March 23, 2012
By Ryan Koslen – GoBEARCATS.com
CINCINNATI – The spring calendar for the University of Cincinnati football team looks a little different this year. Instead of a four-week calendar jam packed with practice, Head Coach Butch Jones decided to spread UC’s 15 spring workouts over a period of six weeks to accommodate both winter quarter finals and spring break.
The Bearcats have put four practices in the books, working out in full pads twice. They are scheduled to return to the practice field on Monday, March 26.
“Every day we are working to sign our name to excellence,” Jones said. “Spring football is so important because this is where your true identity is being formed. This is where you are exposed to situational football and individual improvement. You are trying to cram as much football as you can into 15 practices.”
Jones, the 2011 BIG EAST Conference Coach of the Year, and the Bearcats have 11 opportunities for improvement remaining starting on March 26 and concluding on Saturday, April 14 with Bearcat Bowl VI.
Bearcat Bowl VI presented by Fifth Third Bank, the annual spring football game inside Nippert Stadium, features the 2011 BIG EAST Conference and AutoZone Liberty Bowl Champions and will kick off at 4 p.m. with a fan-friendly and competitive preview of the 2012 UC squad set to take place.
Prior to the spring game, a Youth Football Mini Camp will be held in Nippert Stadium starting at 12:30 p.m. Jones, his staff and selected student-athletes will lead youngsters up to the eighth grade level through drills and instruction until 2 p.m. Registration for the mini camp, which is free, begins at 11:30 a.m. under the overhang in the north end zone at field level.
Click HERE for more about the spring football game and fan fest.
Jones is the first to point out that the spring season is a time for teaching and improvement for all players.
“Spring football is a tremendous opportunity for each and every player to advance themselves in every aspect of the program and of the game; mentally, physically, fundamentally and improving their overall football IQ, knowing their assignments and what it takes to execute those assignments,” Jones said.
Looking back at 2011, UC was the most improved NCAA FBS AQ team in 2011, finishing with a 10-3 mark and a Top-25 final ranking, as well as returning to postseason play, knocking of SEC foe Vanderbilt in the 2011 AutoZone Liberty Bowl, 31-24, for the program’s first bowl win over a BCS opponent.
The Bearcats were one of the most improved defenses in the nation in 2011, leading the NCAA FBS in tackles for a loss (8.62), ranking second in sacks (3.46), sixth in rushing defense (96.23) and 20th in scoring defense (20.31). UC led the BIG EAST and ranked ninth nationally in turnover margin (0.92) while the Bearcats' 33 turnovers gained was tied for fourth nationally.
Offensively, UC averaged 385 yards per game, ranking No. 2 in the BIG EAST in rushing offense (178.5 ypg) and scored an average of 33.3 points per game. Running back Isaiah Pead, the 2011 BIG EAST Offensive Player of the Year, closed out his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, the first UC back to accomplish that feat in nearly 25 years.
UC has to replace seven offensive starters and four defensive starters and will use all 15 spring practices to take the first steps in preparation for the 2012 season.
Through the first segment of spring ball, Jones is pleased with the team’s efforts but also pointed out that 2011 is in the past and 2012 is a new season.
“After analyzing the films from the first few practices I’ve liked the way we have handled and conducted our business,” Jones said. “However we are still forming habits and a mentality. The identity of the 2012 football team is still being formed. Our standards never graduate. Expectations will always be the same.
“We want to foster a system of competition each and every day. While we try to simulate game-like conditions in every practice, the only true game experience comes from live repetitions in a true game. It’s not easy to simulate the pressure, mental effort and intensity it takes to play at a championship level.”
With a number of position battles up for grabs, it would appear that UC’s younger players who saw game action during the 2011 season will have a leg up as the coaches fill out the depth chart this spring.
“A lot of our younger players gained valuable experience in 2011,” Jones said. “It has really helped them from a level of confidence and maturity to become better overall players.”
One of the primary position battles is going on at quarterback. Jones must find a new starter to replace graduated two-time All-BIG EAST standout Zach Collaros.
Munchie Legaux (New Orleans, La./Edna Karr) started three games when Collaros went down with an injury, leading UC to a 2-1 mark and throwing for 749 yards and five touchdowns.
Brendon Kay (Marine City, Mich./Marine City) has been hampered by injuries during his UC career. But the 6-4, 237-pound senior is healthy entering the spring and will push Legaux for reps. Patrick Coyne (Cincinnati, Ohio/Badin) redshirted in 2011 and Bennie Coney (Plant City, Fla./Plant City) and Trenton Norvell (Daytona Beach, Fla./Seabreeze) are true freshman that enrolled at UC in January.
“Each and every day is a great learning process for all of the quarterbacks,” Jones said. “I will continue to say it, the quarterback of our offense must be able to manage the offense effectively and make good decisions with the football. Protecting the football is a critical element of the game.
“The big thing here is not only performing at a very high level but also this is a position that has to be based on a very high level of consistency. I’m extremely encouraged by the progress shown through four practices of our young quarterbacks, particularly Patrick Coyne and Trenton Norvell.”
Jordan Luallen (Greenwood, Ind./Center Grove/Georgia Tech) is in the mix as well, but has also seen time at a number of skill positions as the offensive staff tries to find ways to get the playmaker on the field. He helped spark the team with valuable runs throughout the season, with his best effort coming off the bench at Syracuse, adding 77 yards rushing from the Wildcat package.
Along with Luallen, Jones made it a spring goal to establish other playmakers for the squad. Although spring is still in its early stages, several players have stood out thus far.
“It’s still an ongoing process,” Jones said. “At a very early stage of spring football, Ralph David Abernathy IV, continues to impress and has consistently made plays for us with the ball in his hand. Trenier Orr, a redshirt freshman, continues to do some great things at the corner position. We challenged Kenbrell Thompkins to improve his overall endurance this spring and he is making great strides in achieving that goal. George Winn is another individual who is having a very impressive spring, not only on the field but off the field as well in a leadership role.”
Abernathy, a sophomore out of Atlanta, Ga.’s Westminster School, created one of the most memorable moments in 2011 with his 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Vanderbilt in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The true freshman finished the season ranked second in the BIG EAST and No. 14 in the country with his 26.41 per return average. He has also impressed at running back.
Orr redshirted in 2011 but was a highly touted defensive back out of Orlando, Fla. and Ocoee HS when he signed with UC.
Thompkins started 12 games after a long football layoff and finished 2011 with 44 receptions for 536 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Winn, a Southfield, Mich. native from University of Detroit Jesuit, took full advantage of Pead's broken chinstrap during the second quarter of the Liberty Bowl, spelling Pead and scampering 69-yards down the sideline for a career-long touchdown which put UC on the board and tied up the game early. Winn played in all 13 games a year ago, starting on all of UC's special teams and averaged 5.5 yards per carry while running the ball.
The Bearcats added new faces to the spring roster, welcoming nine early enrollees to campus, all high school seniors who enrolled at UC in January. The first-year student-athletes, Kevin Brown (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence Central), Deionte Buckley (Indianapolis, Ind./Warren Central), Jonathan Burt (Indianapolis, Ind./Warren Central), Errol Clarke (Miami, Fla,/Central), Coney, DeShawn Dowdy (Akron, Ohio/North), Marcus Foster (Troy, Ohio/Troy), Norvell and Josh Posley (Indianapolis, Ind./Warren Central), have all taken part in spring workouts.
“The nine newcomers have been progressing extremely well,” Jones said. “It takes a different level of maturity to be able to graduate high school early and enroll right away in college. This time of year, high school students are usually thinking about prom and graduation and these individuals are dealing with a full college academic workload, plus the demands and expectations placed on them as members of our football program.”
For Jones and the coaching staff, the last three weeks of practice will focus on improvement, both individually and as a group.
“This is our true developmental opportunity, Jones said. “We have to continue to get better every day, in every practice and during every repetition. Every individual has to take accountability for their improvement. When you improve individually, you improve collectively as a team.”