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Bearcats Problems At The Line Of Scrimmage Have Deep Roots

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In the wake of yet another collapse at the hands of a power 5 school Bearcat fans are looking for answers. This is not an answer, it is a look at the actual problem

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after the Bearcats lost the Military Bowl to Virginia Tech there was, as per usual, an outpouring of anger and vitriol directed at the Cincinnati coaching staff. Having been the proprietor of this particular Bearcat based establishment for neigh over four years the width and ferocity of the anger shouldn't be surprising or dismaying to me at this point. But it kind of was, this despite knowing that any loss of consequence sends vast swathes of Bearcat Nation running for the hills like the Hun are at the gates of Rome. That it happened again on Saturday was not that dismaying in a certain sense. That segments of the fan base were legitimately calling for the heads of Tuberville, or at least some members of the staff was not surprising either. After all there are still some very vocal people who want Mick Cronin fired, and call for that outcome at every available opportunity. For reasons I don't care to fathom there are people who think the solution to everything is to fire someone, just to show the remaining people that you mean business. It's the Michael Scott approach to management, and it worked terribly in a sitcom, but some people think it will work in real life. The shock was just how much of the anger towards Tubs was based on the faulty assumption that the Bearcats had an such overwhelming amount of talent that failure of any sort was grounds for a riot.

I get that people need to vent. I get that people need to express frustration with the current state of things. The feeling that the Bearcats football program is entering the wilderness from whence it came before roughly 1997 is out there. It exists, I know it exists and I know actual people who feel that is the direction things are going with the football program. To me that is overstating things tremendously, and I can give you 86 million reasons why a return to the dark ages is not looming over the horizon of the future. But people don't want to hear that, they want what Brian Kelly promised us, and any season that falls short of that is a reason to panic.

What BK did seems magical in retrospect. He came in here, immediately raised the stakes for the program on a regional and a national level. Then he met them, then he exceeded them beyond our wildest imaginations and that was just 2007. As his tenure wore on Kelly kept redefining the ceiling of this program and matching it for two more years. Then he left, and we all expected that to be the new standard for Cincinnati football, regardless of who was the coach. It hasn't happened that way, and that is the nub of the frustration.

What seems exceptionally clear now is that Brian Kelly walked into a perfect situation. He inherited a group from Mark Dantonio that had been built up over three years, and make no mistake, it took three years of hard work and building. The Bearcats were the youngest team in the country in 2005, and it showed. UC finished 4-7 and really took their lumps in the Big East, particularly on defense where Dantonio threw a ton of freshmen to the wolves. Guys like Terrill Byrd and Mike Mickens would become All Americans, but they were in bad shape that first year in the way that a team stocked with true freshmen will always take lumps. 2006 was the leap year, the year when it was obvious Dantonio got that roster exactly where he wanted it to be. The Bearcats took a very good Virginia Tech team to the fourth quarter. They gave Ohio State plenty of fight before running out of steam on defense in the second half. They took a very good Louisville team to the final play, falling 15 yards short.

Then they beat Rutgers and ended their dream season. That was the moment when it became clear this team was primed to storm the Big East in the two years that followed. It was only a call from Michigan State that prevented Dantonio from being there to witness it. East Lansing was the only place he ever considered home, the place where he will retire from, its the last job he will ever have. That's not wild speculation, I know for a fact that Dantonio was not leaving Cincinnati for any job but Michigan State. But he left, and Brian Kelly walked into a situation that was more perfect than he could have even known.

That is what most Bearcat fans don't understand about the Brian Kelly era, he was handed a Corvette of a roster while the rest of the world thought he was being handed a Chevy Malibu. In the coaching changes that have followed neither Butch Jones or Tommy Tuberville were actually handed a Malibu, but they sure as shit have not been handed a Vette either. Both inherited deeply flawed rosters that were really starved for depth, up front in particularl. I am not going to get into the issues that befell the first year of the Butch Jones era because that has been done before.

This is about Tuberville and what he inherited. The Bearcats were beat soundly at the line of scrimmage against Virginia Tech. But that is not something that just cropped up, the roots of the problem run deep. They run into the Butch Jones era, just like many of the problems from 2010 are traced to BK.

To set the stage here is a list of every recruit from the 2010 through the 2013 class intended to play either offensive or defensive line, and what they did on the field or where they are now.

2010
Camaron Beard -- defensive tackle starter as a Sophomore and again as a Senior
Josh Russ -- four career games, left program
Roney Lozano -- 2 career games
Brad Harrah -- Multi year starter at defensive end and defensive tackle
Kevin Schloemer -- 19 career games, 5 starts at guard
Clint Shepherd -- not listed on the 2010 official roster, presumably did not enroll

2011
Demetrius Alston -- non academic qualifier, went to a Junior College ironically currently at Texas Tech 
Chad Hannah -- medical retirement
Carroll Phillips -- never played in a game, left program
Silverberry Mouhon -- multi year starter at defensive end, 14.5 career sacks
Chad West -- 10 career games, mostly special teams, bounced between defensive and offensive line
Brandon Mitchell -- 21 career games, defensive tackle rotation this year

2012
Jonathan Burt -- zero career games, left program after 2013 season
Ryan Leahy -- 8 games, 3 starts at guard in 2014 season
Alex Pace -- 12 games, defensive tackle regular in 2014
Josh Posley -- 2 career games, transferred to Ball State
Elijah Shuler -- 10 career games, part of 2012 defensive line rotation
Deyshawn Bond -- two year starter at center
Caleb Stacey -- never enrolled
Kyle Williamson -- zero career games, injury plagued start to his career.

2013
Terrell Hartsfield -- two year starter at defensive end
Jerrell Jordan -- part of defensive end rotation as junior and a senior
Mark Wilson -- 8 career games as a red shirt freshman
Ben Flick -- tragically passed away on September 22nd, 2013
Chris Burton -- 12 games in 2014, mainly on special teams
Korey Cunningham -- 12 games in 2014, mainly on special teams.

The 2010, 11 and 12 classes are all Butch Jones. The 2013 class is the one that Tommy Tuberville and his staff built from scratch in something like 30 days. There is a certain level of attrition that happens anytime there is a coaching change. It is just part of the profession. But the level of attrition the Bearcats have gone through along the offensive and defensive lines is really outside the norm, but its really just the secondary problem.

Just add up the number of Butch recruits slated to play along the lines. Butch recruited 14 defensive linemen in three years, he recruited 6 (SIX!) offensive linemen in three years. Six. Add that together and you have 20 linemen, in three recruiting cycles. Leaving aside the abnormal levels of attrition that the Bearcats program has experienced in recent years for the moment (don't worry, we will get there) lets start with a simple fact. Butch Jones did not recruit nearly enough linemen in general, but offensive linemen in particular, to sustain the program.

The lack of offensive line recruiting by Butch Jones has to go down as his biggest failing as the Bearcats head coach. If he was a parent and the Bearcats football team was his child you could conceivably call child protective services and have them at least come and take a look at the situation. I am an absent minded person*, and I find the absent mindedness of adding 6 offensive linemen over three seasons absolutely breathtaking. There is literally no explanation for it.

*To prove this point I have a story. In early November I lost my cell phone at the sporting goods store that I work at. I set it down while doing something, went off to do something else and forgot to pick it up. It was lost for nearly six weeks. I found it about two weeks ago sitting on a shelf at eye level under a batting helmet. I still can not fathom a reason why under a batting helmet was the place I decided to set my phone, but that's where it was.

In the 2014 class alone Tommy Tuberville signed 5 players who have at least started their careers along the offensive line. One of those five, Chris Furgeson, has since moved to defensive tackle, but the coaches offset that by moving Ja`Merez Bowen from defensive tackle to guard. In the 2015 class the Bearcats have secured commitments from a further five offensive linemen, and could conceivably take another one, if it is the right guy. Tuberville's staff has effectively recruited double the number of offensive linemen in two cycles that Butch Jones recruited in three.

Jones actually recruited an adequate number of defensive lineman over his tenure, but that particular position group has been hammered by attrition over the last couple of years. Seven defensive linemen from the 2010-2013 classes have left the Bearcats program. Here is the funny thing about that though, that attrition wasn't all down to the change at the top. Here is the really interesting thing though Josh Russ, Roney Lozano, Demetrius Alston, Chad Hannah, and Dwight Jackson all left the program while Butch was in Cincinnati, and still he did nothing to replenish those scholarships with similar players.

If it was just a numbers thing Butch could, conceivably get a pass from me, bad injury luck (Hannah) and academic issues (Alston) happen, they are kind of built into the model. But the failures of Butch's staff in evaluating defensive linemen is a real problem right now. After all Brian Kelly similarly neglected the recruitment of defensive linemen from an overall numbers perspective while at UC. But BK, unlike Butch Jones, at least made up for the numbers shortage by recruiting some very, very good defensive linemen. Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Walter Stewart, Dan Giordano, and Jordan Stepp were all very, very good players recruited by Kelly and his staff. That top end quality allowed Butch's staff to mask some of the depth issues they inherited. Meanwhile Butch recruited one player who I would say is of that quality, Silverberry Mouhon. I think Alex Pace can get to that level, but he isn't there right now. Other than those two gentlemen Butch didn't recruit any difference makers on the defensive line.

On that front Butch was much better with his offensive line recruiting. Deyshawn Bond and Ryan Leahy are both going to be multi year starters. Both will have a chance to become all conference performers next year as juniors. I think that Bond's injury prevented him from getting a nod this year because he was exceptional down the stretch. Bond and Leahy represent two hits, but remember that is two hits out of six chances. But that doesn't erase the fact that he only gave himself six chances to find contributors in three seasons.

All of this is, admittedly, a very long way to make a simple point. But this is Down The Drive, you come here for the very long explanations that lead to very simple points. That's the reason I am the worst dinner guest that you will ever have, but it also seems to be what keeps people coming back.

I am with the Bearcat fans who are asking the big questions of the Tommy Tuberville administration up to a certain point. Yes, I do think that Tuberville and his staff have been really underwhelming in big games. I do agree that Tuberville needs to come up with a signature win in 2015 at some point; be that Miami, BYU, Bowl opponent to be named later doesn't matter, he has to deliver that pelt in year three. The point where I stop agreeing with the Id of Bearcat Nation is when they start saying that what Tuberville and his staff have done (18 wins, conference championship, brief appearance in the coaches poll) is hollow because of who the Bearcats have played, and the conference that they are stuck in.

That is a bridge too far for me to traverse. That kind of thinking is completely devoid of context; and as a person who sees the world, for better or worse, in purely contextual terms I can hope that you can see why that is problematic for me.

The context matters, for this year in particular. The remarkable thing about the 2014 season isn't that the Bearcats only won 9 games, it's that they only lost 4. They only lost four games with a defensive tackle rotation so bad they had to play 260 pound Brad Harrah at the three technique position in crunch time. They only lost four games with an offensive line rotation that went from 9 men to 5 before they even played their third game. They only lost four games with a defense that was trending to be one of the worst in major college football history after the first 5 games of the season. Most of those problems stem, one way or another, from the dearth of quality players for the Bearcats up front. But somehow, using smoke, mirrors, rainbows and (presumably) black magic the Bearcats were able to work around their fatal flaw.

I don't think most people realize just how close the Bearcats season was to going completely and utterly pear shaped after the Memphis game. It could have happened very, very easily because it always happens to someone every year. Somehow  Tuberville and his staff stopped a potential death spiral of a season in mid death spiral then came out the other side with 7 wins in a row. The 2014 season could have easily been a repeat of 2010, and in less capable hands it probably would have been. Instead the Bearcats won 9 games, a share of the league and played so well down the stretch that a loss in the bowl game was in some eyes, an abject disaster. Think about that for a second.

As a general rule I don't like to tell people what to think, it has never been my intention to use the platform that has been given to me as a cudgel to inflict my opinion as fact upon others. If that is how I come across than I have done something wrong along the way. The simple fact is that I am not terribly interested in what people think, I find how people think to be far more interesting. That is ultimately what this post is about, making sure everyone takes account of all the variables.

If you want to decide that Tommy Tuberville should be at the end of his rope because of his failures with the Bearcats against top competition these last two years you are free to do so. All I ask is for some thought to be given to the situation that Tuberville inherited. The situation that he stepped into was not as rosy as most people in Bearcat Nation think it was. The off the field stuff was obviously in great shape, better than anyone starting the job has ever enjoyed. But the roster was flawed the moment he took control of it. It was flawed in 2013 and though it was in better shape this year, it was still problematic. Fixing those problems takes time, and I have faith in Tuberville to do just that. You don't have to share my faith, but do share in my reasoning. That is literally all I ever ask.