Cincy tries to get over loss of playmakers
The quarterback and running back are gone. So are the top two defensive linemen. The Cincinnati Bearcats are trying for another Big East title with a lot of players moving up to starring roles for the first time.
Are they ready for it?
Not even coach Butch Jones can say for sure. Cincinnati went 8-3 last season, won a share of the league title for the third time in four years, then won the Liberty Bowl led by a group of seniors who had been through a lot.
Quarterback Zach Collaros is gone after leading one of the league's top offenses for two years. Running back Isaiah Pead, the top scoring threat, was drafted by the Rams in the second round. Tight end Adrien Robinson went to the Giants in the fourth round. Defensive tackles Derek Wolfe (Broncos) and John Hughes (Browns) were drafted in the second and third rounds.
That's a lot of playmakers to replace.
''To ask somebody to duplicate the production of an Isaiah Pead, I don't know if that's realistic,'' Jones said. ''That's what we've been talking about. This is a new team. We form our own identity. It's an opportunity for guys that were maybe in the shadows last year or in a role-player role to move up to the next phase, which is a playmaker role.
''So, we're relying on them.''
No one is moving into a bigger role than Munchie Legaux. He started three games last season after Collaros broke an ankle, getting a little better as he went along. A true sophomore, Legaux was prone to erratic play - long stretches without completing a pass, for instance.
''Consistency,'' Jones said, referring to Legaux's biggest challenge. ''Consistency in the pocket. Just maintaining his poise under pressure.
''He has to be able to able to get the ball to our playmakers. I talk about the consistency in managing the offense and understanding where your matchups are and being able to exploit those matchups.''
Like Collaros, Legaux is a dual threat, able to run or throw. His accuracy was an issue last season, when he threw for 749 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions.
Until now, he's been known primarily for his nickname, given to him by his grandparents. When he lost his two front teeth as a youngster, he had trouble chewing and had to munch on his food.
The experienced players on offense supported him last season when he was thrown into the starting role. He's the one taking charge this year.
''I need to lead by example and just have a positive mindset, let the whole team see I'm a hard worker,'' Legaux said. ''When things are going bad or things are going good, they can always count on me to be cool, calm and collected. That's what I'm working on, to be consistent in my leadership role.''
There's no break-in period.
''We graduated some good guys on offense - tight end, a Big East player of the year at running back, a quarterback, a senior receiver, two offensive linemen,'' Legaux said. ''So guys have to step in those roles and be playmakers. It's not going to happen tomorrow; it needs to happen today.''
There's some experience at receiver with Anthony McClung (49 catches, 683 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Kenbrell Thompkins (44-536-2) returning. Nobody has emerged as a full-time running back, leaving Jones to share the role. Ralph David Abernathy IV, who made his mark last season as a freshman kickoff returner, will get more of a chance in the offense.
''I think it's going to be running back by committee, but Ralph David Abernathy has playmaking skills,'' Jones said. ''We have to do a lot to get him the ball in space.''
Abernathy returned 39 kickoffs for a 26.5-yard average, including a 90-yard touchdown in the Liberty Bowl that put the Bearcats in control and showed his ability to run away from defenders. He also carried 14 times for 52 yards last season.
Pead could make a move to freeze a tackler and turn a run or a short reception into a big play. Abernathy is trying to become the same type of running back.
''Just being explosive and having a burst, making people miss and being that playmaker that can go the distance at any chance,'' Abernathy said.
The Bearcats were picked to finish fourth in the Big East because of their inexperience - 65 first- and second-year players, including 28 freshmen. The offense in particular has to do a lot of growing up.
''We're a young offense,'' Legaux said. ''We have some guys who have been here one or two years. We also have two seniors on offense. So some guys have to step up and fill big shoes. New guys have new roles. Old guys have new roles, too.''
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