Aug. 30, 2009
By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) -- The hardware is still there.
Some facts about the 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats:
LOCATED: Cincinnati, Ohio
COACH: Brian Kelly, third season at Cincinnati, 19th overall.
2008 RECORD: 11-3 (6-1, won first Big East title)
LAST BOWL: 2009 Orange Bowl, lost to Virginia Tech 20-7
STADIUM: Nippert Stadium (35,000)
RETURNING STARTERS: 9 (8 offense, 1 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: QB Tony Pike, WR/KR Mardy Gilyard, LT Jeff Linkenbach, SS Aaron Webster.
KEY RECRUITS: WR Jamar Howard, DB Chris Williams, DB Malik James, DB Will Saddler.
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Dustin Grutza, WR Dominick Goodwin, DE Connor Barwin, CB Mike Mickens, DB DeAngelo Smith, DT Terrill Byrd, MLB Ryan Manalac, FS Brandon Underwood, DE Lamonte Nelms, DT Adam Hoppel, P Kevin Huber.
COACHSPEAK: "It's a mature team. We have a lot of guys that have been with us the last three years, a lot of them in prominent positions. There's going to be great competition across the board. We have a lot of depth." -- Kelly.
Sept. 7 - at Rutgers * (ESPN)
Sept. 12 - Southeast Missouri State (FSO)
Sept. 19 - at Oregon State (FSN)
Sept. 26 - Fresno State (BIG EAST Network)
Oct. 3 - at Miami (Ohio)
Oct. 15 - at South Florida * (ESPN)
Oct. 24 - Louisville *
Oct. 31 - at Syracuse *
Nov. 7 - Connecticut *
Nov. 13 - West Virginia * (ESPN2)
Nov. 27 - Illinois (ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2)
Dec. 5 - at Pittsburgh * (ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2)
* - BIG EAST Conference Game
Tony Pike still has a 6-inch plate and six screws in his left forearm, a permanent reminder of Cincinnati's greatest football season. The right-handed quarterback played through a lot of pain last year, helping the Bearcats win their first Big East title with all that metal in his arm.
After he threw four interceptions during a 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, he set a couple of weeks aside to get over the disappointment and get that left arm back to full strength again.
"It's perfect," Pike said in early August, following the Bearcats' first summer workout. "No problems."
That's perfect for the Bearcats, who are going to need a big year out of the senior quarterback while they defend their league title with a whole new defense. Cincinnati returns eight starters on offense, but only one from a defense that was among the nation's best and made its first BCS bowl appearance possible.
Coach Brian Kelly brought in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco from Virginia in the offseason, the first step in an overhaul of the unit. Kelly wanted to move from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4, trying to match the scheme to his talent and the wide-open offenses it will face.
"I've always felt in my 19 years as a head coach that you adapt to your personnel," Kelly said. "Second, I felt this scheme fits what we're seeing offensively around the country, and that's an adaptation to the spread offense."
Only starting strong safety Aaron Webster returns from a defense that carried the team through its run of injuries at quarterback.
The Bearcats have lost defensive end Connor Barwin, who led the conference in sacks and helped the unit finish first in the conference in getting to the quarterback. The cornerback tandem of Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith also is gone.
There's a lot to replace and a lot of new things to absorb, although Kelly doesn't seem to worry about the turnover.
"You're concerned with continuity and all those things, but I've been doing it long enough and I've had to replace a lot of starters in my career," said Kelly, entering his third year at Cincinnati. "Not that I'm crazy about it -- I'd like to have them all back -- but I think there's a sense of understanding that it's a process, and we don't need to panic. "I'm calm about it. Therefore, I think our players are locked in."
It's reassuring to know that Pike and the offense are capable of making up for any early defensive struggles.
The 6-foot-6 Pike wasn't even listed on the three-QB depth chart to start last season, but worked his way up to No. 2. When starter Dustin Grutza broke his leg in the second game of the season, Pike took over. Two games later, a defender's helmet drove into his left forearm and snapped the radius.
Two freshmen quarterbacks and that experienced defense pulled out three wins while Pike healed just enough to get back on the field. He returned wearing a soft cast covering the 4-inch scar on his left arm, the one that got a jolt of pain every time he took a direct snap and sometimes went numb.
Pike led the Bearcats to their first BCS bowl, where he had one of his worst games. He threw four interceptions, including one in the end zone just before halftime and another at the Cincinnati 10-yard line that helped Virginia Tech take control.
He returned to Cincinnati and worked on getting the left arm back to full strength over the next two weeks. He also added about 20 pounds -- he's up to 230 -- to make himself more durable in Kelly's no-huddle spread offense, which gives quarterbacks opportunities to run with the ball.
When the Bearcats held their first summer practice, Pike was directing the wide-open show.
"I think leadership is something you work on every day, and Tony is getting better at standing in front of a group and taking control if it," Kelly said. "He really knows the offense well, so he gets a lot of respect just by his knowledge base.
"It's his time. He's a senior. You see a change, whether it's in high school or college, when you hit that last year of eligibility. He seems to have a sense of urgency in everything he does, even more than last year."
Pike had a hand in Cincinnati's two-year ascendance under Kelly.
He played a little in Kelly's inaugural season, which ended with 10 wins that matched the school record. Last year, he got the job after Grutza's injury and threw for 2,407 yards with 19 touchdowns with 11 interceptions, a big factor in an 11-3 finish.
With the defense a work in progress, Pike is trying to be a steady leader.
"The biggest thing is just keeping the mindset that we can do it," he said. "People talk about us losing some guys, but I think we've got a real confident group of guys."