Cincinnati hopes spring brings rebirth

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.

"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.