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On the line

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CINCINNATI --- 15.

 

All offseason, the number stood as a sense of pride for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Through 13 games in 2009, the offensive line allowed only 15 sacks. The effort tied for 17th in the country.

 

The emotions surrounding the number are flipped now. In three games, the Bearcats equaled last year's total of 15 sacks. In all of the FBS, that's good for dead last - 120th. Idaho comes in at 119 and they only allowed 13.

 

Jason Kelce guarded the line last season. You could have used any number of adjectives to describe them. Stout. Impenetrable. Dominant.

 

These days, Kelce doesn't need a thesaurus to describe his offensive front.

 

"We obviously don't like what we consider ourselves to be a laughingstock right now," he said. "It's embarrassing, the number."

 

It stands as a reminder of the reality facing the Bearcats offensive line as they approach their most difficult test of the season. But, that reality, in the minds of Kelce and his lineman teammates, isn't as far from excellence as the number would infer.

 

"We are a step here or there to where it is a very good game for us," Kelce said.

 

Almost any time the offensive line is called into question during a press conference or postgame interview, Butch Jones reminds everyone that protection isn't the sole responsibility of the offensive line. If you break down the 15 sacks allowed, a few of those have been the product of dropped snaps out of the shotgun by Zach Collaros, a few have come from missed assignments by running backs and others have been the fault of a scheme with too few blockers to protect against the blitz.

 

In fact, in the first half against N.C. State, Collaros was only hit twice.

 

This is a unit adjusting to life without current Indianapolis Colts OL Jeff Linkenbach and three-year starter Chris Jurek. Only one player is in the same position he was a year ago and two are starting for the first time in their careers.   

 

All of this rationalization is not meant to deflect all blame. Kelce admits the line deserves heat and must improve. But, if you're looking for explanations, there they are. But the Bearcats aren't looking for explanations. They are looking for solutions.

 

Kelce believes the solutions aren't as far off as the No. 15 would insinuate.

 

"We are getting stuff corrected each and every day," Kelce said. "The first game a lot of it was mental. Same thing with the last game. We are getting it corrected. We'd like to have these things corrected already, but like we've been saying all year we've got these new pieces this year."

 

The difference from last season to this season is easy to understand for the senior lineman.  

 

"I'm playing next to two guys I never played next to before," he said. "I played with Link and Jurek, played next to them for two years. We had that chemistry, that footwork, we knew what each other were doing each and every play. This time we know what other guys are doing, but offensive line if you are a half a step off, it's the difference between the quarterback getting hit and a good block."

 

Nobody expects the offensive line to revert to its 2009 form overnight. The goal is for improvement every week.

 

"Our offensive line continues to progress," Jones said. "I see marked improvement."

 

Holding a talented Oklahoma front at bay will be more difficult than Fresno and N.C. State.

 

For Kelce, how this team reacts when the Sooners do make a play will be the key to continued improvement. Perhaps more than any new pieces or missed assignments, that represents the biggest difference between UC circa 2009 and UC circa 2010.

 

"Last year's team was a little bit more veteran, when something goes wrong you are able to forget about it, you are able to make corrections so that doesn't happen again," he said. "I'm not saying anything about anybody, but as a whole unit we need to be able to have that swagger about us. That no matter what, we are going to make this happen, we are going to take control of the game."

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