Today marks the beginning of training camp for the Cincinnati Bearcats. After going 4-8 last season there are a lot of questions and uncertainties heading into the 2011 football season. Here are the top storylines we are watching heading into camp.
Configuration of Offensive lineAs training camp begins, the expected starting group will beAlex Hoffman (LT), Randy Martinez (LG), Evan Davis (C),Austen Bujnoch (RG) and Sean Hooey (RT).
If that line-up holds into the season, it will be Hoffman’s third different starting position in three years. As a sophomore, he was an All-Big East right guard, and last year he started at right tackle. Hoffman likes the idea of playing left tackle, but his greatest asset may be his versatility in helping the UC coaching staff to get its best five offensive linemen on the field.
What to watch for: If one of the redshirt freshmen tackles (Cory Kebbler, Kevin Schlomer, Eric Lefeld) can show that they are ready to start in the Big East that will give the UC coaching staff the flexibility to return Hoffman back to right guard which is his best position. By moving Hoffman back to guard the Bearcats would really strengthen the interior of their offensive line.
Linebacker DepthLast season the Bearcats played the entire season with really only 2 linebackers in J.K. Schaffer and Maalik Bomar. Adding depth to a much depleted LB core has been the priority since the season ended last year.
What to watch for: Redshirt freshman LB Solomon Tentman is returning to the team after missing all of last season with a torn ACL a healthy Tentman will really help the Bearcats LB core because of his strength at the point of attack and his smarts.
The Bearcats added Maryland transfer Ben Pooler to the squad this summer. Since this is his 5th year he will be eligible to play this season. Pooler has a history of injuries to his knees so we are going to keep an eye to see how healthy he looks. If he can stay healthy the coaching staff feels he will be a nice edition to a rather young LB core.
How will the young guns look? Both Dwight Jackson and Nick Temple graduated from high school early and were able to take part in spring practice. That puts them ahead of the curve and should result in playing time for both of them this season.
Finally we will be watching to see how JUCO transfer Greg Blair fits in to the Bearcat defense. He just arrived on campus this weekend so he was not able to participate in offseason workouts with the team.
Who will replace Jake RogersFinding a capable replacement for Jake Rogers will be critical during training camp, but there are a number of interesting candidates.
What to watch for: Leading the group is Tony Miliano after redshirting last season. The former Elder all-stater should go into camp as the leader, but he’ll have to ward off several other contenders.
In one of the surprise moves of the offseason, the Bearcats added Shane Popham. The former Covington Catholic kicker attended Wake Forest for four years, but due to an NCAA rule allowing graduates with eligibility to transfer, Popham can kick immediately at UC. In 2008, Popham was 7 for 12 in field goals but was only 2 of 6 from 30 yards and beyond. He averaged a respectable 39.2 yards as a punter. In 2009, Popham was 1 of 2 in field goals with a long of only 20 yards, and averaged 38.9 yards punting. Last season, Popham dropped to 37.1 yards a punt and averaged 59.5 yards per kickoff. He did no place kicking for the Deamon Deacons.
To put those numbers in perspective, Pat O’Donnell averaged 41.9 yards a punt last year while Jake Rogers’ kickoffs averaged 65.6 yards for the Bearcats.
Danny Milligan competed with Miliano in the spring and could renew that competition in training camp although there are only so many reps to give kickers per practice. A. J. Fleak from Big Walnut High School (OH) will also be with the kickers as a walk-on, but for many high schoolers, it takes time to adjust to kicking field goals off the turf.
Depth at Wide RecieverThe Bearcats return only 2 WR’s that saw significant playing time last year in senior D.J. Woods and sophomore Anthony McClung. That means the Bearcats will rely on some young WR’s to step up and produce this season.
What to watch for: The 2011 season should give Bearcat fans their long awaited look at Kenbrell Thompkins. The junior college star was forced to sit out last season due to an NCAA ruling and has battled some injuries, but if Thompkins can remain healthy, he’ll give the Bearcats another big threat in the passing game.
McClung’s teammate at Pike High School (IN), Dyjuan Lewis, will be joining the squad after sitting out last season due to an NCAA academic ruling, and Lewis (6’ 3”/196) gives the Bearcat receiving corps another physical wideout that can get deep and score quickly. The only question on Lewis is how long it will take him to shake the rust from an entire year of inactivity.
Fifth year senior Orion Woodard ended the spring running with the starting group, and at 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, Woodard is the biggest of UC’s receivers. However, in the past, Woodard’s main contributions have come on special teams play as proven by his 24 tackles against only 2 catches for 18 yards. Woodard actually led UC in special teams stops last season with 12. Now Woodard wants to show fans what he can do with the ball in his hands.
Damon Julian (6’ 2”/209) comes to UC from the junior college ranks, and as a more physically mature outside receiver, he could push Woodard for a starting job.
The quickest player on the UC roster is true freshman Shaq Washington. The former high school quarterback’s spring was cut short due to an injury, but he should be at or near 100% health very soon. Washington could easily find himself in the rotation at receiver, and if he remains healthy, it’s doubtful he’ll be redshirted.
True freshman Chris Moore and/or Alex Chisum will also be looking to crack the playing rotation at one of the outside receiver spots. Chisum is a little bigger, but Moore is probably faster. Although both are talented, I’d give Moore the early advantage
Play of Defensive BackfieldLast season is a year the DB’s want to forget. As a unit they only recorded eight interceptions and at times it seemed like they were lost in coverage.
It’s tough to project the starters at the beginning of camp because several veterans like Dominique Battle, Reuben Johnson and Wes Richardson weren’t completely healthy in the spring.
What to watch for: The health of Dominique Battle, Reuben Johnson and Wes Richardson. All three players have a ton of experience that the Bearcats will need heading into this season.
Strong Safety is probably the biggest question mark for the defensive back heading into camp. Drew Frey is the incumbent but he has had a difficult time staying on the field due to injury. Who will push Frey for playing time in 2011?
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