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Conversation with Butch Jones, Part II

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This week I spent time sitting down with football coach Butch Jones to discuss the offseason topics surrounding the Bearcats football team coming off its third Big East title in four years and fourth 10-win season in the last five.

Jones spoke about the pluses/minuses of the proposed new postseason structure, whether he felt personally validated by last year's 10-3 season and personnel philosophies as a young team enters the 2012 season without four NFL draft picks.


Part I of the interview tackled the broader spectrum of the program with Part II today looking more at recruiting and the specifics of next year's team.

ButchHelmets.jpgBefore I dive into the comments of Butch Jones talking about recruiting and next year's team, I want to update a few recent comings and goings Jones confirmed to me while we sat down.

While roaming through the halls to his office, I came across new Florida State transfer LB Jeff Luc. Dude is big. Coming out of high school in 2010 he was rated as the No. 1 ILB prospect in the country by Rivals. A combination of injury and being lost in the shuffle landed him looking for another school. He'll have to sit out this season, but will be a prime candidate for playing time when eligible next year.

Committed OL Caleb Stacey will not be playing for UC next year as many already reported elsewhere. Apparently, his heart wasn't into football. Sounds like the Oak Hills product won't be playing anywhere. Tough break for Jones and co., they were extremely high on him, as many were.

Committed DB Alex Dale did not qualify academically and will likely attend a junior college.

--- Moving forward, the topic
of recruiting will always be on the tongue of Butch Jones. It drives most every decision off the football field. Thus far, the focus paid off. His recruiting classes have been ranked among the best in the history of UC football. They are competing for players with some of the marquee programs in the country. Multiple players from last year's class passed on SEC tradition for Nippert Stadium.

And that was coming off a 4-8 season. With 10-3/Big East champs/Liberty Bowl champs draped across his chest this offseason, the difference in the response from recruits was palpable.

"Was very noticeable, I think it was evidenced in our camps and in recruiting in the number of unofficial visits prospective student-athletes have made to our campus from across the country. But still, you look at our first year didn't' go the way we wanted to but we still were able to assemble a great recruiting class. Recruiting is still based on relationships and people. People make a place. I'm very fortunate to be surrounded great people."

Jones pulls from across the country better than any coach in the recent history of UC football. Of the current 108 players on the UC roster, 34 are from outside the typical Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania breeding grounds of Bearcats football. That includes 17 from the great recruiting battleground of Florida. Clearly, selling the program is coming easier than ever before on the national stage. 

"Nothing is ever easy. I think we have a great product to sell. We talked about it, our academic success. Our academic programs, you look at our campus, you look at the direction and vision we have not only for the football program but what our administration has. You look at campus life. You look at our facilities as we continue to upgrade our facilities and winning. But again people, as well."

Great email question from David S. fit into this area perfectly: If I gave you a blank check and you could have practice facilities upgrade, Nippert renovation, recruiting budget, etc., where would you start?

"Can I say all of the above? I think it's a combination. In order to win you have to develop your players. We have a recruiting profile. We have to be able to attract the best and the highest caliber of student-athlete you need for your program, so recruiting is part of it. As we continue to put this program on a national stage we definitely have to do some things with Nippert, that is our home, we are very proud of it but as far as amenities for our fans to being able to income everything, it's dollar driven, to continue to improve Nippert is critical, too."


--- For those of you who live
and die by the big-picture, offseason semantics, sorry, it's time to talk football. Speaking about the 2012 Bearcats, the first topic addressed almost unanimiously is the quarterback position. Can Munchie Legaux -- or possibly challenger Brendon Kay -- take the reigns and lead this offense to the success it experienced in 2011? If not, will the returning starters on defense be able to overcome the loss of JK Schaffer, Derek Wolfe and John Hughes and compensate for any offensive inexperience?
 
Wolfe.jpgHere's how I posed the question to Butch Jones:
Rather Munchie emerge as leader and Team MVP or have No. 1 defensive in the Big East?

"We really believe you win championships on a consistent basis with playing great defense. I think we have enough weapons on offense where our quarterback, whoever it is, doesn't have to win the game for you. They got to do a great job of managing it where it's all about scoring defense. If I had to pick one, I would say No. 1 on defense."


The response surfaces a deeper understanding into the mindset of Butch Jones we may not have known. He's always enjoyed the luxury of a dynamic, leading quarterback. The string of Dan LeFevour at Central Michigan and Zach Collaros at UC came to an end against West Virginia last season.

If the certainty taking snaps doesn't exist, Jones doesn't appear desperate to force an inexperienced QB to fill the role. The reference to "managing" the game stuck out to me here. While overused in my areas of football coverage, the phrase applies here implying he's easing his quarterbacks into the job. While Isaiah Pead won't be around to take the pressure off, the combination of remaining RBs along with last year's top two receivers joining the mix could add up to enough to light the scoreboard.

Of course, that question of what to do in replacing Pead will be an intriguing storyline to monitor as the UC head to Higher Ground for almost three weeks in August.

UC served as the exception rather than the rule when it came to RB carries last season. Isaiah Pead averaged 18 rushes a game with George Winn's three the next closest. Of the top 10 rushing attacks in the country, seven came from teams featuring two ball carriers earning double-digit carries. More than half of the teams that finished the year in the AP Top 10 used a similar model.

Winn.jpgAll signs point to UC transitioning to the national norm as the most dynamic back in its history breaks LBs ankles in St. Louis. At least with Jameel Poteat, George Winn and Ralph David Abernathy leading the conversation, multi-headed monster will be the attack according to Jones.

"We want to even have more than two. The nature of the position is such a physical position. A very demanding position with the amount of contact. My philosophy is you can never have enough running backs."

Is three the number? Or will you want to whittle it down to two?

"The big thing with our running back situation right now is each player has a different skill set and they all compliment each other. It's doing what they can do and where they can excel and not asking them to be something they are not. We are not asking them to be Isaiah Pead, because they are not Isaiah Pead, but we have to capitalize on what they do well. If that means playing five backs, we'll play five. If that means one guy comes in like Isaiah did and asserts himself, we'll play one. But, really, I see us playing a lot of running backs this year."


--- One last point before I'll wrap this up. Last year, UC's flip in turnover margin made for one of the more amazing statistical 180s in recent memory. Remember, in 2010 the team finished minus-15 in the category, 119th out of 120 teams in the country. Then, in 2011, they finished tied for 9th nationally at plus-12.

Staggering.

The change resulting from a relentless offseason point of emphasis. Every workout, every practice, every meeting revolved around creating and avoiding turnovers. The question becomes, what has been the point of emphasis this year because I'd love to see what Jones has in store for an encore.

"The same thing, especially with being a youthful team like we are our margin for error is extremely small. It goes back to turnover margin, we can't turn the football over, we need to score touchdowns in the red zone, our special teams have to be extremely solid because we have no margin of error. If we do that and can keep perspective week in and week out. That's the thing, going back to the trip to Miami, seven-game playoff series challenge your mental conditioning and your mindset, I think keeping things in perspective of being able to move on whether from a loss or victory. That was one of the biggest things I took from studying the Heat is keeping things in perspective and moving on."

--- Returning to the Miami trip brings us full circle in the two-part conversation. Optimism owns the offseason in college football and there's plenty of it emanating from the Lindner Center. Three Big East titles in four years will do that. As will four 10-win seasons in the last five.

Jones sees Cincinnati becoming a destination school for prospective student-athletes and points to a growing list of accomplishments that make him difficult to argue with. Only 72 days remain until UC and Pittsburgh kick off on Thursday night at Nippert Stadium. For Jones, that means 72 opportunities to take on his bunker mentality and focus on improving. One day at a time. That's how he operates and why this program serves as the most successful in the Big East the last five years.

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