Bearcats start 2008 season on fast forward

By Darrell Laurant  |   Monday, August 25, 2008  |  Comments( 0 )

Cincinnati Bearcats
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The University of Cincinnati quarterback job belongs to Dustin Grutza -- for now, anyway.

"Dustin has proved the right to start," said UC coach Brian Kelly prior to the Bearcats' opener with Eastern Kentucky on Thursday night, "but Tony's had a good couple of weeks, and I'd like to see him get some work, too."

Tony? Didn't he mean "Demetrius'?

Actually, no. Notre Dame transfer and former Parade All-American Demetrius Jones, expected by many to push past senior Grutza in preseason, remains third string. It's Tony Pike, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound Cincinnati-grown junior, who's challenging for playing time.

Redshirted in 2005 and used sparingly the last two seasons, Pike threw for over 4,000 yards and 46 touchdowns as a high school senior.

Further complicating things was the news that the NCAA -- prodded by a court order -- has decided to take yet another look at 2007 quarterback starter Ben Mauk's petition for another year of eligibility.

Whoever the quarterback is, he'll have to move quickly. The Bearcats parlayed Kelly's no-huddle spread and a ball-hawking defense (first nationally in interceptions withh 26, tied for first with 42 takeaways) into a 10-3 record in 2007, falling just 16 points shy of being undefeated (which might well have landed them in the BCS title game). And now, thanks to a new rule that eliminated the old 25 seconds after the spot to allow the defense to set up, the tempo will only accelerate.

Among the few freshmen scheduled to see playing time are receivers D.J. Woods and Nick Truesdell, an indication that Grutza (or whomever) will be throwing a lot, to an ever-revolving range of targets.

Meanwhile, 2007 starter Jacob Ramsey edged John Goebel for the starting spot at tailback, but that position is also considered to be in flux.

Defending Ohio Valley Conference champion Eastern Kentucky -- a Division 1-AA school -- should be good enough to provide a test for UC, but not good enough to pull off an upset. The Colonels will be defense-oriented, at least early in the season, led by All-OVC DBs Brandon Gathof and Zach Denton. Although quarterback Allan Holland (the 2007 OVC Player of the Year) returns to lead the offense, most of his 2007 line and both of his top tailbacks are history.

Fortunately for Holland, however, All-Conference DT Terrill Byrd will sit this one out, a suspension earned by a citation for pot possession during the offseason. Linemate Adam Hoppel is also doubtful with a calf injury.

So Holland may have a little more time to throw, but that still leaves Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith to deal with. A pre-season first-team All-American for both Playboy and Sports Illustrated, cornerback Mickens had 53 tackles, six interceptions and six pass breakups last season, while Smith managed eight picks. Linebackers Corey Smith and Ryan Manalac, the second and third leading tacklers behind the graduated Haruki Nakamura, are also back.

Offensively, Grutza will have Marcus Barnett (14 touchdowns in 2007) and Dominick Goodman (68 receptions) to play catch with. The offensive line, led by guard Trevor Canfield, is solid, and the Bearcats should have the benefit of more consistency from placekicker Jake Rogers, who proved himself long (a 55-yard field goal against Oregon State) but erratic last season.

Punting? Bearcat senior Kevin Huber, like Mickens, made all the All-America teams -- in his case, on the strength of a 46.9-yard 2007 average. He may not get much of a chance to show off that leg on Thursday night.

Game time is 7:30 at Nippert Stadium. prediction: Cincinnati 45, Eastern Kentucky 10.
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