Cincinnati faces a bear of a challenge to remain near the top of the Big East

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Cincinnati faces a bear of a challenge to remain near the top of the Big East

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Butch Jones has work to do this spring if he is going to keep Cincinnati near the top of the Big East …

Cincinnati was a Big East tri-champ last season, but the Bearcats look as if they will take a step back this season.

Coach Butch Jones and his staff will be busy this spring, especially with the offense. The Bearcats lost seven full-time offensive starters, including tailback Isaiah Pead and quarterback Zach Collaros. A defense that was excellent against the run lost four starters, including its two best players in tackle Derek Wolfe and linebacker J.K. Schaffer.

Pead ran for 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns. Wolfe quietly put together a huge season: 70 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. There doesn’t appear to be anyone on the roster at those positions who will be able to match the stats of the departed star.

But all is not lost. Munchie Legaux started four games when Collaros was hurt last season and showed potential. A big key for Legaux this spring is to show that he can be a consistent passer. He’s a better runner than Collaros but must improve as a thrower.

Cincinnati should have a solid group of receivers. Anthony McClung has 60-catch potential and should contend for all-league honors, and there are effective complementary receivers as well.

[ Related: Big East spring football preview: A league of mystery ]

Defensively, the secondary should be solid. Cincinnati gave up a lot of passing yards, but that was a byproduct of a stout run defense. While Cincy allowed 17 TD passes, it also had 16 interceptions. Strong safety Drew Frey should be an all-league candidate, and depth looks good in the secondary as well.

Cincinnati at-a-glance
Coach: Butch Jones (3rd season)
Last season: 10-3 overall, 5-2 in Big East
Spring practice dates: March 1-March 31
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season):
Offense (3): G Austen Bujnoch, WR Anthony McClung, WR Kenbrell Thompkins
Defense (6): LB Maalik Bomar, CB Camerron Cheatham, CB Deven Drane, SS Drew Frey, E Dan Giordano, E Walter Stewart
Special teams (2): K Tony Miliano, P Pat O’Donnell

Work this spring needs to be done at tackle. The Bearcats need two new starters and also must develop some depth. If end Walter Stewart continues to make progress this spring as a pass rusher, he also should contend for all-league honors.

Lack of size at linebacker could be an issue, and coaches need someone to step up to take Schaffer’s place at middle linebacker.

With West Virginia’s departure to the Big 12, the Big East race looks to be wide open. If Cincy can adequately fill its holes at tailback and defensive tackle this spring, it definitely will be in the title chase again in the fall.

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