With Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, How Will the Cincinnati Bearcats Fare?
The Cincinnati Bearcats have been feeling the disrespect ever since head coach Brian Kelly took the Notre Dame job last week despite multiple assurances to the contrary.
All is not lost, however. In fact, by hiring Central Michigan head coach Butch Jones yesterday, the instability at the UC coaching position has been blessedly short-lived.
But Jones provides much more than just an immediate stopgap; the Bearcats had good reason to reach into Central Michigan's coffers for a second time.
Consider first where the Bearcats were three years ago. They selected some no-namer Brian Kelly to replace Mark Dantonio, who departed for Michigan State. Kelly was being credited with resurrecting the Central Michigan Chippewas from the incompetence of Mike DeBord (who would take over for the Wolverines as offensive coordinator—thanks Lloyd!). The Chips hadn't won more than three games in Debord's entire tenure. Yet in his third year, Kelly had the Chippewas playing in, and winning, the MAC championship, before he was whisked away to Cincy.
Yet Kelly's exit from Central Michigan has practically gone unnoticed. Under Butch Jones, the Chippewas returned to the MAC championship the following year, trouncing Miami of Ohio and losing a shootout to Purdue in the Motor City Bowl.
Maybe one year was a fluke...but Jones followed that up with another eight-win season and a second place MAC finish. This year, the Chips went undefeated in conference play, beat Michigan State at Spartan Stadium, and put QB Dan LeFevour in the record books for the most touchdowns scored by a player in NCAA history.
I won't say that Jones was an improvement over Brian Kelly. Kelly not only wrote the book on simple, effective offensive schemes , but began his career as a defensive coordinator and learned offense while on the job. He enters South Bend as one of the more complete coaches in the business.
But I will say that Jones is no slouch, and he's way more than a stopgap. Besides piloting the ship at CMU, he served as wide receivers coach at West Virginia for two years during Rich Rodriguez's tenure, where he got the lowdown on the zone-read. He began his career as a defensive assistant at Rutgers, and called plays for Wilkes University and for the Chippewas from 2002-2004. His resume is just as well-rounded as Kelly's, if slightly shorter as far as head-coaching gigs go.
In fact, considering Cincinnati's returning personnel, I'd say Jones couldn't be a better fit. Tony Pike leaves, but his replacement, Zach Collaros, is a more athletic quarterback, and he's proved his mettle on multiple occasions, guiding the Bearcats past South Florida in replacement duty, trouncing Louisville and Syracuse, and outdueling UConn in the 47-45 win, where he threw for 480 yards and a touchdown and added two more scores on the ground.
He threw an interception and no touchdowns against West Virginia, but only because the coaches subbed in Tony Pike in red-zone situations, and Pike delivered by throwing two of Cincy's three scores.
Where Collaros was particularly lethal was as a running threat, and this is where Cincinnati fans can take heart. Jones' brilliance at deploying Dan LeFevour on the zone-read added a separate but devastating dimension to the Chips attack—LeFevour was only the second player in NCAA history to compile 3,000 yards passing and rush for over 1,000 yards, with the first being Vince Young.
Remember: Collaros broke onto the scene by ripping off a 75-yard QB draw against South Florida that helped keep the game out of reach. He'll be aiming for similar numbers in whatever scheme Jones chooses to draw up, and he's only a sophomore. By his senior year in such a prolific system, Collaros will be downright scary.
Furthermore, despite losing All-American WR Mardy Gilyard, the Bearcats will retain the services of Armon Binns, arguably a purer physical specimen as a deep threat, as well as leading rusher Isaiah Pead.
Those three will form the nucleus of Jones' offense, and though he's never had a receiver like Binns, Jones, through LeFevour, has proven he can spread the ball around to a variety of receivers and punish defenses who load up on any one player. That means tight end Ben Guidugli and sophomore DJ Woods will benefit as well.
I wouldn't be surprised if Jones adapted his system to emphasize the passing dimension—Collaros is as able a passer as LeFevour, and the red-zone replacement move was a nod more to Pike's abilities than any issue Collaros had when the field got tight. But the Jones system is run-first, and my guess is the transition from a pass- to a run-heavy spread piloted by Collaros will be quiet, clean and effective. Chances are, you won't notice.
Still, in the immediate future, the Bearcats will fare poorly. Jones won't be taking over as head coach until after the Sugar Bowl, leaving offensive coordinator and jilted replacement candidate Jeff Quinn to lead the Bearcats against Florida.
Quinn won't have too much motivation for leading this team to do what already looked near-impossible—Bill Stewart he is not—so it's plausible that all the departing talent goes up in a heaping mess in the BCS bowl.
Such a shock to the system might appear devastating, but it will be mitigated in the long term. Jones was a solid recruiter at Central Michigan, pulling in local, high three-stars like OL Jeff Fantuzzi and LB Adam Fenton over better offers from Louisville, Colorado and Michigan State. I'm not optimistic he can take players away from, say, Ohio State, but he should be able to win head-to-head battles for players in underrated areas like southern Ohio and the borders of the solid South.
Jones will carry on, and possibly improve, Cincinnati's recruitment, and his resume indicates he will maintain the development of the talent he's been gifted. In a few years, Cincinnati fans might be saying what Central fans are saying now (and what my ex-girlfriends have been saying for some time): "Brian Kelly who?"
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