One-on-one drills, kicking against no rush and scripted situations littered a night purposely shaped to resemble a glorified scrimmage. Only, for one second, Zach Collaros rolled toward the sideline and experienced a slight dose of reality from newly beefed up defensive end Walter Stewart.
"Walt!" Collaros spouted over a herd of players and media following the 63-53 victory for the defense Saturday. "You got a little piece of me!"
Stewart charged Collaros' blind side and drew more contact than anybody on the Bearcats sideline was comfortable with against the no-contact, red jersey of the team's star quarterback. Collaros lay on the ground, slightly in shock following what would have been considered a tame touch five months from now against Austin Peay.
"I was kind of caught off guard," Collaros said, flashing a smile. "I was like, God, I haven't been hit in a long time, since the Pitt game. But it kind of felt good after while."
Of course, the play typified a night where the defense - Stewart, in particular - stole the show from Collaros' crew, the standard flag-bearers for UC football. Stewart blew up the first play from scrimmage, a reverse to D.J. Woods and never left the backfield all night. He finished with three sacks and appeared as comfortable at his defensive end position as he did with his new 245-pound frame.
"It's just a lot more natural," Stewart said of moving from linebacker. "I can play in space, but I prefer to be on the line of scrimmage. It definitely felt like I was getting back to getting after the quarterback."
Combine Stewart's effort with an interception from sophomore DB Adrian Witty and fumble recovery by DT Derek Wolfe and the rumblings of a defense who spent much of the spring having its way with the UC offense, exposed the current truth of the program to the thousand or so onlookers at Nippert Stadium.
This group returning all 11 starters looks to change the image and national conversation surrounding it.
"We've just preached being better than we were last year," Stewart said. "Even though we are experienced, we have to be better."
That motto filters throughout the program. Progression is demanded of receivers like Anthony McClung, who broke a wide receiver screen 43 yards early in the practice. Even 1,000-yard back Isaiah Pead needs to take the next step and showed off some midseason form despite a disappointing fumble deep in his own end during a drill driving out from the 2-yard line.
The night never began for Kenbrell Thompkins, who never loosened a nagging back injury in the cold and the coaches decided to take precaution and hold him out.
Few made a greater impression than Danny Milligan, who in what's become an annual rite of spring, turned heads in the Bearcat Bowl with two touchdowns and a 52-yard FG to boot. The former St. Xavier star hasn't cashed in on the potential he carried since enrolling at UC, but certainly made the most of Saturday's opportunity.
"It takes one or two years and you can do something special," Milligan said. "It starts with practice. It starts with me working every day and coming out with a positive mentality. Once I can do this consistently I can earn the coach's trust."
From Jones' angle, Milligan represents a work in progress. Any ascension won't stem from two hours in April.
"Danny just needs to keep fighting," Jones said. "His thing is playing with a mentality every day and coming to work every day. If he does that he can help this football team."
Jones believes the entire football team will benefit from Saturday - and not only because of what occurred on the field. Being able to revert back with one more week of practices allows a chance to analyze what transpired.
"It's a great teach tool," Jones said. "I love the format because now we can catch our breath, come back and refocus, finishing strong."