CINCINNATI -- The University of Cincinnati will play one of its most anticipated football season openers in school history with a capacity crowd expected at Nippert Stadium on Saturday for Tommy Tuberville's debut.
Tuberville will coach his first game for the Bearcats against the Purdue Boilermakers, who will also debut a new head coach in Darrell Hazell.
The game brings to a close an eventful offseason at UC. After earning a share of its fourth Big East Conference crown in the past five years, the Bearcats now find themselves in the revamped American Athletic Conference. In one of the most surprising moves of this past offseason, Tuberville left Texas Tech to become the Bearcats' coach, replacing Butch Jones, who had bolted to Tennessee.
"We hope we have them in the right position to succeed," Tuberville said. "It's like learning a new language. You have to build a relationship with your players. You have to get to know them. It's part of the sales job. I need to let them know I'm there for them and I want them to be successful. I'm not a dictator. I let my coaches coach."
The Bearcats, picked to finish second in the AAC behind Louisville, are focused on replacing some top talent from last season and adapting to Tuberville's style, which helped him lead Auburn to a 13-0 season in 2004. And, despite some key losses, Tuberville isn't starting from scratch at UC.
The Belk Bowl champs return five starters on the offensive line, although center Dan Sprague won't play Saturday due to a knee injury, and two sixth-year senior stalwarts in linebacker Greg Blair and quarterback Brendon Kay. There's plenty of depth at running back but no experienced replacement for 1,000-yard rusher George Winn, outside of diminutive speedster Ralph David Abernathy IV.
Kay, who's been nursing a shoulder injury after competing for the starting job throughout training camp with Munchie Legaux, last year's opening week starter, is adjusting to Tuberville's pro-style set which will keep the quarterback under center up to 30 percent of the time. This is a significant change for the Bearcats, who relied on a spread offense under former coaches Brian Kelly and Jones. UC will utilize a true fullback for the first time in years.
The defense will be anchored by Blair and a highly-touted newcomer in Florida State transfer Jeff Luc. Senior nose tackle Jordan Stepp will assume more of a leadership role on the line. Senior cornerback Deven Drane is the most experienced player in a secondary, which lost three starters but still is ranked by Athlon as second-best in the AAC.
Despite his pedigree and formidable resume, Tuberville won't be bereft of pressure in his new job. Coming off back-to-back 10-3 seasons and consecutive bowl wins, it's important for UC not to lose momentum, especially with a planned $80 million renovation and expansion of Nippert Stadium designed to help draw interest from the Big 12 or ACC if and when it expands again.
Ticket sales were strong for Saturday's Purdue game. In fact, UC officials indicated last week that it could set an attendance record at Nippert Stadium, eclipsing the prior mark of 35,106 vs. Illinois on Nov. 27, 2009. The Bearcats play at Illinois on Sept. 7.
Three players to watch against Purdue:
--QB Brendon Kay entered training camp as the odds-on favorite to start for the Bearcats, despite competition with Munchie Legaux, last year's opening game starts. But a sore right shoulder late in camp was a setback for Kay, who passed for 1,298 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for 306 yards and two TDs. It was not yet certain who would start at QB for Saturday's opener against Purdue. But Kay would appear better suited for head coach Tommy Tuberville's pro-set offense which keeps the QB under center 25-30 percent of the time. Legaux competed with Kay for the starting role throughout training camp. Legaux was benched in favor of Kay in the middle of last season, but finished the year with 1,716 passing yards and 13 TDs. He also rushed for 335 yards and four TDs. Legaux excelled at times in Butch Jones' spread offense in which he took shotgun snaps and was given plenty of opportunities to make plays with his feet. How he adapts to head coach Tommy Tuberville's pro-style offense could determine his playing time.
--LB Greg Blair shed more than 20 pounds during training camp. He said there were plays he didn't make last year due to excess weight. This might be a frightening notion for UC's opponents since Blair amassed 138 tackles, including nine for loss and 2.5 sacks. Blair is a tenacious pass rusher and run stopper.
--LB Jeff Luc is among the most highly-regarded transfers in school history. Luc, a transfer from Florida State, was rated among the nation's top linebackers coming out of high school. He impressed Tuberville with his speed in training camp. Luc, who sat out the 2012 season as a transfer, also might be playing with a chip on his shoulder after leaving FSU due to limited playing time.
Notes: TE Jake Golic, a senior transfer from Notre Dame, left the team during training camp due to a chronic back injury. Golic is the son of former NFL and Notre Dame defensive tackle Mike Golic, who co-hosts the ESPN radio and TV show "Mike and Mike". ... Senior DT Adam Dempsey, who had previously walked on, was awarded a scholarship late in training camp. Dempsey is a product of Highlands High School in Ft. Thomas, Ky., across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. ... Senior C Dan Sprague suffered a knee injury in training camp and could be out for a few weeks. Redshirt freshman Deyshawn Bond has drawn raves from the coaching staff and could start Saturday's opener vs. Purdue. ... Senior WR Anthony McClung has been nursing a hamstring injury which limited him late in training camp. He's been doing light workouts on the side but is expected to ready for Saturday's season opener. ... Junior LB Eric Wilson transferred from Northwestern in August. The Redford, Mich., native was redshirted as a freshman in 2012. "We are excited Eric has decided to join us," Tuberville said. "He's a good fundamental player. He gives us some depth, especially in practice at a position we are still a little thin. Wilson will sit out the 2013 season and have three years of eligibility remaining.