Bearcats of the Round Table; Part One

Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

We are slightly past the half way point of the Cincinnati Bearcats football season. With that in mind Scott over at Bearcats Blog came up with the great idea to fire up the email and get answers to the pressing questions of this season with Chris Bains of Cincy on the Prowl and myself. This is part one of two.

Have you felt Tommy Tuberville's first season has been a success so far?

Chris: I'd give it a B-. 5-2 with losses to Illinois and South Florida were definitely not conceivable to me before the season began. But I think like with before Butch Jones' inaugural season with Bearcats fans, myself included, were overoptimistic with the state the program. Jones left the roster stocked with talented, young players but a number of those key cogs from the 10-3 2012 campaign, such as Dan Sprague, Anthony McClung, and Brendon Kay, have been injured. McClung and Kay are still yet to approach 100%. Plus coaching changes are just difficult for players to deal with, especially with the drastic change in schemes from Mike Bajakian to Eddie Gran. Still, even with those factors at play, the Bearcats never should have lost to the Bulls. I can forgive the loss to Illinois because they just got out coached and outplayed. All we can do is tip our caps to the Illini after that. But the Bearcats hurt themselves against South Florida more than the Bulls did and a lot of it goes on the coaches. So, long story short, yes I think it's been a success but not to the extent of what I predicted before the season began.

Scott: I think it's been a C. It's impossible to get a read on this team. It's not Tuberville's fault, it's just that Cincinnati has had 1 challenge all year. That challenge just so happened to be at an Illinois team who played their best game of the season and waxed them. People have shown up, there was buzz around the season despite a terrible schedule. This season comes down to the final 3 games, fair or not. There have been a couple of highs, Purdue being a sellout and a blowout, and a very low low, losing to awful, awful USF. Even Memphis will be an interesting trip because this team has played terribly on the road. 3 of the last 5 are on the road. So far, I give him a thumbs in the middle, which is a C.

Matt: B. The transition hasn't been perfect, but all of the hastily articulated reasons for people to panic in the wake of the USF loss aren't really based in any sort of rational thinking. Yes, losing to USF and Illinois in their present incarnations isn't going to look good. Those two losses are the biggest reason why it will be hard to gain any sort of national momentum going forward for the balance of this season.

But the extrapolations to doom that a small minority made based on those two results are baffling, the USF loss in particular. Its the curse of football, there are only 12 games, only 12 data points from which to make judgments on the teams. Is the USF loss bad, yes but any team who surrenders two non offensive TD's and turns the ball over 4 times. Thats a fact that very few fans have been willing to acknowledge.

Who do you think has been the breakout player of the offense?

Chris: Gotta go with Shaq Washington here. From basically leaving the football program two years ago to emerging as one of the most targeted receivers in the passing game this season, he's been an inspirational story for Cincinnati. Funny how those seem to just crop up around here.

Scott: Going with Shaq Washington. I'm pretty sure he left the team during his freshman season. He barely played last year. There was talk of Max Morrison maybe getting some run. People expected Anthony McClung and Chris Moore to step up. Washington came out of pretty much nowhere. He had a breakout game against Illinois with 5-83, but even with that, he had 9 grabs in the first 3 games. He's made 30 catches over the last 4. Washington has proven he has reliable hands and that he can get open. The quick passing game has really appealed to his skill set, which has in turn appealed to Brendon Kay. All that's left for him is scoring a TD.

Matt: At the halfway point its obviously Shaq Washington. He went from being projected as a fringe edge of the rotation guy to someone who is indispensable to the offense in about four weeks. All he does is move the chains and make tough catches in traffic when it matters. By the end of the year the breakout player of the offense will be Mekale McKay. His start was very slow but he is gaining momentum and confidence, and there isn't a CB on the remaining schedule capible of containing him.

Ralph David Abernathy IV has the most carries on the team by far and has been the least productive back on the team by far. Only Brendon Kay averages fewer yards per carry among players with over 15 attempts. He hasn't been a threat in the passing game, 9-65-0, and is averaging a career low in kick returns, 23.7 yards. He was thought of to be the most dynamic player on the team. What's happened?

Chris: The issue with Ralph David Abernathy isn't Ralph David Abernathy. It's Eddie Gran. I'm not sure why he's continuously trying to turn him into something he's not but UC's offensive coordinator needs to put RDA on the outside, in the slot, and work him against linebackers and nickelbacks all game long. At the very least, if he insists on placing him in the backfield, get him into open space on screens and outside runs. In general, if he was more involved in the passing game and ran less up the middle, we'd see bigger numbers out of Abernathy this year.

Scott:
I think the play calling has a lot to do with the fact Abernathy hasn't gone off like we expected. He wasn't an every down back last year, but he broke off big runs. He's 25 yards off last season's total with 12 more carries. The biggest fault I see in the play calling is why Abernathy hasn't been utilized in the passing game. He averaged 12 yards a reception last year with 4 TDs. He made big plays happen. I'm sure we can all remember the score against Louisville. He's not been any kind of factor through the air. On top of that, he was kind of boom and bust on the ground. When you took away his big runs, he was ineffective.

I also think that he placed a lot of pressure on himself to be the top dog. This is purely speculation. It looks like he has tried to break a lot of runs instead of just running. That leads to frustration. His last 17 carries have netted 32 yards. We know this and he damn sure knows it. With Hosey Williams and Tion Green making the most of chances, he's got to be feeling the pressure. It's human.

The issue is with the play calling though.

Matt: Eddie Gran is on record as saying that he didn't watch much of the tape from last season to get a handle on the capabilities of the roster. It's a noble approach, to give everyone a reboot and see what they can and can't do. By and large that hasn't caused many issues for the offense, and at this point they have more or less figured out where everyone fits in. RDA4 is the clear exception. It seems that there isn't a spot available for RDA4 in this offense, particularly in the passing game. This is looking like a lost year for RDA4.

Who has been your breakout player defensively?

Chris: Nick Temple. There was a ton of hype in the off season around Greg Blair and Jeff Luc, and for good reason, but Temple was sort of lost in the crowd. But he's been incredible this season. Temple is 2nd on the team in tackles with 39, 1st in tackles for loss with 8, and 2nd in sacks with 4. Dude has just been Mr. Everything for Cincinnati's defense.

Scott: I'm going with Zach Edwards. He has exploded onto the scene as a freshman. He's currently 4th on the team in tackles, tied for the team lead in INTs and he's among the leaders in passes broken up. We haven't really seen a lot of youth in the secondary get a big chance to play the past few years, at least none that I remember as I type this. I'm sure that's wrong and I'll gladly be corrected. Edwards looks like he's going to be a guy who is out there for the next 4 years making plays.

Matt: Nick Temple and its not even close. He ranks 2nd in tackles, first in tackles for loss and is 2nd in sacks. His play has completely eclipsed that of the Adonis shaped figure of Jeff Luc and he has been more consistent than Greg Blair week to week. Temple has been revelatory this year, and I am very happy that he will be back next year.

Cincinnati is on pace to have one of best attended seasons at Nippert Stadium ever. They even drew over 30,000 against FCS Northwestern State. There are clearly a lot of factors at play this year (arrival of Tuberville, schedule of very winnable games, trend of sustained success) but which do you think are the ones that stand above the rest and are pulling fans to Nippert in droves?

Chris: I think the hiring of Tommy Tuberville has a lot to do with the attendance boost. Whenever you bring in a name brand coach, and one with the pedigree of Tuberville, people are going to take notice. I think if Whit Babcock had hired another up-and-comer who won championships at the MAC level like Mike Thomas did Kelly and Jones, I think most of us more obsessed fans would be able to get excited about it. But the thousands and thousands of casual fans would barely even know who he was, let alone rally around the Bearcats because of it. We talk about Brian Kelly putting UC on the map nationally but Tuberville put UC on the map in the city of Cincinnati, which says a lot.

Scott: I think it's Tuberville. When he got the job, it seemed like a lot of people bought in on him and the program that didn't buy in when Jones was still around. I think the fact he had a major name and a lot of success in the past was attractive to the casual fan. Someone reported they are expecting 30,000 again, I assume that's for SMU because they are going to sellout Louisville. Whether that is Louisville fans or not, that's for the future to decide. The spike in home game interest has to have come from somewhere and I think it's from him. UConn was going to probably be the lowest attended game of the season. They drew over 1,000 more fans than they did when UConn came to Cincinnati to close the 2011 season. That's something.

Matt: Its Tuberville for the most part. He sells the hell out of the program without even seeming to be selling anything. Thats a tricky thing to pull off. But I also think that there is, in general, still a ton of excitement around the program despite a rather large section of fans who see nothing but doom ahead for the program, and UC sports in general if they can't find a way to the Big 12.

I also think that the expansion of Nippert is creating a ton of momentum for the program. I don't know about you guys but the posts on the site about New Nippert continue to bring in decent traffic week after week. I think that I read in the enquirer that season ticket sales are at or near an all time high. I think a big reason for that is the coming renovation, its better to get in as a season ticket holder now than in the next two years when demand is almost certainly going to substantially increase.

What's up with Tony Miliano and what, if anything, can Cincinnati's coaches do to correct his kicking woes this season?

Chris: Miliano is a junior this year and from what I've seen throughout his career he's making the same mistakes now that he did as a freshman. Now, I've not going to sit here and pretend I know a thing about coaching kickers because I don't. But I feel like the bad habits he's developed just can't be changed this far along in his career. As the saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. However, I'd like to see the coaches give Andrew Gantz a shot at winning the role, if anything to push Miliano to improve some aspect of his kicking game.

Scott: Special teams are the biggest question mark on the team. They are getting nothing out of the return game. They are getting more success from the QB than the punter in that regard. The kicking game has been a disaster. I'm a big Tony Miliano fan. We've seen him be good. He has been bad lately. He missed 5 kicks last year, he would have to be great to improve upon that. His kickoffs have been pretty good. It looks like his problem is just #CollegeKickers.

Matt: He is what he is at this point. Miliano is certainly better now than he was as a freshman, but unlike his predecessor Jacob Rodgers he hasn't cleaned up his consistency issues, and he continues to have a high percentage of his kicks blocked. Unfortunately you can't teach launch angle. It is what it is at this point.

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