Just like Justin Hammer, Cincinnati’s offense has weapons galore. The difference is that the Bearcats’ weapons aren’t duds. Cincinnati is locked and loaded on offense and it should propel them near or at the top of the league.
Gunner Kiel has one of the best quarterback names ever and one of the strangest recruiting journeys, but he also has top-notch talent. Kiel could very easily end up being a first round pick, as evidenced by his 3,254 passing yards and 31 touchdowns last year. Also, like the introduction hinted, he has no shortage of athletes to spread the ball around to either.
The Bearcats return their top seven receivers from last year. Seven! Shaq Washington and Mekale McKay led the way with over 700 receiving yards each. Both are considered among the top receivers in the conference, and Washington is also one of the better punt returners in the conference.
First team All-AAC Parker Ehinger returns to anchor the line, although depending on what source you reference he may be a guard, right tackle or left tackle. One place we know he won’t play is center; Deyshawn Bond has a vice grip on the starting spot at center with 23 career starts there.
Running back may be the least sure unit on the offense, but solid options abound still. Mike Boone will start almost surely. Boone was solid and explosive as the second back last year. Tion Green and Hosey Williams will also get plenty of touches too as both have shown to be capable backs in limited opportunities.
With the majority of last year’s pass rush gone, the Bearcats need an experience secondary to step up this year. Cincinnati did a good job of bending without breaking last year as one of the better red zone defenses in the country. They didn’t do a good job of getting off of the field on third down though, that needs to change this year and it starts on the back end.
Zach Edwards should be a solid safety considering he came through in 2014 with 94 tackles, two interceptions and six passes broken up. His main running mate Andre Jones also returns. CBs Leviticus Payne and Grant Coleman also return and proved adept in run support, but need to step up and make bigger plays in the pass game this year. Behind these four is a deep secondary, so the Bearcats should have strength in numbers in the defensive backfield.
Like the secondary, the front seven is very deep, but unlike the secondary there isn’t much experience to boast. Silverberry Mouhon returns at defensive end, and Kevin Brown is back as the strongside linebacker, but everyone else will be a new starter. In total, the front seven has to replace guys who accounted for 40.5 tackles for loss and 22 sacks last year. That is a massive amount of production to replace.
Prediction: 9-3 AAC East Champion
Tommy Tuberville has done a solid job at accumulating both talent and depth with this Cincinnati program. As a person who grew up in Alabama, I know all too well the perils of placing expectations (either bad or good) on a Tuberville-coached team, but this team tied for the AAC title and there’s no reason to believe they can’t vie for the title again this year. If things go according to expectations, Cincinnati would likely meet either Memphis or Houston in the AAC title game, both of whom the Bearcats play on the road during the regular season. That means Cincy could be entering a conference title game either with revenge at the front of their minds or with the confidence that they’ve already beaten their opponent once and in their house.
Credit Cover Photo to David Kohl/USA Today