NCF Nation: Austen Bujnoch

Cincinnati offensive guard Austen Bujnoch is used to all the naysayers out there.

Last summer at Big East media day, for instance, he mentioned how the Bearcats' offensive line is always underrated headed into the preseason, only to exceed expectations on the field. One particularly low preseason ranking rankled him and his teammates so much, they used it for extra motivation and pinned it in the locker room.

[+] EnlargeEric Lefeld
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesEric Lefeld was one of two Cincinnati offensive linemen to earn first-team All-Big East honors in 2012.
Now here we all are, with spring in full swing as the 2013 season creeps closer. And the Bearcats have the unquestioned best offensive line in the Big East. Five starters return, including two first-team Big East picks in Bujnoch and tackle Eric Lefeld. Cincinnati was the only team with multiple selections to the first-team offensive line. Right tackle Parker Ehinger was a FWAA Freshman All-American.

To be sure, there are plenty of questions surrounding Cincinnati, but for once the offensive line is not one of them.

So that leads to my next question: Without the naysayers, what will the offensive line use for motivation this year?

"We just want to take the next step,” Bujnoch said in a recent phone interview. "It’s one thing to be the best in the conference. We want to be the best in the country. If you stay the same, you’re taking a step backward."

How exactly do the Bearcats become the best in the country? Bujnoch listed three areas where he wants his unit to improve: decrease sack numbers, improve rushing numbers and limit the hits to the quarterback. Cincinnati led the Big East in rushing yards a season ago with an average of 201.5 yards per game. That was No. 30 in the country. The Bearcats allowed 15 sacks on the season -- No. 2 in the Big East and No. 26 in the country.

So there definitely is room for improvement. What should be a huge help is the experience this group has, and the way they have bonded together since last season.

"We're all best friends. We all know what each other's going to do," Bujnoch said.

As for potential offensive changes with another new coach and coordinator, Bujnoch says any adjustments to the scheme are relatively minor.

"It's all the same thing, just called differently," Bujnoch said. "It all relates to what you already know, so that brings a sense of confidence that we’ve done it before."

Now all Cincinnati wants is to do it better than before.

Big East all-bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
AM ET
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.

ESPN.com All-Big East team

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
9:00
AM ET
The time has finally come to announce our picks for the ESPN.com All-Big East team.

You will see that only a few selections differ from the coaches'; they made their first- and second-team selections last week. Among the notable differences: I have Cincinnati running back George Winn on the first team ahead of Pitt running back Ray Graham. I thought Graham was great this year in his return from a torn ACL. But I thought Winn was better and more consistent. He also had more total yards rushing (1,204 to 1,042 for Graham), a higher rushing average (5.3 ypc to 4.7 ypc) and more 100-yard games.

I also have Pitt receiver Devin Street on the first team over DeVante Parker from Louisville. Parker had some flashy catches this year, but Street was way more productive and consistent. I actually went back and forth between Street and teammate Mike Shanahan for first-team honors. Both are worthy.

Defensively, I only have three linebackers on my team (no ties allowed!) so Sio Moore of UConn gets bumped. Moore had a heck of a year, no question, and linebacker was perhaps the strongest position in the league across every team. But I thought Yawin Smallwood, Greg Blair and Khaseem Greene were better. I also have Calvin Pryor at safety over Duron Harmon.

Here is the team in its entirety:

OFFENSE

QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

RB: Montel Harris, Temple

RB: George Winn, Cincinnati

WR: Alec Lemon, Syracuse

WR: Devin Street, Pitt

TE: Travis Kelce, Cincinnati

OT: Eric Lefeld, Cincinnati

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse

C: Mario Benavides, Louisville

OG: Austen Bujnoch, Cincinnati

OG: Antwan Lowery, Rutgers

K: Brandon McManus, Temple

RS: Matt Brown, Temple

DEFENSE

DE: Trevardo Williams, UConn

DE: Dan Giordano, Cincinnati

DT: Scott Vallone, Rutgers

DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt

LB: Greg Blair, Cincinnati

LB: Yawin Smallwood, UConn

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

CB: Adrian Bushell, Louisville

CB: Logan Ryan, Rutgers

S: Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse

S: Calvin Pryor, Louisville

P: Brandon McManus, Temple
Now by popular demand, we begin ranking the positions across the Big East. I know I am a little late to the party on this one, but better late than never, right? I asked on Twitter for suggestions on which position to start with today. There was no consensus. But I did like one suggestion: to work our way up from the line.

So first up is the offensive line. To make these rankings, I considered returning starters, accolades for returning starters, position switches and depth. The truth is, this is not an area of strength for the league as a whole. Most teams have depth concerns and questions at one or more positions.

[+] EnlargeJustin Pugh
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Justin Pugh earned all-conference honors last season as a freshman.
1. Syracuse. The Orange have four returning starters, including two seniors. You have Justin Pugh, who made second-team All-Big East last year as a freshman. You have a more mature and experienced unit than the one last year, which had to replace four starters. There also is depth to have a nice eight-man rotation. The concern is at center, where Macky MacPherson is undersized. Actually, when you look at the entire group, it is undersized. Andrew Tiller is the only one who tips the scales at more than 300 pounds.

2. West Virginia. The offensive line was an area of strength under Rich Rodriguez, but has struggled the past few years. It was hard to get a gauge on this unit in the spring, with both starting tackles Jeff Braun and Don Barclay out because of injuries. Starting guard Josh Jenkins also got hurt and is still not 100 percent. But the potential is there for this group to be significantly improved.

3. UConn. The strength of this unit is at tackle and center, where the Huskies return first-team All-Big East selection Mike Ryan (20 career starts) and Adam Masters (18 career starts). Moe Petrus, a second-team all-conference pick, has 39 career starts. Their experience should help along the guards -- nobody on the roster has started a game at the position. The good news is that Gary Bardzak does have starting experience, but it came at center.

4. Pittsburgh. The Panthers made so many position shifts during the spring that it is hard tell how this unit is going to shape up come fall. Chris Jacobson moving to center was one of the biggest moves, and Pittsburgh hopes it pays off with more stability there. Jacobson and starting tackles Jordan Gibbs and Lucas Nix have a combined 49 career starts, but Pitt has to make up for losing first-team Big East selection Jason Pinkston.

5. USF. The Bulls are going to be young on the offensive line this season after losing first-team All-Big East center Sampson Genus, along with tackles Jamar Bass and Jake Sims (second team All-Big East). Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren are a solid tandem at guard, and Mark Popek at left tackle and Kevin McCaskill at center do have playing experience. But at right tackle, USF plans to go with redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon. He does have loads of potential, but there will be a learning curve. Depth also is an issue, and the Bulls could have true freshmen in the rotation.

6. Cincinnati. The Bearcats had their share of problems last season, ranking second-to-last in the Big East in sacks allowed (31). This year, they have to replace three starters on the offensive line with unproven players. Senior right tackle Alex Hoffman has taken on some leadership responsibility with the loss of Jason Kelce, but players like Austen Bujnoch, Andre Cureton, Sean Hooey and Evan Davis are going to have to step up. Depth could also be an issue here.

7. Louisville. The Cardinals return just one starter in center Mario Benavides, who has been hampered with a knee injury. Ryan Kessling and Alex Kupper have playing experience, but most everybody else is pretty unproven, and that makes for one of the biggest question areas on the team headed into the fall.

8. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights own the bottom spot until the season starts and we can see how much this unit has improved. It is a well-known fact that they finished last in sacks allowed and were one of the worst rushing teams in the country last season for that reason. They suffered a blow when junior college transfer Dallas Hendrikson went down with a season-ending injury in the spring, but coach Greg Schiano said he saw plenty of improvement from this group. They certainly will have more experience, but how much better will they be?

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