After Taking Heat, The O-Line Shines

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There are 101 players on the University of Cincinnati football team, but five of them received the bulk of the criticism for Bearcats' slow start - the starting members of the offensive line.


After allowing 15 sacks in the first three games, the offensive line was getting more hits than Deadspin after breaking the Favre/Sterger story.


"I felt badly because I knew it wasn't just their fault," quarterback Zach Collaros told me this week.  "Sometimes I held the ball too long or a receiver ran the wrong route; sometimes a running back missed his protection.  But to the average eye, it was all on the offensive line.  They took a lot of heat, but they handled it well."


In the last two games, Cincinnati has gained 461 yards against #8 Oklahoma, and 609 yards against Miami.  Clearly, the o-line has made major strides. 


"I love those guys and I knew they would take care of business," Collaros said.  "They work the hardest of anyone on the team.  They're always in there watching film and trying to get better, so it might have been an area of concern to the outside world, but in this program we knew that those guys would get it right."


Unfortunately, just as the offensive line was gaining confidence, right tackle Alex Hoffman suffered a sprained knee against Miami.  He'll miss the Louisville game (Visit the Game's Rivalry Page) and sophomore Sean Hooey will start in his place.


"It does impact us because Alex has been a model of consistency and losing him hurts," said head coach Butch Jones.  "But that's the game of football, and now Sean Hooey has to step up.  He's been waiting for an opportunity and he's going to be challenged.  Louisville leads the Big East in sacks, so we have to do a good job."


The emergence of Isaiah Pead should help.  The junior from Columbus has rushed for 169 and 197 yards in his last two games, and ranks 2nd in the country at 9.8 yards per carry.


"Having Isaiah Pead in the lineup is an unbelievable threat," Collaros said.  "He can make a play out of nothing and that takes a lot of pressure off of the offensive line and off of me."


"We have to get him his touches - not only in the run game, but in the passing game as well," Coach Jones said.  "He's a very explosive football player and when you have a great back, we have to make sure he gets his touches.  It's like a basketball player - when they're feeling it, you have to feed him the ball."


Pead is averaging 100.5 yards in the four games that he's appeared in, but in one of those games (NC State), Isaiah did not have a single carry.  In the games in which he's actually carried the ball, Pead is averaging 134 yards - which would be tied for 9th in the country.


"The mark of a great running is patience," Coach Jones said.  "When we got here - Isaiah would be the first to tell you - we would give him the ball and he would run right to the sideline because he wanted to outrun everyone.  He's really worked hard on the tempo of his runs.  Now, on a lot of those runs, he has a tempo of about 80 percent of full capacity before making a cut with great burst and acceleration.  That shows me how much better he is getting and I'm excited about that."


Pead will not be the only outstanding running back on the field on Friday night - Louisville's Bilal Powell ran for 204 yards last week vs. Memphis and is averaging 137.8 yards a game.  The Cardinals lead the Big East in both rushing offense (217.8 yards) and passing offense (243.4 yards), but stopping the ground game is the Bearcats top priority.


"It all starts with stopping the run," Coach Jones said.  "As we get into the Big East Conference, our opponents are going to try to run the football.  This week, we're number one at stopping the run and Louisville is number one in rushing the football, so something's got to give."


In all likelihood, the winner of that battle will be given The Keg of Nails.


* * * * *


I'm looking forward to seeing the Bearcats take the field in their new Adidas TECHFIT jerseys on Friday night.


  Adidas tech fit.jpg


These state-of-art jerseys are 30% lighter than UC's previous uniforms, and do not hold moisture - you can dip them in a bucket of water and they come out the same weight.  Additionally, a jersey that looks like it would fit my 4-year-old son Sam can be stretched to fit a 320-pound offensive lineman.


"The exciting thing is that we're one of only seven teams in the country that will have this product," Butch Jones told me.  "These jerseys have been designed specifically for us - they even say 'Represent the C' on the inside.  That's all part of being a big-time college football program."


It's hard to imagine a high-tech jersey being the difference in a football game, but it can have an impact on recruiting.


"It's huge," said Coach Jones.  "We're able to say, 'Look what Adidas thinks of us.'  I think our jerseys are some of the best in the country and you would be amazed, there have been times in the recruiting process where we'll say, 'Why are you attracted to the University of Cincinnati?' and a kid will respond, 'Coach, I really love your jerseys.'  So it's something that we take very seriously and we're excited to wear them on Friday night."


* * * * *


Last week's 45-3 win over Miami marked the first team this season that the Bearcats didn't fumble.  In fact, it was the first time that UC didn't fumble at least three times.


It was great to see D.J. Woods handle the ball 10 times without putting it on the ground.  After losing two key fumbles against Oklahoma, Woods carried a ball everywhere he went on campus for two weeks before facing the RedHawks.


dj woods.jpg 

"D.J. is a very emotional young man and that's kind of what gives him his edge as well," Coach Jones told me.  "We use a phrase called, 'snap and clear.'  It's being able to play the snap and then clear it from your mind.  His maturity level has really grown and I've been really proud of how he's handled himself.  We take great pride in ball security.  Our coaching staff is not accustomed to this - the last two years, we were number one and number two in the country in ball security.  So we know how to teach it."


* * * * * 


I was extremely honored to emcee a luncheon on Wednesday that marked the beginning of a two-year celebration of the 50th Anniversary of UC's 1961 and 1962 National Championships.


It was great to visit with former Bearcats Tony Yates, George Wilson, Larry Elsasser, Dale Heidotting, Larry Shingleton, Carl Bouldin, Bill Abernathy, Tom Thacker, Fred Dierking and Bob Wiesenhahn, along with former coach Tay Baker.


Cincinnati plans to honor members of the back-to-back championship teams at every home game over the next two years, and the Bearcats will wear special throwback jerseys at one home game per month.


Mick Cronin was one of the featured speakers and he had some great things to say about Yancy Gates.


"Yancy was thrust into the spotlight at a young age and what hasn't killed him has only made him tougher," Cronin told the audience.  "I'm extremely proud of him.  He spent some time this summer out in California running sand dunes with a guy that used to train Jerry Rice.  He also told me that he ate rice every day for about 30 days.  When I asked him what he weighed he said, 'They don't even have scales, but I can tell you I'm a lot lighter from going up that hill than I was three weeks ago.'  I firmly believe that Yancy is going to be an All-Big East player because I see him every day.  He's grown up a lot.  A lot of our players have, but they don't have the talent that he has.  You have to have an All-Big East player in our league - let's be honest - and he's ready for the challenge."


I look forward to watching practice next week.


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