By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
You have to go back to 1997 to find the last time the University of Cincinnati football program lost so many quality players at one time.
That was the year the Bearcats ended a 45-year bowl game drought by landing a berth in the inaugural Humanitarian Bowl.
When spring practice began a few months later in 1998, Jason Fabini, Brad Jackson, Artrell Hawkins, Derrick Ransom and Rod Monroe were all on their way to the National Football League.
Without them , UC went 2-9 in 1998.
Five years later, UC coach Rick Minter faces a similar scenario as spring practice begins today.
Gone from last year's Conference USA champs are defensive end Antwan Peek, the school's career sacks leader; wide receiver LaDaris Vann, the career receptions leader; running back DeMarco McCleskey, the school's second-leading career rusher; defensive back Blue Adams, the career interceptions leader; and placekicker Jonathan Ruffin, the career scoring leader.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Key to spring: UC must find replacements for some of the best players in the school's history.
Newcomers in camp: WR Cedric Dawley, a junior college transfer from Compton (Calif.) Community College.
Competition: The wide receiver position is open. A mix of returning UC players, junior college transfers and incoming freshmen will vie for playing time.
Position switches: Junior Trent Cole will switch from defensive tackle to defensive end. Punter Chet Ervin will concentrate on placekicking.
Spring game: Red vs. Black, 2 p.m. April 26 at Nippert Stadium.
"It's a transition," Minter said. "But you have to keep in mind that they were replacing somebody else when they stepped up. That's what you want a program to get into. When a star leaves, you say, `Great career, best wishes,' and you hope somebody else is in position to have the ability to step up and perform as well."
Minter and the UC players will also have four new assistant coaches, including an unusual setup at defensive coordinator, where Mark Criner, last year's linebackers coach, will share the duties with newcomer Mike Kolakowski, who was the secondary coach last year at Ohio University.
The Bearcats will conduct 15 spring practice sessions through April 28.
One of the most-watched experiments this spring will be the shift of junior Trent Cole from defensive tackle, where he excelled last year, to Peek's defensive end spot.
If the Bearcats can locate a suitable replacement for Cole inside, Minter believes Cole can serve as a worthy successor to Peek.
"Cole brings the athleticism that Peek had," Minter said. "He has the explosiveness and the speed and the demeanor."
The passing of the mantel to a new placekicker might not be as smooth.
"That's the one area that I don't know if you do replace overnight," Minter said.
Sophomore Chet Ervin, last year's punter, will get first crack at the job and will spend the spring working mostly on his placekicking.
"I don't want him to do a lot of punting in the spring," Minter said. "If you ask him, (placekicking) is what he really wanted to do the most. He had to punt (last year) out of necessity. If Chet can come through, that would be a big plus. We don't have a contingency. We're going to put it on his foot and let him have the job and see what he can do."
Wyoming High's Richard Hall will begin the spring listed as the starter at tailback and heir apparent to McCleskey after serving in a limited role as a backup last year.
Hall, at 5-11, 200 pounds, doesn't have the inside power that McCleskey displayed, but is considered a more explosive runner capable of bouncing outside and ripping off substantial gains.
He averaged 4.5 yards per carry last year in 59 attempts.
"Right now you would say it's Richard's turn to step up," Minter said. "He's waited patiently. By the same token, it's time for him to go to work, too."
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