep playing musical chairs with his quarterbacks every season.
USF
  • Re-focus. The Bulls have to put 2011 behind them and focus on the future. This is still a team that has the talent to win. Coach Skip Holtz has to find a way to get that done. This is going to be a veteran team that has been through good times and bad. He needs leaders who will their teammates to victory, who know how to win close games and are determined to get this team back on top. Who are they?
  • New defense. USF brings in new defensive coordinator Chris Cosh from Kansas State, its third different coordinator in the past four years. Getting the players adapted to his scheme as soon as possible has to be a point of emphasis in the spring and throughout the offseason.
Syracuse
  • More offensive consistency. To be sure, Ryan Nassib and Alec Lemon both had career years and made strides for the Orange. But a lot of that was because the run game was inconsistent, and Syracuse found itself trailing late in several games. This team has to find a way to sustain drives and score -- Syracuse was No. 7 in the Big East in scoring offense (24.2 ppg).
  • Shore up the defense. The Orange lose some of their best players on the defensive line, and have to get better in the secondary, which was a major problem for most of the year. Syracuse ranked No. 98 in the nation in pass defense, and they lose some key contributors. Shamarko Thomas is really going to have to step up and take control of this group.
West Virginia
  • Big 12 or Big East? The Mountaineers are bent on leaving for the Big 12, regardless of any court outcomes. On-field issues have nothing on trying to figure out where you are going to be playing. And who you are going to be playing.
  • Defense. Coach Dana Holgorsen has hired a few defensive assistants, but still no word yet on who is going to run the show. That, of course, will determine the future course of this defense. It appears an inevitability that they will no longer use the 3-3-5 that former coordinator Jeff Casteel ran. Plus, players such as Keith Tandy, Najee Goode, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are gone. Shoring up this unit has to be tops on Holgorsen's list.

Weekend Rewind: Big East

September, 26, 2011
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Let us take a look back at Week 4:

[+] EnlargeMohamed Sanu
AP Photo/Mel EvansRutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu, right, had 16 catches for 176 yards against Ohio.
The good: Cincinnati forced three more turnovers in a 44-14 win against NC State last Thursday night. That brings its nation-leading total to 16 takeways. But maybe even better -- the defensive line had its best performance of the season with six sacks and 12 tackles for loss. The defense held NC State to minus-26 yards rushing, the third-lowest rushing total in school history and the fewest since allowing minus-37 yards to Wichita State in 1974. ... You already know what a tremendous performance Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu had against Ohio. But a little overlooked was its performance on third down. Rutgers converted 11 of 18 third-down attempts (61.1 percent) against an Ohio defense that had held its previous opponents to 33.3 percent on third down. Greg Schiano might have not liked being in 18 third downs, but when you convert at that clip, you take it. ... Connecticut has held its opponent to three points in each of its two wins. ... USF had three scoring plays of 50 yards or more in the win against UTEP. Last season, the Bulls had three 50-yard scoring plays. Total.

The bad: Big East officiating had a bad weekend, after the league admitted its officials blew a call in the Syracuse-Toledo game that impacted the outcome. An extra point from Ross Krautman appeared to go wide, but it was called good on the field. That call was upheld on review. The point gave Syracuse a 30-27 lead late in the game. Toledo tied it with a field goal to send the contest into overtime. But the league now says the extra point was no good. Had that point come off the board, Syracuse would have led by 2 and not 3, giving Toledo a chance to win rather than tie. ... West Virginia allowed a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against LSU after cutting the deficit to six. That was the start of 21 unanswered points for the Tigers in a 47-21 win. The Mountaineers added four turnovers after committing three in the first three games combined. The 47 points were the most West Virginia has given up since losing 48-22 to Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl in 2002. ... Pitt was held to just 268 yards of total offense in its 15-12 loss to Notre Dame.

Stat sheet:

  • West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin had 11 receptions for 187 yards, and receiver Stedman Bailey had eight catches for 115
    yards against LSU. It was the second straight game in which West Virginia had multiple 100-yard receivers.
  • Quarterback Geno Smith had school records for completions (38), attempts (65) and passing yards (463) yards against LSU. He finished with 468 total yards of offense, a program single-game record.
  • UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee threw the first two touchdown passes of his career against Buffalo.
  • Pitt has not allowed a point in the first quarter this season.
  • Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib leads the Big East in completion percentage (71.4).
  • Syracuse receiver Van Chew now has 1,012 career receiving yards.
  • Cincinnati receivers Anthony McClung (94) and Kenbrell Thompkins (72) set career highs for yards.
  • Syracuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley had carrer highs with 10 carries and 66 yards.
  • Sanu set school and Big East records with 16 receptions for 176 yards.
Week 5 schedule
USF at Pitt, Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN
Rutgers at Syracuse, Saturday, noon, Big East Network
Cincinnati at Miami (Ohio), Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPN3
Western Michigan at UConn, Saturday 3:30 p.m., Big East Network
Marshall at Louisville, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big East Network
Bowling Green at West Virginia, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big East Network
I had a chance to catch up with Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros to find out how the offseason is going, what he thinks of all the pub going to Geno Smith and how he good he thinks this offense can be this season.

AA: What have been the biggest things you have worked on this offseason?

ZC: We’re running a lot as an offense, working hard on tempo, getting lined up faster, working on execution, working with receivers, getting our timing down on routes, doing 7-on-7s. As a senior class, we've taken it upon ourselves to lead the activities. We've embraced the role of leadership, we’ve had a positive summer, and grown closer as a team. Hopefully that translates onto the field.

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesZach Collaros threw for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns last season.
AA: How about you? How have you improved this summer?

ZC: Physically, it’s the best I've felt in a long time. We're in great condition -- the strength coaches always have us in great condition. In terms of football, I’m working on things that translate onto the field -- getting the ball off, not taking sacks. A big factor in summer is watching film, not just on the first two games, but stuff you did last year in ways you can improve. It hasn’t been just me. Others have gotten after it in that aspect and that's going to help.

AA: A lot of people are talking about Geno Smith as being the best quarterback in the Big East. How do you feel when you hear that?

ZC: I love being counted out. I’ve always looked at myself as an underdog. It adds that extra motivation you need more after coming off the season we had last year. It adds fuel to the fire, and reason to work harder, people doubting you.

AA: You lost Armon Binns, so who is going to step up in his place?

ZC: Losing Armon hurts. He was a comfort zone for me. We came in together, we grew up together in the program, so losing him will take away that comfortability for me. Anthony McClung, Kenbrell [Thompkins],DJ [Woods] -- I can't say enough about how they've come in and taken over the leadership role. We don’t miss a beat when it comes to 7-on-7s. They’re working hard, setting a good example for the younger kids. All three of those guys did a great job with that, along with them, OJ Woodard is working hard as well. As for the tight ends, Travis Kelce is back on the depth chart now, of course Adrien Robinson is still here, Blake Annen is here. It all starts up front, though; those guys up front have been doing a great job.

AA: What gives you the confidence to know your offensive line is going to be better?

ZC: Alex Hoffman has taken the lead with that group, as well as Randy Martinez. Those are two great guys in the program, great leaders for the younger guys. They’re helping them to develop, and I’m very confident in those guys. It all starts with them. If they can protect and run block, the offense has a nice feeling.

AA: Given all the potential, what are your expectations for the offense?

ZC: I think it's the same as it was last year. We had a lot of potential, and we had a lot of high expectations. High expectations are a good thing because you want to reach those expectations. We didn't last year. Turnovers killed us and not scoring touchdowns and kicking field goals and all that stuff. It comes down to execution. The experience will help me.

AA: How do you work on cutting down those turnovers?

ZC: It all starts with the quarterbacks. I have to cut down on the interceptions. I had a lot of them last year coming from behind, forcing too many balls in there. Me making better decisions is what it all starts with. We fumbled a lot last year, which you can't do. If we cut back on that, we're going to have a really good season. In practice every day, we have a five-minute period dedicated to ball-security drills. I think some of it was unlucky last year. The balls didn't bounce our way. We want to change that this year.

AA: Defense was the weak link, though. How is that unit going to be better?

ZC: Well, they’re all returning, which is a good thing. They all have a year of experience and are sick of people telling them they were the weak link and stuff like that. They want to be better. We have great leaders like JK [Schaffer], Cam Cheatham has stepped up. They're good football players. I know they work very hard in the weight room, they’re watching film and I have a lot of confidence the results on field are going to be much better this year.

AA: What goals have you set for yourself this season?

ZC: I just want to win more games, get back to a bowl game and win the Big East. For myself, I want to have a higher completion percentage, to be in the 64, 65 percent range. As long as I can lead my team to wins. I want my teammates to look at me as a leader. If I can accomplish that, I will be happy.
We wrap up our look at team position rankings with special teams. There are plenty of strong kickers and returners in the league. I did not separate them, though, because those would be more like individual rankings. Those are coming soon.

[+] EnlargeNick Williams
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireNick Williams led the NCAA in kickoff return average last season.
1. Connecticut. The Huskies have one of the best kickers in the league in Dave Teggart and one of the best kickoff returners in the league in Nick Williams putting them in the top spot here. Williams led the NCAA in kickoff return average last season with 35.3 yards per kick. Teggart was the Big East first-team selection, making 25 of 31 field goals. They should be better this year, even with the loss of Robbie Frey.

2. USF. The Bulls also have an excellent kicker-returner duo in Maikon Bonani and Lindsey Lamar. Bonani made 17 of 21 kicks last year, while Lamar was the first-team All-Big East selection, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and averaging 26 yards per return. Add in punt returner Terrence Mitchell and this is one of the best units in the league.

3. Louisville. The Cardinals have one of the best in the league in Chris Philpott, who punts and kicks. Josh Bleser is solid in splitting the punting duties with Philpott. Victor Anderson and Jeremy Wright are back as kickoff returners -- both averaged 30-plus yards per return last season. Wright's kick return helped the Cardinals win the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl last year. Doug Beaumont is gone as punt returner, but he is the only loss. This unit has a chance to be No. 1 at year's end.

4. Syracuse. The Orange have one of the best kickers in the league in Ross Krautman, who missed just one of his 19 field goal attempts last season. They do lose their top punt returner in Mike Holmes, along with punter Rob Long so there are questions at some of the most important spots on special teams. But Krautman, and the return of Dorian Graham and Prince-Tyson Gulley returning kicks puts this unit just ahead of the Bearcats.

5. Cincinnati. This is a mixed bag for the Bearcats. They have the best punter in the league in Pat O'Donnell, who also happens to be a physical freak in the weight room. They should be decent in the return game with the return of D.J. Woods, who will compete with Anthony McClung, Shaq Washington and Kenbrell Thompkins to return kicks and punts. Darrin Williams is in the mix for kickoff returner, too. But kicker is a huge question mark. Jacob Rogers was solid last season. Now there is uncertainty in the competition between Tony Miliano and Danny Milligan. Coach Butch Jones says he won't name a starter until game week.

6. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights also have question marks here. Kicker San San Te returns, but he needs to be better from longer distances (2-of-7 from 40-plus yards). Punter Teddy Dellaganna is gone and so is kickoff returner Joe Lefeged. True freshman Anthony DiPaula enrolled early and takes over at punter. Mason Robinson is back at punt returner, and Jeremy Deering and Mark Harrison make a good combo returning kicks.

7. West Virginia. The Mountaineers need more consistency from kicker Tyler Bitancurt, who missed his final four kicks of last season. He made just 10 of 17 attempts and looked shaky in the spring. West Virginia has a new holder and a new punter in Corey Smith, and hopes for improvement in the return game.

8. Pittsburgh. The Panthers have to replace both kicking specialists, including Big East first-team punter Dan Hutchins. At punter, you have walk-ons Matt Yoklic and Drake Greer, neither of whom has punted in a collegiate game. Kevin Harper takes over as kicker and had a good spring game. The Panthers also replace their long-snapper, so there will be a period of adjustment for this unit when the season starts. Cameron Saddler is a bright spot at returner.

Previous rankings
We continue our team position rankings today with receiver. This is an area of great potential for plenty of teams around the league, especially with some of the high-octane offenses that we are going to see. Only three teams return their leading receiver from last season. The overriding theme seems to be this: there is a lot of talent, but much of it is unproven. So how are these receivers going to step up?

To make these rankings, I considered returning starters, accolades for returning starters, depth and potential.

[+] EnlargeMark Harrison
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonMark Harrison caught 44 passes for 829 yards and 9 touchdowns last season.
1. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have proven talent and depth at this position, putting them at the top spot in these rankings. When healthy, Mark Harrison and Mohamed Sanu form one of the top 1-2 punches in the entire league. Add in Brandon Coleman, who had an outstanding spring, along with Tim Wright returning from injury and the top four looks as solid as it gets. Let's not forget incoming speedsters Miles Shuler and Tejay Johnson, who have the potential to play as well.

2. West Virginia. The Mountaineers have Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and a whole bunch of questions at the position. But with the new offense Dana Holgorsen is bringing in, other receivers have a chance to be more effective. Austin is about as close as you can come to a surefire first-team All-Big East player. Ryan Nehlen had a nice spring and could be the surprise of the season. So could Tyler Urban, a converted tight end. How will Brad Starks do after shoulder surgery? Will Ivan McCartney live up to his potential? There is talent here and great potential if everybody lives up to expectations.

3. Cincinnati. The Bearcats are stocked with talent, but many of these skill players have got to gain experience and fast with Armon Binns, Marcus Barnett, Vidal Hazelton and Ben Guidugli gone. D.J. Woods is expected to be a first-team All-Big East selection. But beyond he and Anthony McClung, you have got young guys -- junior college transfers Kenbrell Thompkins and Damon Julian, redshirt freshman Dyjuan Lewis, freshmen Shaq Washington, Chris Moore, Alex Chisum and Max Morrison. Thompkins showed great promise in the spring.

4. Pittsburgh. The Panthers lose their leading receiver in Jon Baldwin, but the duo of Mike Shanahan and Devin Street could each be 1,000-yard receivers. Behind them, though, there are some questions and inexperience. Junior Cameron Saddler is going to have to step up. Redshirt freshmen Salath Williams, Drew Carswell, junior college transfer Josh Brinson and true freshman Justin Jackson are all young but have a chance to be big contributors. Pitt also is waiting to hear whether UNC transfer Brendon Felder will have his petition for immediate eligibility granted.

5. Syracuse. The Orange have plenty of solid returning receivers in Van Chew, Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon but what this team is really lacking is big-play potential. In five games last season, Syracuse failed to complete a pass that went longer than 30 yards. In fact, Ryan Nassib averaged 6.5 yards per pass attempt. A healthy Jarrod West could help those numbers improve. Dorian Graham has to work on his hands, too.

6. USF. The Bulls lose leading receiver Dontavia Bogan, but they return injured players Sterling Griffin and A.J. Love to the mix, which is going to be huge. Lindsey Lamar and Evan Landi also return, along with Terrence Mitchell, Joel Miller and Faron Hornes. Deonte Welch had a nice spring game and is listed as a backup behind Landi. True freshman Andre Davis has the potential to contribute as well. The Bulls have plenty of depth here but there are still some questions about this group, especially with Griffin and Love coming off injuries.

7. Louisville. The Cardinals lose their top two receivers, and have got to figure out a way to make big plays and stretch the field with a young group. Josh Bellamy appears to be the go-to man headed into 2011, and much is going to be expected of Andrell Smith and Michaelee Harris. Both are coming off injuries and were unable to practice in the spring. True freshmen are most likely going to be relied upon, giving Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker and opportunity to play.

8. Connecticut. A playmaker has got to emerge from this group to help out whoever is going to be playing quarterback. The Huskies lost leading receiver Mike Smith because of academics. Kashif Moore, Ryan Griffin and Isiah Moore return but UConn is going to need some of its redshirt freshmen like Geremy Davis and Tebucky Jones Jr. to step up. The Huskies are not preparing to run the spread, so the potential for a 1,000-yard receiver in this group is low.

Previous rankings:
On the eve of Cincinnati's final spring practice, Zach Collaros was at the car repair shop. He needed a new window after some punk decided to break into his ride.

But Collaros was still in a good mood. He liked the way spring drills had gone for the Bearcats, whom he feels just need some minor repairs themselves to improve on last year's 4-8 record.

They've got a great place to start with their senior quarterback, who led the Big East in passing yards (2,902) and touchdowns (26) last season. Collaros is looking for more than just stats this year, though.

"We had a great season if you just want to talk numbers," he said. "But we weren't very consistent in anything we did, whether it be the passing game or the running game."

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
AP Photo/David KohlQuarterback Zach Collaros led the Big East in passing yards and touchdowns last season, but he led the conference in interceptions, too.
Turnovers killed Cincinnati last year, and Collaros knows he can't have another season where he throws a league-high 14 interceptions like he did in 2010. He's trying to rein in his desire to make huge plays on every snap.

"When it's third-and-12, it's all right to not throw for the first down and punt the ball sometimes," he said. "And sometimes when you do dumb it down to a two-yard pass, that turns into a 15-yard pass. I'm working on going through my progressions, understanding the game better and not putting the defense in bad situations.

"It's on me to make good decisions. As long as I make good decisions, the offense should be fine."

Collaros can make things happen with his legs as well as his arm, but he might have been a bit too quick to scramble and throw on the move last season. While the team doesn't want him to lose that running threat, Collaros said he worked this spring on sliding in the pocket and looking for his second and third receivers while setting his feet properly for the throw.

He won't have one of his favorite targets from last year in receiver Armon Binns. But Collaros still has D.J. Woods and likes the way the new receivers such as Kenbrell Thompkins and Anthony McClung progressed this spring. Throw in running back Isaiah Pead and a tight end corps led by Travis Kelce, and the Bearcats' offense that led the Big East in scoring last year still looks loaded.

"We have a lot of weapons," Collaros said. "It just comes down to consistency and execution."

There were times last year when Collaros had to throw 40 or 50 times in a game because Cincinnati was playing from behind. He hopes a more experienced defense and a more efficient offense will mean less of those shootout-type situations. He's now the face of a senior class that went to back-to-back BCS games and doesn't want consecutive losing seasons to be a part of their legacy.

"We want to be remembered as winners," Collaros said. "We're going to do everything we can to go out as winners."

How Cincinnati missed out on a bowl

December, 15, 2010
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After two straight Big East titles and BCS game appearances, Cincinnati came crashing down to earth with a 4-8 record in 2010.

Several factors conspired against the Bearcats in this disappointing season. There was the coaching transition, of course, as Butch Jones took over for Brian Kelly. There was a difficult early schedule that included games at Fresno State and NC State and versus Oklahoma, all of which Cincinnati lost. Injuries played a part, as starting receiver Vidal Hazelton went down in the opener with a torn ACL, and the team's most experienced cornerback (Dominique Battle) missed most of the year with a knee injury.

The Bearcats led the league in points scored and total offense but finished last in points allowed thanks to an undersized, inexperienced defense that gave up nearly 34 points per conference game. Unlike last season, when they could win shootouts late in the year because of their prolific offense, they continually ended their own drives with mistakes. Their abysmal minus-15 turnover margin was second-worst in the FBS.

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeQuarterback Zach Collaros is part of a strong returning nucleus on offense for Cincinnati.
Intangibles were at play as well. Jones had to fight a sense of entitlement that stemmed from those two straight championships. Senior center Jason Kelce told the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month that the team lacked the hunger it had in previous years.

So what can Cincinnati do to get back to the postseason in 2011?

Jones has a strong nucleus returning. The team loses only six starting seniors, none of them on defense. Quarterback Zach Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead and receiver D.J. Woods are all among the best at their position in the Big East, so the offense should thrive again, especially with a year of Jones' system under their belts. The Bearcats will miss start wideout Armon Binns, but freshman Anthony McClung showed promise late in the year, and former star recruit Dyjuan Woods and junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins will become eligible.

The defense remains an issue, and this offseason will be crucial in the weight room for the Bearcats to add some bulk. Jones has to fill in some gaps through recruiting and may look to a junior college player or two to provide immediate help.

Next year's schedule will be slightly easier, with difficult games against Tennessee and NC State but highly winnable contests against Austin Peay, Akron and Miami of Ohio. For the first time in a few years, the Bearcats won't be picked among the favorites for the Big East. But they should improve enough to get back to a bowl in 2011.

Cincinnati recruiting analysis

February, 4, 2010
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Throughout the day, I'll have a review of each Big East's teams 2010 signing class. We're going in alphabetical order, so stay patient and your team will roll around.

Cincinnati

View class here.

Signees: 22

Heavy on: Defensive backs (five).

Geographic trend: Fifteen of the 22 are from Ohio.

Headliners: WR Dyjuan Lewis (four stars), QB Munchie Legaux (three stars)

Sleeper: Montrel Robinson, a tight end in high school who should play slot receiver.

Best potential for immediate impact: Lewis could step in and contribute on offense, while John Lloyd could be the team's punter right away.

Needs met: The Bearcats needed some quarterbacks, with their top two both in the junior class, and they signed two. They stocked the defensive backfield position while picking up three receivers and four defensive linemen to shore up those areas.

Analysis: Given the fact that Butch Jones took over in December and had to try and keep together a class that was mostly assembled in the summer, this is a decent class. There were quite a few defections, as expected, but Jones also added a few players late like Legaux and receiver Anthony McClung. This program has been built on under-the-radar Ohio recruits.
What Jones said: "We were forced to build relationships in a very short period of time, and I think we were able to do that ... I think it was an extremely unusual year in terms of all the decommits ... (Finding quarterbacks) was big in the recruiting process as a point of emphasis, and I think we addressed that need. ... Don't get caught up in any of the ratings. The last time I looked, we've been to an Orange Bowl and a Sugar bowl with classes that were rated from the middle to the bottom of the Big East."

Scouts Inc. grade: C

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