CINCINNATI (AP) - There won’t be any senior moments when two-time Big East champion Cincinnati sends it defense out for the first time this weekend.
That’s a problem.
The Bearcats don’t have any senior starters on defense this season, leaving it a big concern heading into their opener Saturday at Fresno State. No one is quite sure what to expect.
“I’m excited to see what they can do,” first-year coach Butch Jones said. “We’re still building our identity. I do like our mentality. I like the way we’re flying around. I’ve been excited. But I’ll know more about where we’re at as a football team and a football program after the game Saturday.”
For the second year in a row, the Bearcats will be trying to win games with a high-powered offense and a defense trying to keep up.
Cincinnati won its second straight Big East title, went undefeated in the regular season and finished third in the final BCS standings last season with a quick-strike offense. The defense got run over, in part because it never got much rest with the offense getting on and off the field so fast.
Opponents held the ball an average of nine more minutes per game. When a few defensive players got hurt, the bottom fell out. The Bearcats gave up 36 or more points in four of their last five games, including a 51-24 drubbing by Tim Tebow and Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
“Oh, man, we’ve had a chip on our shoulder ever since the Sugar Bowl ended,” junior linebacker J.K. Schaffer said. “We’ve been working out hard, conditioning hard, practicing hard. We definitely have a strong mentality coming into this game. We’re ready to prove we can do it, just like our offense.”
Only six players on defense have started a game during their college careers. The starting lineup features five juniors and six sophomores. The line is a particular concern, with two redshirt freshmen serving as backups at the tackle spots.
“I’m comfortable in our first unit,” Jones said. “Our second unit, we still have to have some individuals step up and develop. We want to play as many defensive linemen as possible, so our backups are basically like starters in our minds.”
Cincinnati had one of the Big East’s best defenses two years ago when it won its first title. The unit was stocked with seniors and played a 4-3 scheme.
Coach Brian Kelly prefers a 3-4 alignment, thinking it gives defenses a better chance at containing a wide-open, spread offense. He switched to a 3-4 last season, and opponents pounded it by running the ball. Kelly left for Notre Dame, where he has switched the defense to a 3-4.
Jones is taking it back to a 4-3 alignment, convinced that it gives Cincinnati a better chance to stop the run.
“I think it’s going to help us a lot to be more sound at stopping the run,” Schaffer said. “We’re going to be able to put our guys in better position to make plays. I feel we maybe spread people out too much last year. There shouldn’t be as many holes in our defense as last year.”
Quarterback Zach Collaros practiced against it during spring football workouts and training camp and was impressed by the change.
“They attack a lot more as opposed to last year,” Collaros said. “They’re back in a 4-3 and they’re showing different fronts, different tilts in the coverage. They’ve gotten me a couple times out there. It’s been a lot harder to pick out what they’re doing as opposed to last year.”
Jones will be happy if he doesn’t see much of his defense.
“We’ve got to be able to get off the field on defense,” he said.