NCF Nation: Kenbrell Thompkins

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 at the combine

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
9:12
AM ET
Twenty-four former Big East players and several more stars from future conference teams have been in Indianapolis the past week showing off in front of their prospective future employers. With the NFL scouting combine wrapping up today with defensive backs working out, we'll take a look at how some of the Big East's stars fared.

Kay leads Cincinnati rout of Temple

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
3:40
PM ET
Was the Syracuse game the last we've seen of Munchie Legaux this season?

If Brendon Kay's performance Saturday at Temple is any indication, that may very well end up being the case.

The Bearcats could not have asked for much more from their new signal caller in a 34-10 rout of the Owls. Kay completed 13 of 21 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns and carried it seven times for 71 yards.

His touchdown passes, to Kenbrell Thompkins and Chris Moore, went for 75 and 65 yards, respectively.

George Winn, the Big East's leading rusher, added 83 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.

Cincinnati jumped out to a 24-3 first-half lead and never looked back, pressuring Chris Coyer into a costly interception late in the first half that cost the Temple signal caller the chance to start the third quarter.

That honor went to Clinton Granger, who fared little better. The two Owls quarterbacks combined to go 12-of-32 for 142 yards. Cody Booth's 4-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter cut the Cincinnati lead to 14, but that was as close as Temple would get.

The Bearcats held Temple to just 267 yards of total offense in what was a complete, solid performance. Reality has come down hard on the Owls following their 2-0 Big East start, as they now find themselves in the middle of a four-game losing streak going into next week's game against Army.

Cincinnati scored another win Saturday when Louisville was routed by Syracuse, giving both the Bearcats and Cardinals one Big East loss. Louisville beat Cincinnati two weeks ago, so the Cardinals have to lose another game for Cincinnati to have a chance to win the conference outright and gain a BCS bowl bid.

To have that chance, the Bearcats need to start by beating Rutgers next week, which would create quite a wild race to the finish among three one-loss Big East teams. That's a scenario that looks much more possible after Kay's performance Saturday in Philadelphia.

Big East mailblog: Lots o' love

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
4:30
PM ET
You love me! You really love me! Well, for this week, anyway.

I will let Dave in Crescent Springs, Ky., speak for all of those who wrote in with such kind words about my column on the state of the Big East earlier this week. ...

Dave writes: Good afternoon Andrea, I just want to thank you for your great coverage of the Big East as well as for your article pointing out the facts pertaining to Big East football. Big East football gets trashed by everyone even though it stacks up pretty well against the other five "power" conferences. The Big East has always been at least equal to the ACC in football. If it wasn't, then why has the ACC raided the Big East twice in less than a decade? And they can have Pitt and Syracuse. Neither of those two have exactly been world beaters the last 15 years or so. Anyway, thanks again for your outstanding coverage. I really enjoyed your latest article about how the Big East is still 'alive and kicking.'

Andrea Adelson: It had to be said, and I thank you all for your overwhelming response.

Rob in Atlanta writes: Do you think Rutgers can break or go as high as the Top 10 in the polls? If not, where do you see them ending up this season?

Adelson: It is so hard to predict where teams are going to end up, because it is largely predicated on what happens ahead of them. I cannot predict what will happen with the 21 teams ranked ahead of Rutgers at this point. If Rutgers can start 9-0, then certainly this team will be in a great poll position for its final three-game stretch. But it's too hard to say what will happen with everyone else.

Jeff Lowman in Vine Grove, Ky., writes: Your article on Big East football was outstanding. What are your thoughts on Charlie Strong staying in Louisville? Yesterday on the Rome show he said he is not leaving. He asked players to come play for him and this university, so he's not going to leave them. "I'm not cut like that" was his remark. I want to believe him, but didn't Brian Kelly tell Cincinnati fans the same thing four years ago? Then there's Bobby Petrino....GO CARDS! GO ANDREA, my new favorite sports writer.

Adelson: Coaches are always put into tough positions when they are asked those questions. No coach is ever going to say, "Yeah, I'd go after that job!" Every coach will reaffirm his commitment to his school. When they leave, they get called to the carpet for it. Strong is not in the same category as Petrino, who was actively meeting with other schools while still coaching at Louisville. So bite your tongue for saying that. I do believe Strong feels an intense sense of loyalty to Louisville and Tom Jurich for giving him his first head coaching opportunity. I believed everything he said in that interview. Does that mean he is staying? I cannot sit here and predict the future. But I do think the Cards have a shot at hanging onto him for a good, long while.

Dr. Bob in Union, Ky., writes: Were you surprised that UC was not ranked in the AP Top 25 after their win over Virginia Tech? I know the Big East gets little to no respect from the media, but UC gets even less. Last I checked, we are Big East champs 3 of the last 4 years.

Adelson: I was very surprised, Bob. In fact, I sent an email to the Big East communications office Saturday night asking for the last time three Big East teams were ranked, fully expecting to write that story Sunday morning.

Anthony in Arlington, Va., writes: Why is everyone so high on Cincinnati right now? Looking at their wins, I am not impressed. They beat a Pitt team that had just come off a loss to an FCS school, they looked terrible against their own FCS opponent Delaware State, and they needed a Hail Mary against a mediocre Virginia Tech team. So why is everyone so impressed?

Adelson: First of all, Cincinnati is 3-0, and not many people predicted that at the start of the season. Second of all, the defense has been pretty terrific in all three games. Third of all, it has been great to see the emergence of guys like Ralph David Abernathy IV and Kenbrell Thompkins and Damon Julian for that matter. Cincinnati led for big chunks of that game, too, so it's not as if the Hail Mary at the end erased a terrible performance.

George in New Jersey writes: Were Skip Holtz and his coaches USF's own worse enemy with two highly questionable coaching decisions against Florida State? 1) With about a minute to go in the half and in their own end of the field, USF ran a passing play only to have it intercepted and Florida State kicked a field goal. 2) Later in the second half, with the outcome still in doubt, USF ran a passing play with their back up QB when he came in on an emergency basis for B.J. Daniels who had to leave the field for one play. That resulted in a Florida State fumble recovery for a touchdown. USF was never the same after that play. Do you agree that the offensive coordinator or head coach, or both made unnecessarily risky and very costly mistakes?

Adelson: I thought the play with Matt Floyd in the game was much more questionable than the first play you mentioned. I have no problem with USF trying to get into field goal range with a pass there. With 1:09 to go and the ball at the 30, it is reasonable to conclude your team can run a 2-minute drill to get down to the FSU 30. The second one, though, made absolutely no sense. I don't know about you, but I would not have my quarterback coming in off the sideline cold attempt to throw a pass right out of the gate. I understand it was third and long, but the more prudent decision would have been to just hand off and punt.

Jay in Rutgers writes: I'm getting married Friday and then me, the new wife, and my groomsmen are going to the Rutgers/UConn game on Saturday. This may be the best weekend ever, especially if it ends with the Knights going 5-0!

Adelson: Best wishes for a happy life and happy weekend, my friend!
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.

Big East offseason to-do lists

January, 20, 2012
1/20/12
10:00
AM ET
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
9/26/11
1:00
PM ET
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

Cincinnati off to a fast start

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
7:52
PM ET
Cincinnati is off and running in its game against Austin Peay. Specifically, Isaiah Pead is off and running.

Pead has 77 yards and two touchdowns, including a 40-yarder for the first score of the game. Zach Collaros just threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins and the Bearcats have an early 20-0 lead. None of this comes as a major surprise. Pead is one of the best running backs in the league, and Austin Peay is an overmatched opponent.

We can probably expect to see plenty of the backups in this one. It will be good to see how backup quarterbacks Munchie Legaux and Jordan Luallen run the offense should they enter the game later.
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:
We're continuing to ask for your opinion on some burning questions facing the Big East in 2011.

You can vote on the poll included on this post, and we'll tally the results and react to them when the voting concludes. The topic now is: biggest impact newcomers.

I've selected five players who weren't on the field last year who could make an impact on this year's Big East race. Here are the nominees:
  • Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers: The 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman was wildly impressive this spring and could develop into a star quickly with his blend of size and speed.
  • Vernard Roberts, RB, West Virginia: The true freshman took the lead in the West Virginia running back race this spring, and in Dana Holgorsen's offense he could put up huge numbers.
  • Savon Huggins, RB, Rutgers: Arguably the top recruit in the Big East this year, Huggins has already drawn Ray Rice comparisons and hasn't even started taking classes yet.
  • Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville: The Cardinals' quarterback of the future couldn't beat out Will Stein this spring but has a whole summer to make up ground.
  • Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, Cincinnati: The junior-college transfer is already a team leader, and coach Butch Jones says Thompkins can be the Bearcats' No. 1 receiver in 2011.

So those are the nominees. Now it's time to let your voice be heard.
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."
CINCINNATI -- Butch Jones says the leader of his receivers group, and one of the most respected players on the Cincinnati Bearcats, is a guy who has never played a major college game.

That's how impressive Kenbrell Thompkins has been. And considering where he came from, he's even more impressive.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pound wideout could follow in the footsteps of Mardy Gilyard and Armon Binns and become the next great Bearcats receiver. He's strongly built, runs great routes and boasts excellent hands and speed.

Cincinnati had hoped to use the junior college transfer last year, but Tennessee would not release Thompkins from his letter of intent and the national letter of intent appeals committee denied his request to become immediately eligible. Thompkins wanted to play for the Volunteers and catch passes from his junior-college roommate Matt Simms, but he became disillusioned when coach Lane Kiffin left for USC. The standard penalty for breaking a letter of intent is the loss of one year of eligibility; the appeals committee allowed Thompkins to retain his remaining two years because of the extenuating circumstances.

"The bond I built with Lane Kiffin, he kind of became like a father figure," Thompkins says. "Every question I needed to ask, he was there for me to call. My dad was around and everything when I was growing up ... well, I'll just say he was around. Every time I was in trouble or needed some assistance, [Kiffin] was the guy I called. When he left, felt like I had nobody to call. I just felt lost in the whole situation."

Thompkins got a late start in the world of big-time football, and he almost never made it at all. He grew up in Miami's tough Liberty City neighborhood and was reportedly arrested seven times between ages 15 and 18, including felonies such as armed robbery and possession of cocaine. Some of the charges were dropped or reduced. Thompkins was mentioned in the CBS News/Sports Illustrated story on the lack of background checks in recruiting earlier this year.

But Thompkins cleaned up his act and made it to El Camino Community College, a powerful program in California. Going there, he said, was the first time he'd ever even left Miami. Top college coaches would come around to watch him and Simms practice.

"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "Growing up in Liberty City, it's rough down there. I came from a high school that was an F school."

Those days are long gone. Thompkins earned a 3.9 GPA in his first quarter at Cincinnati and has been a model student. He has also been a leader on and off the field and stood out last year on the scout team.

"Here's a young man who's paid his dues," Jones said. "He has done well in the classroom and worked extremely hard. Now, there's a light at the end of the tunnel for him."

Thompkins said he knew nothing about Cincinnati growing up, but he noticed the success that Gilyard -- another Florida kid who overcame a troubled background -- and Binns had in prolific offenses. He figures to be next in line, though he'll need to acclimate himself to BCS-level football after a year of not playing. He spent part of his offseason back home running with his brother, Kendal, who is a junior receiver for the Miami Hurricanes.

The problems he had back home, however, seem long gone.

"I feel like I've come a long way," he said. "My past is just that -- my past. My future is brighter than ever."
CINCINNATI -- Hours after the Dec. 4 season finale against Pittsburgh ended in yet another loss, Cincinnati coach Butch Jones had every sign, picture and mention of the 2010 season removed from the Bearcats football facilities.

On New Year's Eve, a restless Jones texted all of his players that he hoped they were enjoying their holiday break, but that they shouldn't expect one in 2011. A program that ascended to the top of the Big East in 2008 and 2009 saw the bottom fall out in Jones' first season as head coach. This spring, the Bearcats are trying to climb their way back up.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's head coach Butch Jones
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanCincinnati head coach Butch Jones won't be letting up on his players this season.
"We don't want to hang onto anything from 2010," linebacker JK Schaffer said. "All we were used to was winning, so last year was eye-opening for a lot of us. A shock to the system."

Cincinnati went to the Orange Bowl in 2008 and repeated as Big East champions in 2009, finishing 12-0 in the regular season and No. 3 in the final BCS standings. Jones hoped it would be a smooth transition when he took over for Brian Kelly, just as he had done at Central Michigan when Kelly left the Chippewas for the Bearcats. Instead, he inherited a team lacking depth and experience on defense that couldn't stay out of its own way en route to a 4-8 disappointment.

While there were many issues on the field, players admit there was some resistance to the new coaching staff as well.

"I feel like a lot of people weren't 100 percent bought in, even myself," defensive tackle Derek Wolfe said. "Sometimes you question things, when you win 12 games one way and then you're asked to do things a completely different way."

Wolfe said the team is now unified behind Jones because he has kept his word on every promise. Cincinnati now has a long-awaited practice field and indoor bubble, and Jones led the way to add a players' lounge and other amenities in the locker room. Now it's a matter of solving the on-the-field problems.

That starts with defense. The Bearcats led the Big East in scoring and total offense in Jones' first year but couldn't stop anybody. The good news is all 11 starters are back from 2010. Or that's the bad news, depending on how you want to look at it. Cincinnati made strides in the weight room this winter but is still undersized in its defensive front seven compared to many BCS teams. Depth is a major issue at linebacker, and the secondary has to improve on the nation's No. 88 pass defense.

On the flip side, everyone is a year older and more experienced. And the defensive system and coordinator are the same after the team went through three different schemes and coaches in three years.

"We're not installing all spring," Schaffer said. "We're not spending all our time learning. We're just sharpening our tools."

Jones hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on the quarterback. With linebacker Walter Stewart moving to defensive end and newcomers like Camaron Beard and Brad Harrah adding depth, Wolfe won't be asked to play 80 snaps a game like he was a year ago.

"It's a lot nicer knowing I won't have to play with my helmet halfway broken or my chinstrap broken," Wolfe said. "I'll have somebody come in for me now."

On offense, the Bearcats should remain explosive with the return of first team All-Big East quarterback Zach Collaros and the league's leading returning rusher, Isaiah Pead. The offensive line needs to be rebuilt, and new receivers need to step forward. Junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins could succeed Armon Binns as the No. 1 target.

That offense produced a lot of yards last year but also gave the ball away 29 times. Coupled with a defense that failed to make many big plays, the Bearcats ranked second to last nationally in turnover margin at minus-15. Jones said that stat kept him awake at nights this winter.

"I've never been a part of anything like that," he said. "It was just bizarre. We emphasize ball security all the time, and we researched it a lot this offseason."

One technique was on display in Tuesday's first spring practice. Even on incomplete passes, the coaching staff demanded the players treat the ball as if it were live and fight for its possession.

"It's a mindset that you're trying to create turnovers on defense," Jones said. "There's an art to scooping and scoring, and it gets everyone running to the football with a purpose."

In another new wrinkle this spring, every drill is scored. After each play, an assistant coach using a bullhorn yells out how many points the offense and defense have earned for that drill. Those points are tallied up at the end to determine a winner. The goal is to create more competitive juice.

"It really helps push people," Schaffer said. "You can tell guys to go out and do the work and they'll do it. But if you tell them they're competing, a different switch flips on in their brain and they're like, 'C'mon, let's go!'"

Cincinnati is trying to get back to competing for Big East titles. And to push 2010 far out of the memory bank.

SPONSORED HEADLINES