CINCINNATI — The second-string offense was running a play during camp, and quarterback Gunner Kiel was pacing behind the group, helmet in hand, yelling advice as everyone lined up. A year ago, he would have been the one getting instructions.
The second-year starter is taking a bigger role in a deep and diverse offense that's the main reason Cincinnati is picked to win the American Athletic Conference title.
"Now I'm a lot more confident," said Kiel, who threw a league-leading 31 touchdown passes last season despite missing significant time with injured ribs. "I'm the guy. I'm being a leader. Last year, I couldn't do it. I was earning guys' respect. They were telling me what to do."
The Bearcats went 9-4 last season, losing to Virginia Tech 33-17 in the Military Bowl. In his first season at Cincinnati, Kiel threw for 3,254 yards with 13 interceptions. The Bearcats' running game was in flux all season because of injuries, so Kiel's passing had to carry the day.
The top seven receivers are back, along with eight starters overall on offense. The Bearcats have retooled to accentuate the run more prominently and take some of the pressure off Kiel.
And Cincinnati, which was accustomed to competing for league titles in the Big East, is back to being the team to beat in the AAC.
"It's nice to get the respect," senior defensive linebacker Silverberry Mouhon said. "We've got the target on our back. That's fine."
Things to watch from the Bearcats:
SECOND TIME AROUND
Kiel forced throws last season and sometimes held onto the ball too long, which was expected in his first season. The Bearcats are looking for more consistency now that Kiel knows what to expect.
"He's got his head on right," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "His body's in better shape than it's been. He's in a leadership role right now."
The Bearcats had to go deep into their group of running backs because of injuries last season. They return senior Hosey Williams (140 yards in four games), sophomore Mike Brown (team-high 650 yards in nine games) and junior Tion Green (118 yards in three games) along with an experienced line. The Bearcats threw it 491 times and ran it 454 times last season, an imbalance that Tuberville would like to correct.
"We've got tremendous room for improvement, and we were pretty good last year," Tuberville said.
OH THAT DEFENSE
The defense was the biggest problem last season, getting run over in consecutive losses to Ohio State (50-28), Memphis (41-14) and Miami (55-34). It was young and inexperienced and got better as the season went along. There's five returning starters and much more depth this season, creating a feeling that it ought to be able to hold its own.
"It was difficult last year," Mouhon said. "We had young guys fresh out of high school. This year, we feel everyone is on the same page. We have a standard to uphold. The young guys know what to expect going in now. We're a much more mature team."
CHANCES TO IMPRESS
The Bearcats will have two opportunities to get national attention. They host Miami on Oct. 1 and play their next game at BYU on Oct. 16. Last year, they got blown out in their three games against prominent opponents.
BACK HOME AGAIN
The Bearcats played last season at Paul Brown Stadium — home field for the NFL Bengals — while their on-campus Nippert Stadium underwent an $86 million renovation. They're back home for their season opener against Alabama A&M on Sept. 5.
"A lot of guys are talking about it, being at the Nipp and all that's about," Kiel said.
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