Coach:Brian Kelly | Staff In 2006:8-5, 4-3 Big East.
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 8.
Key losses: TE Brent Celek, WR Bill Poland, C Jeff Reinstatler, LG Frank Straub, CB John Bowie, LB Kevin McCullough, SS Dominic Ross, K Kevin Lovell, P Brian Steel.
Overview: The Bearcats hope Brian Kelly's arrival will spice up an offense that was 82nd in scoring at 21.1 points per game last year. Cincinnati didn't finish in the top 50 in any offensive category, and the Bearcats struggled to get consistency out of their quarterbacks and running backs. There's little reason to doubt an improvement because big offensive numbers have followed Kelly wherever he goes.
CINCINNATI TOP 10
Trevor Anderson led Cincinnati with six sacks and was second with 13 tackles for loss in 2006.
Best player: OG Trevor Canfield. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound guard developed into one of the top linemen in the conference in his first full season as a starter last year. His presence, along with two other returning starters on the line, will give the new offense some stability.
Most underrated: OT Digger Bujnoch. The former tight end has been limited by injuries in 2004-05, but he emerged as the starting right tackle in 2006. The 6-foot-5, 280-pounder will move to the left side this season after a solid spring.
Must step up: The running backs. Greg Moore, Butler Benton and Bradley Glatthaar all shared carries last year, and Moore led the way with 709 yards. All are seniors in 2007. Kelly took advantage of Ontario Sneed's ability to run and catch the ball last year at Central Michigan, but none of Cincinnati's backs caught more than 12 passes last year.
Shoes to fill: TE Brent Celek. Kelly could use the reliable Celek on this team. He caught a pass in 24 consecutive games and owns almost every school record for tight ends. Converted fullback Doug Jones, basketball walk-on Connor Barwin or Earnest Jackson could take over the position.
Impact newcomer: QB Ben Mauk. It's Mauk's job to lose. Mauk, who set a national record for passing yardage at Kenton (Ohio) High, returns to his home state after his transfer from Wake Forest. After making 10 career starters for the Demon Deacons, Mauk missed out on Wake's improbable run to the ACC title after sustaining a season-ending arm injury in the opener. The senior is immediately eligible after graduating from Wake, but he did not participate in spring drills.
Position battle: Quarterback. Junior Dustin Grutza has started 21 games in the last two seasons but struggled in 2006. Throwing 13 interceptions and nine touchdown passes last year, Grutza split time with departed senior Nick Davila. Kelly already favored Davila in the International Bowl win over Western Michigan, meaning the door could be open for the former Wake Forest starter Mauk. Grutza, whose run/pass ability could be well-suited to the new offense, has a leg up after running the system in spring. Mauk will not practice until two-a-days begin. Sophomores Craig Carey and Tony Pike are also in the mix.
New in 2007: Former coach Mark Dantonio favored a more conservative offense during his time in Cincinnati. Kelly is likely to shake things up a bit more with the spread offense that took Central Michigan to the MAC championship. Under Kelly, redshirt freshman Dan LeFevour set single-season passing records for the Chippewas.
Grade the units: QB: C-minus. Grutza and Mauk have thrown a combined 34 interceptions and just 24 touchdowns in 31 career starts.
RB: C. Cincinnati appears headed for a running-back-by-committee once again.
WR: B. Derrick Stewart and Dominick Goodman should blossom in Kelly's offense.
OL: B-minus. Three starters return, and the new starters will be seniors.
Breaking down the defense
Overview: Dantonio's biggest mark on the program in his final season was the Bearcats' tough defense, especially against the run. The Bearcats held eight opponents to two or fewer offensive touchdowns last year while finishing 25th in the nation in rush defense. The Bearcats will have to find a way to replace their top two tacklers, All-Big East first teamers Kevin McCullough and Dominic Ross. Cincinnati should have enough returnees to build off last year's success.
Best player: DT Terrill Byrd. The 6-foot-1, 286-pound Byrd anchored Cincinnati's run defense last year with 8.5 tackles for a loss. Cincinnati held seven teams to fewer than 100 rushing yards last season. Few on the Cincinnati defense are as experienced as Byrd, who has started 24 consecutive games.
Most underrated: CB Mike Mickens. Only two players have been in the top 10 in passes defended in each of the last two years. You might know Cal cornerback Daymeion Hughes, but you probably don't know Mickens. The Bearcats standout had three interceptions and 15 pass break ups last year to put him in the top eight alongside Hughes, Kansas' Aqib Talib, Texas' Aaron Ross, Virginia Tech's Brandon Flowers and Michigan's Leon Hall.
Must step up: LB Corey Smith. Smith was hobbled during the preseason and missed the first two games of 2006 with a hamstring injury. When he returned, he finished with 60 tackles and nine tackles for a loss. The Bearcats are counting on Smith to build on his big freshman year of 2005 to help offset the loss of middle linebacker Kevin McCullough.
at Miami (Ohio)
at San Diego State
at South Florida
Shoes to fill: McCullough. He helped lead Cincinnati's run defense last year with his presence in the middle. He finished the year with 72 tackles and 14.5 tackles for a loss.
Impact newcomer: S Jason Whitehead. Cincinnati has experience at the safety position, but the redshirt freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., showed he could compete during spring practice. He could grab a spot in the rotation.
Position battle: Middle linebacker. Odds are there will be a drop-off at McCullough's old spot. Vying for the job are Andre Revels, converted running back Delbert Ferguson and reserve linebacker Ryan Manalac. Each has seen playing time with the Bearcats on special teams.
New in 2007: With 18 of 22 players from the two-deep returning, not much will change. New coordinator Joe Tresey will start with the same scheme as Dantonio.
Grade the units: DL: A. The Bearcats return all four starters on a team that ranked 25th against the run last year.
LB: B. The loss of McCullough in the middle will hit the team hard. The Bearcats still return outside linebackers Smith and Leo Morgan, who both topped 60 tackles last year.
DB: B. Cincinnati loses safety Dominic Ross, but the secondary remains in good hands with Mickens and free safety Haruki Nakamura.
Breaking down the special teams
Overview: Cincinnati has both of its primary return men - receivers Dominick Goodman and Derrick Stewart - back this season. However, the Bearcats will have to replace punter Kevin Lowell and punter Brian Steel.
Best player: PR Derrick Stewart. Stewart is already a major factor in the passing game, but was also a solid punt returner. He averaged 9.2 yards per return.
Grade the units: K: Incomplete. Cincinnati replaces K Kevin Lovell with redshirt freshman Jake Rogers.
P: B. New punter Kevin Huber already has some experience at the position with punts of 50 and 51 yards in the International Bowl after not playing during the regular season.
KR: B-plus. Dominick Goodman (25.8 yards per return) ranked fourth in the Big East.
PR: B-plus. Stewart (9.2 yards per return) also ranked fourth in the conference.
Breaking down the coaching
Overview: There couldn't be a bigger change in philosophy from the defensive-minded Dantonio to the offensive-minded Kelly. From Grand Valley State and Central Michigan, Kelly has been building smaller programs. Dantonio spent most of recent years as an assistant at Ohio State and Michigan State. Linebackers coach Tim Hinton is the only holdover from Dantonio's staff.
Season outlook with bowl forecast
All indications are that Kelly will spice up the offense at Cincinnati, but the challenge for the Bearcats will be to continue the success on defense they enjoyed under Dantonio. They'll have to do that without two all-conference first-teamers and the team's two leading tacklers. Cincinnati should head to a second-tier Big East bowl game like the Meineke Car Care Bowl, PapaJohns.com Bowl or a return to the International Bowl.
Grade the coaches: Head coach: B-plus. At both of his head coaching stops, Kelly has won and turned around the program. At Grand Valley State, he won two Division II championships before going to Central Michigan. He took the Chippewas to their first bowl game since 1994 and won a MAC championship in his third season.
Offense: A-minus. Familiarity won't be a problem with the offensive staff. Coordinator and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn has coached alongside Kelly since 1989 at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan. As line coach, he tutored first-round draft pick Joe Staley and sixth-rounder Drew Mormino last year. Quarterbacks coach Greg Forest has also spent the last 16 years as an assistant to Kelly.
Defense: C. Coordinator Joe Tresey joins Kelly from Central Michigan, where his defense last year ranked in the top 50 nationally in only one major category (rush defense, ranked 48th). He did, however, lead some top units at Georgia Southern in 2004-05. He is untested at the major conference level in Division I-A. Hinton, who has been at Cincinnati since 2004, has strong ties to the state after serving as an assistant at Ohio State and Ohio. He was also the head coach at Marion (Ohio) Harding High.
Special teams: Incomplete. Special teams coordinator Mike Elston joins Kelly from Central Michigan, where he served the last three years as a defensive assistant and one season as special teams coordinator.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 46.