Friday, August 22, 2003

Bearcats missing familiar names


Guidugli back with passing records in reach

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If the University of Cincinnati Bearcats are going to extend their string of consecutive bowl games to four and win their second straight Conference USA championship, they'll have to do it without many of the players who have become familiar to UC fans during the past few seasons.

When the Bearcats line up to open the season Sept. 1 at Nippert Stadium against East Carolina, they'll be without their career scoring leader (Jonathan Ruffin), career receptions leader (LaDaris Vann) career interceptions leader (Blue Adams), career sacks leader (Antwan Peek) and career touchdowns leader (DeMarco McCleskey).

But they still have quarterback Gino Guidugli, who enters his junior season within reach of every UC passing record. This is Guidugli's team to lead now.

"He sets the standard for us," UC coach Rick Minter said. "When you look back over the course of our league, the team that tends to win the league championship usually has the best quarterback in the conference."

Offense

With running back McCleskey gone, Wyoming High School's Richard Hall finally will get the chance he has sought since transferring to UC from Ohio State in 2001.

Hall, who rushed for 264 yards and three touchdowns in a backup role last season, will bring a different style to UC's running game, one that's based more on quickness and elusiveness as opposed to McCleskey's straight-ahead approach.

But with Guidugli at quarterback, the Bearcats will pass frequently, assuming they can find adequate replacements for their four departed receivers.

George Murray will be used exclusively as a receiver this year after splitting time between receiver and quarterback last year. Sophomore Derick Ross and junior Kevin Hazel, along with incoming freshmen Bill Poland (Elder High School) and Mike Daniels (Princeton High School) and junior-college transfers Hannibal Thomas, Cedric Dawley and Brett Hamblen, will compete for playing time. But the Bearcats enter the season without a proven game-breaker at the position.

UC loses two starters from the offensive line, including second-team all-conference selection Kirt Doolin. Kyle Takavitz moves from left guard to left tackle, Josh Shneyderov starts at center for the third straight year, and Travis McGee will start at right guard for the second straight year. The Bearcats have 10 offensive linemen who lettered last year.

Defense

The strength of the defense rests at linebacker, where four players who played a significant amount of minutes last year return, led by junior Jamar Enzor, who finished third on the team with 91 tackles, and Tyjuan Hagler, the only returning starter at the position from last year.

Minter believes he has a budding star on the defensive line in Trent Cole, who made 87 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss and five sacks last year at tackle. Cole will move this year to defensive end to help fill the void left by Peek, who was drafted in the third round by the NFL Houston Texans. Junior Andre Frazier, noted for his quickness off the ball, also will get a chance to start at defensive end after serving as a reserve the past two years.

Colerain High School's Doug Monaghan, who recorded 88 tackles and broke up six passes last season, returns to start for the third straight year at strong safety, and senior cornerback Zach Norton, with five career interceptions, returns after starting every game last year.

Keep an eye on sophomore linebacker Michael Brown, whose performance in spring practice caught Minter's eye.

Special teams

Of all the players UC must replace from last year's C-USA champs, placekicker Ruffin, winner of the 2000 Lou Groza Award as the nation's best kicker, might be the most difficult. He was almost automatic on extra points and made 78.5 percent of his field goal attempts in his career.

Chet Ervin, last year's punter, will start the season as the Bearcats' placekicker. Jordan Lear, a 6-foot-7 first-team all-state selection from Zanesville High School, averaged 40.8 yards a punt last year in high school. He'll get the first shot at the punter's job. Poland, who punted for Elder's state champions a year ago, could be a stopgap measure if Lear falters.

Princeton's Daniels, a gifted athlete with great quickness, will get a chance to show he can return kicks.

Coaching

Minter returns for his 10th season. No one has coached the UC football program longer. But the Bearcats continue to have trouble maintaining stability among their assistant coaches. They'll have four assistants this year who will be in their first season at UC.

But there is some continuity on offense, where Rusty Burns returns for his second year as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jeff Filkovski will work with Guidugli for the third straight season.

Minter needs just three wins to pass Sid Gillman as the winningest coach in UC history. He has been to four bowl games and has established UC as a legitimate Division I program after years of futility.

Intangibles

The Bearcats have risen from the ashes of the late 1980s and early 1990s and appear headed for the Big East along with fellow C-USA member Louisville as replacements for Miami and Virginia Tech, who are leaving after this year for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

UC officials would love to see a strong season to solidify their attractiveness in the eyes of the Big East schools. This is a program that has proven in recent years that it can compete with traditional powers such as Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Syracuse, even if it still hasn't captured the imagination of the city's sporting public.

Make-or-break games

Assuming the Bearcats don't falter early in the season, the Nov. 15 game against TCU, which shared the league championship last year with UC, and the Nov. 28 game at home against Louisville could determine whether the Bearcats repeat as league champs.

They play archrival Miami in Oxford Sept. 27 in a showdown between Guidugli and Miami's Ben Roethlisberger, and play at West Virginia in what could be a preview of a new league rivalry Sept. 13.

E-mail bkoch@enquirer.com