CINCINNATI BEARCATS Head coach: Brian Kelly Last season: 10-3 overall, 4-3 in the Big East; won 31-21 over Southern Miss in the Papajohns.com Bowl. Spring practice: April 1-April 26
Cincinnati emerged from the coaching transition from Mark Dantonio to Brian Kelly in the best shape the program has been in school history. For the first time, the Bearcats finished the season ranked, ending the year at No. 17 in the Associated Press poll. Kelly will look for similar results in Year Two. He must find a new quarterback to replace Ben Mauk. Dustin Grutza, who has started 23 career games, returns. Grutza will compete with Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones and sophomore Tony Pike.
Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly returns 13 starters, but must find a new starting quarterback.
Cincinnati's big season was led by the cornerback tandem of Mickens and DeAngelo Smith, who combined for 14 interceptions last season. Maybe going against those cornerbacks helped the wide receivers. Barnett and Goodman each topped 60 catches and 860 yards, and Gilyard added another 536 receiving yards.
HELP IS NEEDED
Cincinnati enters spring with no clear answers in the offensive backfield. Quarterback Dustin Grutza has starting experience but was beaten out last year by Ben Mauk. The Bearcats haven't had a running back rush for more than 709 yards since 2004. Junior Jacob Ramsey (362 yards) is the leading returner but will be challenged by two-time scout team player of the year John Goebel. The Bearcats are thin at defensive end following the departure of Anthony Hoke and Angelo Craig. Former tight end Connor Barwin moves to the defense to help fill one of those spots.
KEEP AN EYE ON
FS Drew Frey: Cincinnati needs to replace Haruki Nakamura, and Frey could be the leading candidate. The redshirt freshman was promising last summer before a shoulder injury ended his season.
QB Demetrius Jones: Jones started Notre Dame's opener against Georgia Tech last season, then quickly lost his job. He hopes to find a home running an offense that needs a dual-threat quarterback.
WR Adrien Robinson: Cincinnati isn't lacking weapons in the passing game, but Robinson – a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder – could find a place in the rotation. The redshirt freshman could be a big target in the passing game.
HIS TIME IS NOW
Lamonte Nelms has been a backup thus far. Now, the Bearcats need the senior to take a starting role at a thin defensive end position. Nelms showed a little of what he could do with 10 tackles for loss last season.
Given coach Brian Kelly's track record as a program-builder, there is much reason for optimism for Cincinnati. But much depends on whether one of the quarterbacks can take charge, as Mauk did last season.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.