NCF Nation: Darrin Williams
The positions listed reflect areas of need for the 2011 and 2012 seasons and don't take into account players who have already committed at those spots, though I try to highlight some of those notable commitments below.
Offensive line: The Bearcats lose three senior starters from an offensive line that had its share of struggles in the 2010 season. Left tackle, center and right guard will all need new starters in 2011, and Butch Jones wasn't thrilled with the depth he inherited at those key positions. He needs to refill the ranks.
Running back: Isaiah Pead had a breakthrough year and might be the top running back in the Big East in 2011, but he's a senior. Backup John Goebel graduated, and Darrin Williams hasn't shown enough consistency as an every-down player. The Bearcats hope current commitment Jameel Poteat can be the next Pead.
Defensive toughness: Cincinnati returns all 11 starters from the 2010 defense, but that defense gave up the most points in the Big East. There's not a position on the defense that couldn't use more depth and more talent. The Bearcats were especially light on strength and toughness on defense, so any hard-nosed guys who can play on that side of the ball are welcome to join.
Linebacker: UConn returns most of its starting defense from 2010 but loses a pair of four-year starters in linebackers Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson. Sio Moore is a rising star at the position, but it will be hard to replace the veteran leadership and production that Lutrus and Wilson provided. The Huskies' top two recruits right now are both linebackers.
Offensive line: The Huskies lose both starting guards from 2010, including All-Big East performer Zach Hurd. The program has had an uncanny knack for simply plugging in new starters along that offensive front and not missing a beat. It remains to be seen whether new coach Paul Pasqualoni and his staff can continue that tradition.
Wide receiver: Sure, UConn returns virtually all of its pass-catchers from the Big East championship team. But the passing game was brutally bad down the stretch, and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl loss highlighted the need for more playmakers on offense. Pasqualoni has said he wants to throw the ball down the field to stretch the defense, and he'll need game-breakers to do so.
Quarterback: Adam Froman and Justin Burke split the starting duties under center last season, and both were seniors. The only other quarterback on the roster with experience at the position is Will Stein, who'll be a senior this year. Dominique Brown was recruited as a quarterback last year, but his future probably lies at another position. Incoming freshmen Teddy Bridgewater and DaMarcus Smith, if he keeps his pledge to the Cardinals, could compete for the starting job right away.
Defensive back: The secondary was a constant source of concern for Louisville last year, and the Cardinals got a surprising contribution from Big East rookie of the year Hakeem Smith at safety. But both starting cornerbacks, including likely NFL draft pick Johnny Patrick, are gone. Louisville's top recruit right now is safety Gerod Holliman.
Wide receiver: The Cardinals had an excellent running game and the top pass-catching tight end in the Big East a year ago. But they had trouble going vertical in the passing game because of a lack of explosive playmakers in the passing game. Injuries and inexperience hurt the position last season, and leading receiver Doug Beaumont graduated. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford's attack will look much different when Louisville gets some star wideouts on board.
Running back: Dion Lewis bolted for the NFL as a draft-eligible sophomore, and fullback Henry Hynoski went pro early as well. That leaves Ray Graham as the only real option for handoffs. It's no surprise that Pitt has commitments from four players identified as running backs in this class so far.
Wide receiver: Jon Baldwin took his talents to the NFL after his junior year. True, the Panthers still have plenty of talent at the position, including Mike Shanahan and the emerging Devin Street. But Todd Graham's new wide-open offense is going to need a lot of targets in the passing game, especially versatile players who can do lots of things in space.
Offensive line: Pitt's problems in the middle of its offensive line to start last season exposed a shocking lack of depth at the position, which had suffered through several recruiting misses in the past. The Panthers now have to replace their All-Big East left tackle in Jason Pinkston and find a new starting center. And Graham's offense is going to require a different kind of blocking scheme.
Offensive line: This is a no-brainer for a team that gave up a nation's-worst 61 sacks a year ago. It's hard to find immediate help at this position, but the Scarlet Knights did ink a junior-college player who is expected to start at center this season. Whether it's the scheme or just the players running it, Rutgers needs a change up front.
Running back: Jordan Thomas did some nice things as a true freshman, and Joe Martinek hopes to be fully healthy for his senior year. But Greg Schiano's offense has been searching for a difference-maker at tailback since Ray Rice went to the Baltimore Ravens. He hopes Savon Huggins, the top New Jersey recruit who committed late last week, is that guy.
Quarterback: Tom Savage's transfer leaves true sophomore Chas Dodd as the only quarterback with any experience. It's hard to go through a whole year with just one quarterback, so the Scarlet Knights desperately need depth. They received a pledge from Don Bosco Prep signal-caller Gary Nova, a former Pitt recruit.
Defensive line: Three of the four starters along the defensive line were seniors last year, including starting defensive ends Jonathan Freeny and Alex Silvestro. Schiano has some promising young players at the position but needs depth there so he can rotate in fresh bodies to rush the passer.
Wide receiver: The Bulls' dearth of reliable targets in the passing game was painfully obvious most of the year. No. 1 wideout Dontavia Bogan was a senior, meaning some of the younger players at that spot need to grow up in a hurry. USF should get A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin back from injury, but it's clear that Skip Holtz needs some more deep threats.
Offensive line: Three starters are gone off the offensive line, including tackles Jamar Bass and Jake Sims and center Sampson Genus. The two returning starters will be seniors this season. The Bulls need to usher in the next wave of linemen into the program this recruiting season.
Defensive back: Mistral Raymond, who could play both corner and safety for the Bulls last season, is gone. There wasn't a ton of depth here this year, and though Quenton Washington had a great Meineke Car Care Bowl game, South Florida feels like it can upgrade its secondary through recruiting.
Linebacker: The Orange had one of the better defenses in the Big East in '10, and senior linebackers Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith were big reasons why. Marquis Spruill showed promise at the position as a true freshman this season, and Syracuse needs a couple more like him to stay strong in Scott Shafer's pressure scheme.
Wide receiver: Marcus Sales came out of nowhere to have a huge New Era Pinstripe Bowl performance, but it remains to be seen if he can duplicate that performance next year. Van Chew showed great improvement throughout the year, but he and Alec Lemon dealt with injuries down the stretch that often left Ryan Nassib without anybody to target.
Running back: Delone Carter's graduation and Averin Collier's dismissal thins the backfield significantly. Antwon Bailey returns for his senior year but has to prove he's an every-down back. No one else on the roster has proved anything at the position.
Quarterback: The good news is that Geno Smith has thoroughly established himself as The Man at quarterback. The bad news is that Smith's entrenchment at the position helped run off freshmen Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson, so the Mountaineers once again have no depth behind their starter. They have brought in an intriguing under-the-radar prospect in Paul Millard, who had ridiculous numbers in Texas.
Defensive back: Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme demands the constant need for physical safeties who can play in different spots. West Virginia also lost a pair of stalwarts at the position in Sidney Glover and Robert Sands, who left early for the NFL. Add in the loss of star cornerback Brandon Hogan, and it's time to reload the secondary in Morgantown.
Linebacker: The Mountaineers got surprisingly good contributions from Anthony Leonard at middle linebacker this season, and J.T. Thomas was as solid as everyone expected. They both depart, along with top backup Pat Lazear, and only senior Najee Goode remains among the experienced players at the position. West Virginia hopes junior-college import Josh Francis can help right away.
The Bearcats lead lowly Indiana State just 12-7 late in the first half. And I do mean lowly. This is a team that's won three games in five years.
But Cincinnati has lost two fumbles and still hasn't shaken whatever is plaguing it so far this season. There's still time to make this look respectable in the second half.
Darrin Williams started at running back in place of Isaiah Pead, who is sitting out with swelling in his knee. Butch Jones made one change on the much-maligned offensive line, starting Randy Martinez at left guard over Evan Davis.
"When I get 15 to 18 carries, my body is sore after the game," Pead said. "I can only imagine what I'd feel like after a 40-carry game."
Pead's 121 carries, though, were almost exactly half of what Noel Devine got at West Virginia and a little more than a third of the handoffs Lewis took at Pitt. Pead's season high for attempts was 18 against West Virginia, and he ran for 175 yards in that game. He also had four games of six carries or fewer.
But the junior -- who was named to the Maxwell Award watch list earlier this month -- insists he's fine with not getting a ton of touches.
"In high school, I got about 15 to 18 carries a game," he said. "So I've always had a modest, mellow number of carries.
"You've just got to go out with no expectations, just go out and play and do whatever the team needs you to do. Then you worry about the stats afterward. There were games where I only had four or five carries, but I was in for a good number of plays. And I have to do my job when I play."
Pead's role could increase this season. Last year, he split time with senior running back Jacob Ramsey. This year, he's the unquestioned No. 1 back, even though senior John Goebel is healthy again and scatback Darrin Williams will get some looks. Pead says he's approaching this year with a different attitude.
"As the No. 1 back, you've got to be more focused, more mentally strong," he said. "You've got to go out and set a tone."
The running game was usually the secondary option in Brian Kelly's pass-happy offense. New coach Butch Jones uses a similar attack, but Pead says there is more emphasis on the running game.
"He runs the ball more, which is a good thing," Pead said. "The past two years, we've been successful without running the ball much, but to win football games, most teams have to run the ball. I'm looking forward to it."
And a lot of people are looking forward to seeing what Pead can do with more opportunities.
The junior was razor sharp in Saturday's Bearcats Bowl, hitting his first 11 passes and completing 18 of 20 overall for 218 yards and two touchdowns. Granted, his performance came against the second-team defense.
Receiver D.J. Woods had six catches for 88 yards and a score and threw a 60-yard pass to Vidal Hazelton on a play that Jones let a fan in the stands select. Hazelton had four catches for 88 yards and a score.
Tailback Darrin Williams got most of the carries with Isaiah Pead and John Goebel out with injuries. Williams finished with 64 yards and a touchdown on 12 attempts.
The second-team offense failed to score against the first-team defense.
Dan Giordano, Aaron Roberson and Chris Williams collected tackles for loss that scored points for the defense in Jones' modified scoring system.
Another day, another twist in the continuing saga that is the Cincinnati quarterback situation.
Zach Collaros will start Friday night against West Virginia, but Tony Pike will play in a role that coach Brian Kelly declined to divulge. Confused? That's understandable.
|Frank Victores/US Presswire|
|Zach Collaros will start for the Bearcats Friday against West Virginia.|
Kelly said Saturday night that Collaros, who set a Big East record with 555 total yards against UConn on Saturday, had played so well that he'd have to rethink who would start for the Bearcats when Pike was healthy. On Monday's Big East teleconference, Kelly emphatically stated that Pike was his starter when healthy. Then on Tuesday, the coach announced that Collaros would start but Pike would play.
Kelly's reasoning goes like this: Pike still isn't 100 percent, though he's close. And since Collaros has been magnificent, there's no reason to rush back Pike, especially since the senior has missed so much practice time. The fact that there's still some risk with Pike's injured left forearm also allows Kelly to keep the red-hot Collaros in while not alienating Pike.
So why play Pike at all this week? Kelly said there are things that Pike can bring to the offense that give the Bearcats an advantage. He didn't say this, but it's also a good way to maybe knock some of the rust off the quarterback without putting the team at risk in a must-win game for Cincinnati's Big East and national title hopes. And it makes the Mountaineers have to prepare for both quarterbacks in a short week.
Of course, Kelly said last month that he didn't want to play two quarterbacks because he'd rather have the receivers keep a rapport with one player. He's reversed field on that, calling it a "fluid situation." He said that's because Collaros has played so well that the receivers have the utmost confidence in him as well as Pike.
"They feel great with whoever the starter is," Kelly said. "That now becomes a moot point, relative to who feels better with what quarterback, because they have a comfort level with both."
Kelly emphasized that there would be no quarterback controversy on this team. He said Pike and his family were part of the decision-making process because he is the one who would have to risk his health by playing.
"Our team has absolutely no concerns over who's leading them," Kelly said. "Where controversy comes in is when the room is split. There is no split. Our guys know they can win and win at a high level with both those guys. That's a very, very unique circumstance, and I seem to attract unique circumstances."
Kelly said Pike would start the Nov. 27 Illinois game after the bye week. But remember, this is a fluid situation.
The other news from Cincinnati today is that second-leading rusher Jacob Ramsey won't play this week because of a foot sprain. He's in a walking boot. Isaiah Pead will start at running back, and John Goebel and Darrin Williams are in the mix as the backups. Goebel has a broken hand, but Kelly said the training staff has arranged a cast so he can carry the ball through the injury.
What did we learn during our Big East spring fling? Let us count the ways.
1. Defense first: The Big East lost a lot of offensive star power to NFL and graduation, including four of the league's top six rushers in 2008 and all but two members (Mardy Gilyard and Nate Byham) of the first team all-league offense. Some of the strongest units in the conference this season figure to be on the defensive side, where Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Connecticut and South Florida all look solid. This may be a year of lower-scoring, physical grinders in league play.
2. Mighty mites rule: For whatever reason, many of the playmakers who have emerged in the Big East could all apply for a 6-foot-and-under league. There are holdovers like West Virginia's Noel Devine (5-foot-8) and Louisville's Victor Anderson (5-9). Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis (5-8, on a good day) has emerged as LeSean McCoy's possible successor, while UConn may look to Jordan Todman (5-9) to fill Donald Brown's cleats. Antwon Bailey (5-8) should get a lot of carries at Syracuse, while Cincinnati may work Darrin Williams (5-7, if that) into the offense. If you like quick, small backs, the Big East is your nirvana.
3. QB and O-lines remain a concern: A few dilemmas got resolved in the spring, but many more remain at some of the vital offensive positions. Two legitimate contenders, West Virginia and South Florida, have major question marks on the offensive line, while Pitt, Rutgers, Louisville, Syracuse and Connecticut don't have firmly established starting quarterbacks heading into the fall.
4. Youth will be served: More players are seeing the field right away as freshmen across America these days, and we could be watching dozens of first-year guys making an impact in the Big East. Just about every school in the conference is counting on newcomers as reinforcements this summer. South Florida coach Jim Leavitt has said as many as 20 members of his recruiting class could play in '09. West Virginia figures to plug in several freshmen at the skill positions, while UConn will look for some immediate receiver help. Pitt might start a true freshman (Lewis) at running back, Rutgers could add freshmen to help its defensive front, not to mention possibly Tom Savage at quarterback, and Syracuse and Louisville will play anyone with skill. This looks like a transitional year in the Big East, where the next young wave of stars begins to replace the veteran big names (Pat White, Donald Brown, LeSean McCoy, Mike Teel, Kenny Britt, Scott McKillop, etc.) that left after '08.
5. Nobody knows anything: Across the Big East this spring, every coach privately wondered who the favorite would be in 2009. Only a psychic would dare try to list the order of finish in the league this coming season. The conference may enter the year without a frontrunner and without a preseason Top 25 team in the bunch, but several teams should improve as the season goes along. This could be the most unpredictable -- and therefore fun -- year ever in the Big East.