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Deep thoughts from Higher Ground

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
WEST HARRISON, Ind. -- Some thoughts and observations from today's Cincinnati practice at Camp Higher Ground:

• Perhaps the main thing that struck me from watching the Bearcats was how much depth they appear to have.

The receiving corps is full of playmakers behind Mardy Gilyard, with Armon Binns, Jamar Howard, D.J. Woods and Marcus Barnett all looking strong. The defense constantly shuffled in players at linebacker and the line without a dropoff. There are four capable running backs. While people focus on all the lost starters, Cincinnati hasn't gotten enough credit for building a deep, talented roster.

"I think we've got enough receivers," Kelly said. "We've got enough tight ends and enough running backs. It's still about executing what we want to do. But strength and having enough players is not going to be a concern."

• Speaking of the running backs, I was looking forward to seeing what progress Isaiah Pead had made, since I heard he has turned in a good training camp thus far. Alas, he banged his knee early in practice and sat out most of the workout. John Goebel also sat out while nursing a minor injury.

So the majority of the carries went to Jacob Ramsey and freshman Darrin Williams. The latter is a redshirt freshman who's 5-foot-7, on a good day, but by the looks of things is tough as nails. He had some impressive runs near the goal line.

Running the ball was not a particular strength for Cincinnati a year ago, especially in short-yardage situations. But the amount of playmakers in the passing game could help in that area.

"Running the football in the spread offense is as much about having receivers that have to be respected than anything else," Kelly said. "It wasn't really talked about, but we didn't have a full complement of receivers last year.

"When you're concerned about those guys and have to bracket and double them, it opens up your running game. ... Having good receivers helps the running game, and having a quarterback who's very efficient in the passing game means you'll see a lot more drop eight, rush three. And that means run the ball."

• Barnett, who played cornerback in the spring and was deemed a two-way player recently by Kelly, spent the entire practice at wideout. He made a spectacular catch and run for a touchdown late in practice and was great throughout the morning. He's pushing Woods hard for the starting slot job.

"He looked like the 2007 Marcus Barnett," Gilyard said. "I told him, 'Little brother, you've finally grown up.' I disowned him for a while when he went over to the defense."

Makes you wonder if the spring move to defense, which came after Barnett's vastly disappointing sophomore year, was simply a motivational ploy from Kelly.

• Tight end was a little-used weapon in the offense last season. But the top three tight ends who practiced this morning -- Ben Guidugli, Adrien Robinson and Kazeem Alli -- all looked extremely impressive both physically and in making plays. And Kelly said converted quarterback Travis Kelce, who was banged up today, is just as good.

"It is clearly a different group of guys than we had last year, just in terms of overall development physically and mentally understanding what we're doing," Kelly said. "The tight end is going to be an important weapon in our offense this year."

• All that needs to be said about Tony Pike is that he looks locked in and ready for a huge year. Kelly joked about how strong the comfort level for the coaching staff is in their starting quarterback.

"We're not talking about, he didn't see the inside vertical," he said. "We're just making sure he gets an extra peanut butter and jelly today."

• Howard, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior college transfer, had his ups and downs in practice and is clearly still learning the system. But he's got all the physical tools to be a difference maker. Perhaps the most impressive receiver on the field today was Vidal Hazelton, the USC transfer who won't be eligible until 2010. At one point, he beat rookie corner Chris Williams for a completion. Defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs summed it up perfectly by yelling, "That's men and boys right there."

• How about the defense? Well, for the most part it looked solid, though there some tackling issues at times. The defensive front consisted at various times of Alex Daniels, Ricardo Matthews, John Hughes and Derek Wolfe, who are all imposing specimens with experience under their belt. Redshirt freshman Walter Stewart even got some run with the first team early on in 11-on-11 drills.

• One of the biggest competitions taking place is in the defensive backfield. Brad Jones is starting at cornerback right now, and the senior made several nice plays today. He's also 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds and could easily slide over to safety next to Aaron Webster in place of Drew Frey, if necessary.

Dominique Battle and Cameron Cheatham are also making strides at cornerback. Kelly said he didn't think a lot of true freshmen would play this year, but defensive back is the one place where you might see some newbies. He mentioned freshman Reuben Johson and junior college import Malik James as possibilities, and Williams was a highly-rated recruit.

"We've got some pieces that allow us to have some versatility back there," he said.

• Kelly said it's too soon to tell who's leading the competition to replace All-American punter Kevin Huber. Jake Rogers and freshman Patrick O'Donnell are the main candidates. Rogers also handles kickoffs and field goals, and Kelly said he's being careful not to overuse Rogers' leg during practice.

• It was only Aug. 17, but you can be sure Cincinnati is peeking ahead just a bit. During one drill featuring the first-team defense against the scout team offense, coaches called out, "This is the Rutgers play!" That game is just 19 days away.

• By the way, Kelly joined the Twitter craze over the weekend with his own page. Given his ability to talk, it figures to be one of the more entertaining coaches' pages out there (though, granted, that's not a very high bar to clear).

• That's all for today. Check back tomorrow morning for a story on Gilyard, the best returning receiver in the Big East and also quite possibly the best quote man in the league.