Cincinnati Bearcats (2000: 7-5)
The following team preview is provided by Blue Ribbon. For the nation's most comprehensive look at this and all Division I-A teams, be sure to order the 2001 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, on sale now at 1-800-775-2518.
Coach and programCincinnati could dwell on its 25-14 loss to Marshall in the 2000 Motor City Bowl. Instead, the Bearcats would rather remember ending the regular season with four straight victories en route to a berth in a postseason bowl. After losing to Louisville last year, Cincinnati earned victories over Miami (Ohio), UAB, Memphis and Southern Mississippi.
"We benefited from playing in the Motor City Bowl because it gave us an additional month of practice where we were able to work closely with our young players,'' Cincinnati coach Rick Minter said before spring practice. "Since then, we have worked hard in the weight room and in conditioning and it will be good to get everybody out and into a practice situation.''
Despite a 7-5 record and a second-place finish at 5-2 in Conference USA, Minter's coaching staff underwent a major facelift in the offseason. Minter first hired Dave Baldwin as the Bearcats' offensive coordinator. Baldwin had served as head coach the last four seasons at San Jose State, which he guided to a 7-5 record in 2000, the school's best since 1992
Minter also hired Stacy Searels, who had been an assistant at Appalachian State the last seven years, as the Bearcats' offensive line coach.
Only two weeks before the start of spring practice, Minter hired four defensive coaches -- defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff, linebacker coach Andy Hendel, defensive line coach O'Neill Gilbert and secondary coach Charles McMillian.
Christoff, 53, has 28 years of coaching experience at the collegiate level, most recently serving as linebacker coach at USC. Gilbert, 36, joins the program after three years as linebacker coach for the Tennessee Titans.
The 10 starters and 42 lettermen who return give the Bearcats a good nucleus for a run at another winning season.
OffenseThe Bearcats must replace three-year starter Deontey Kenner at quarterback.
Senior Adam Hoover (6-1, 201) served as Kenner's backup last year. When Kenner was injured at midseason, Hoover completed 53 of 106 passes for 665 yards and three touchdowns. He was 15-of-25 for 268 yards in the victory over Houston.
It will be interesting to see how freshman signee Gino Guidugli (6-4, 205) fits into the quarterback scramble. The runner-up for Kentucky Mr. Football honors in 2000, who originally committed to Kentucky but changed his mind after former coach Hal Mumme resigned in the wake of alleged recruiting improprieties, could have signed with several upper-level Division I-A teams, including Notre Dame.
Senior Ray Jackson (6-1, 216) and junior DeMarco McCleskey (5-11, 216) will split playing time in the one-back set.
Jackson earned first-team All-Conference USA honors last year. He finished third in the league in rushing with 808 yards and had four games of more than 100 yards. McCleskey missed the spring game with an ankle injury. He begins his junior season ranked No. 17 on Cincinnati's career rushing list with 1,362 yards.
Only five players who caught a pass in 2000 return, led by juniors LaDaris Vann (5-9, 193) and Tye Keith (5-8, 181). Vann was the 1999 Conference USA Freshman of the Year. He has 837 yards receiving on 60 receptions with six touchdowns in his two seasons with the Bearcats.
Three veterans return to help form an anticipated starting line averaging 6-3 and 292 pounds and with 66 career starts.
Returning to the starting lineup are senior left tackle Shawn Murphy (6-4, 286), junior right tackle Josh Gardner (6-4, 286) and junior right guard Kirt Doolin (6-4, 303).
Defense and special teamsThe Cincinnati defense keyed the drive to the Motor City Bowl last year by ranking fourth in the nation with 34 takeaways. The Bearcats have to replace the gigantic Mario Monds, taken in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, but a pair of 2000 starters are returning in junior ends Antwan Peek (6-2, 235) and Derrick Adams (6-0, 242) and senior tackle Kirk Thompson (6-1, 260).
Peek is playing his fourth position in three years. He had a sensational season in 2000 with a team-leading 13 tackles for loss and 8 1/2 sacks, ending the year one sack short of the school record. He also led the team in fumbles caused (four), quarterback hurries (nine) and quarterback hits (17). Peek has vowed to improve those numbers this season.
Three starting linebackers who combined to make 283 tackles and accounted for 33 of the 36 starts last year are gone. Being counted on to fill the void are two players who were good backups last year -- senior Lewis Carter (6-2, 230) and junior Willis Edwards (5-11, 227).
Five experienced players return in the secondary, but some shifting has been done to fill the void left by the loss of three players who played safety last year. Senior LaVar Glover (5-10, 178) and junior Ivan Fields (5-11, 182) return as starters at cornerback. Junior
Returning as the Bearcats' place-kicker is junior Jonathan Ruffin (5-10, 185), who led the nation in field goals and earned all the national kicking honors, including the pregtigious Lou Groza Award signifying the nation's top kicker. Ruffin made 26-of-29 field goals, setting school and Conference USA records for field goals made and attempted.
Bottom lineIt won't take long in 2001 to find out if the Bearcats can continue the success they had in the second half of the 2000 season. Cincinnati opens the season Sept. 2 in a nationally televised Sunday game against Big Ten co-champion Purdue.
With five starters returning offense and five on defense, Minter has a good nucleus returning. And the kicking game will once again be one of the nation's best.
Look for Minter and the Bearcats to be competitive in Conference USA once again. It shouldn't be too tough for the Bearcats to finish with at least seven victories.