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Cincinnati Bearcat X Factors: Kevin Schloemer and Cory Keebler

The Bearcats of 2013 managed to lead the conference in rushing, but that wasn't an indication of the quality of the running game. The simple truth of the matter is that the Bearcats weren't very good at running the football last year. They must be better this year while breaking in two new first time starters in Kevin Schloemer and Kory Keebler

Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

Allow me to quote myself.

If you prefer advanced stats the Bearcats running game was ranked 83rd by Football Outsiders S&P+ far and away the worst mark* since the S&P+ started for the 2005 season. There are a couple of contributing factors that tamped down the running game in 2013. The lack of coherent identity running the football. The Bearcats tried to be a team that spread the field one play, ran the pistol the next, and powered the ball down the defense's throat for the last play. As a running team the Bearcats did a lot of things, but none of them well.

Saying that the Bearcats were ranked 83rd doesn't really give justice to what the Bearcats were like on the ground. Look at the year by year ranks of the Bearcats in rushing S&P+.

Year 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Rush S&P+ Rank 69th 69th 74th 53rd 9th 16th 16th 44th 83rd

By any standard that is a precipitous fall from grace after the tremendous production from 2008 through 2012. A big part of that decline was the change in scheme last year. The Bearcats tried to do a lot of things, they ran pistol sets, power and the inside/outside zone of the Butch Jones era. They ran all of that, and they did OK at some of it, but they weren't great at any one thing.

For the most part the Bearcats could get by with their muddled approach to the running game. But in the rare situations where UC had to run the football last year they often couldn't. They were thoroughly average on third, down, and outright bad on third and short converting just 55 percent of the time. That number comes in the context of an offense that was actually pretty good on third down overall. But the predictability of some of the playcalling and the incoherence of the blocking meant that I never felt confident on any third and short.

That should change in 2014. For a start the Bearcats are already in a better spot than they were last year in terms of health up front. As of this moment* the Bearcats are healthy. Kevin Schloemer has been a bit injury prone in his career to date, and he has missed some time in fall camp and in the spring. But he is healthy now and playing well by most accounts. Other than Schloemer the guys who are expected to be in the rotation haven't missed significant action this fall. Part of that is the coaching staff going out of their way to keep guys healthy with their practice habits after last year's attrition. UC has only gone live in the scrimmages and have kept things off the ground for the most part. That's why there have not been many injuries to date, which is great, but staying healthy alone won't improve the Bearcats front, they have to be better. They can do that by making sure their best five is on the field more often together, and that starts with putting guys in the best spots.

*crosses all fingers and toes and knocks on a wooden door

Schloemer is moving into a starting role after backing up Austen Bujnoch for several years at left guard. The other new starter is Cory Keebler who has been in the program for five years and has played in a ton of games. He will start at right tackle while last years right tackle, Parker Ehringer moves inside to right guard. On the face of it that is a strange move, moving your returning starter at one of the tackle spots to guard. But in the interest of getting the Bearcats best five linemen on the field its a smart move. Ehringer and Keelber are two of the Bearcats five best offensive linemen this year. Ehringer just happens to be the one with experience playing guard in his past*.

*Ehringer's first career start came at right guard against Delaware State in 2012

After the ups and downs that came last year with playing a big rotation its reasonable to expect the Bearcats to make more of an effort to work their best group more often. Last season there wasn't a whole lot of attention paid to working combinations together. The rotation was based more on fatigue levels. Doing it that way is smart in theory, until you see starters trotting off the field in the middle of important drives. That didn't happen often, but it did happen enough to make an impact in my memory.

That the Bearcats have enough depth where they can use a rotation is a good thing. Offensive line coach Darren Hiller probably has nine linemen that they are comfortable using. The starters Eric Lefeld, Schloemer, Deyshawn Bond, Ehringer, and Keebler. Plus Justin Murray, Ryan Leahy, Tyreek Burwell and Dominic Mainello. That's a good group, and some of those guys can play in big spots, but they have to be judicious in getting them reps and pairing them with their starters. I really think that the amount of rotating the Bearcats did last year did more harm than good.

Thats why Keebler and Schloemer are going to be X factors for this offense. Its not just how well they play, but how often and the groupings that they are used in that will be a big factor for the Bearcats getting back to their ways running the football. In 2014 the Bearcats best five have to play together more often than they did last year. By simply being smarter with their rotations the Bearcats can become a better offense.