The Bearcats had the best season in their program’s history in 2008, winning 11 games and the school’s first Big East championship. However if two-time Big East Coach of the Year Brian Kelly hopes to lead his squad to another league championship it may take his best coaching job yet.
That’s not to say that the Bearcats won’t have talent returning in 2009. The problem is that the majority of the starting experience is all on the offensive side of the field. The biggest hurdle for Cincinnati in 2009 will be replacing ten different starters from last year’s defense.
The lone returning starter, safety Aaron Webster will lead a surprisingly veteran defense for a group that lost ten starters. Three seniors, Alex Daniels, Ricardo Mathews and Curtis Young will likely take over starting roles on the defensive line, with sophomore Derek Wolfe also looking to make an impact.
All three seniors saw action in all 14 games last year and combined for 53 tackles. Curtis Young had four sacks and Daniels recorded one sack.
The linebacking corp will be anchored by senior Andrew Revels who was seventh on the team in tackles in 2008 with 59. Former quarterback and transfer from Notre Dame, Demetrius Jones moved over to linebacker, and will compete for playing time.
In his defensive debut, Jones recorded six tackles during Cincinnati’s spring game. Jones will add speed and athleticism to this group, but he will probably need to bulk up to really excel in his new position.
Aaron Webster will bring much needed experience to the secondary, while senior Brad Jones and former wide receiver, junior Marcus Barnett will likely start at the corner positions.
Jones played in 12 games last year and he recorded 14 tackles and two interceptions. The Bearcats also get sophomore safety Drew Frey back after he missed most of the 2008 season with an injury.
It could be the secondary that makes or breaks this defense, but as long as the Bearcats have one of the best safeties in the Big East in Webster patrolling the defensive backfield, things could come together nicely for this unit.
While the new starters on defense are getting their feet wet, the offense will likely be relied on to win games. They will be lead by perhaps the best passer in the Big East, Tony Pike as well as one of the best receivers in the league, Mardy Gilyard.
Pike emerged out of a crowded quarterback competition last season and started in 10 games. Despite being a backup for a few weeks early in the year, Pike managed to throw for over 2,400 yards and 19 touchdowns and he was named 2nd team all-Big East.
Gilyard had over 1,200 yards receiving, over 2,200 all-purpose yards and he was named 1st team all-Big East and the conference Special Teams Player of the Year.
Another receiver to keep an eye on is talented sophomore D.J. Woods who caught 14 passes for 168 yards as a freshman last year.
The Bearcats will return their top three running backs, senior Jacob Ramsey, junior John Goebel and sophomore Isaiah Pead. The offense also boasts a solid offensive line. However, the Bearcats were last in the Big East in rushing last year.
Despite the underachieving running game, Cincinnati had one of the more prolific scoring offenses in the Big East, scoring 25.9 points per game and with much of that group back, Cincinnati will be more than capable of winning a few shootouts.
If the defense does struggle though, Cincinnati might need to get more out of their running game. If they don’t, Tony Pike and Mardy Gilyard are going to have to be spectacular just to keep Cincy’s head above water.
This fantastic combination should be enough to make sure the Bearcats are no worse than middle-of-the-pack, but if the defense comes together they have a great chance to repeat as the Big East champs in 2009.