CINCINNATI – Linebacker J.K. Schaffer remembers the empty seats at Nippert Stadium when he was growing up in town. He remembers the way the University of Cincinnati was mostly an afterthought.
"When I was in high school," Schaffer said, "the program was nowhere until my junior and senior year."
Then, it took off under coach Brian Kelly.
But now, it's come to another crossroad.
The Bearcats became a national sensation when Kelly took over and led them to the top of the Big East. They won back-to-back league titles, went to their first Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, and nearly played for the national title two years ago. In Kelly's three seasons, the Bearcats packed their undersized stadium, went 34-6 and put themselves on the national map.
But Kelly left for Notre Dame after the 2009 season. And Butch Jones inherited one of the least-experienced defenses in the BCS and watched the team crumble to a 4-8 finish — that's two more losses than in Kelly's three years combined.
Entering Jones' second season, the Bearcats are no longer a hot ticket. And those who were part of that unexpectedly fast rise to the top know the program can't afford another down year if it wants to stay relevant.
"We need to keep it going," Schaffer said. "We care about the legacy we leave behind us and helping the program grow to even bigger heights. We want to leave that tradition of winning behind us."
If nothing else, Jones' second season should be a lot smoother than the first.
The offense returns senior quarterback Zach Collaros, the league's top passer, and running back Isaiah Pead, one if its most dangerous runners. The Bearcats should be able to score enough points. And the defense will be in a better position to make them stand up.
Kelly's teams switched from a 4-3 defense to 3-4 alignment that masked its lack of experience and depth, playing a lot of soft, safe coverages. Jones went back to a 4-3 defense and watched his young unit — five junior starters, six sophomores — struggle to keep up.
There's still not much depth, but it's stocked with seniors for a change.
"The good thing is they've been in this system for a year," Jones said. "And you win with consistency and continuity. It's one thing to be older, but we have to be better. We have to cut down on the mental errors. We have to play with a hard edge and a toughness. I like what I've seen so far."
Schaffer and the other seniors are a lot more comfortable in the second year with this system.
"We got to actually work on the fine details in spring ball and now instead of heading into camp and installing a new defense," Schaffer said. "I think our defense has grown exponentially."
The offense will be in transition with six new starters. But there's one advantage: The quarterback has been through it all.
Collaros struggled in his first full season as a starter, throwing for 2,902 yards with 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. At the start of the season, he tried too hard to make things happen and wound up taking sacks and losing fumbles. Cincinnati gave up 27 sacks last season — almost twice as many as the previous year — and fumbled 24 times.
Collaros' main goal this year is to avoid self-destruction.
"Being the quarterback, it's always about getting better," Collaros said. "You can clean up your game everywhere. Mainly, it's about cutting down on the turnovers and forcing the ball into coverage."
Kelly and Jones both run a spread offense, so there were expectations of a seamless transition last season. Instead, it was as tough as it gets, and it's still a little mystifying.
"I can't really put my finger on it," Collaros said. "We definitely have to pick up on the leadership aspect of things. The senior class has embraced that. Coach Jones says talent wins six games, discipline wins eight games and leadership wins 10 games. That's what we're aiming for."
The rocky season taught the Bearcats a few things about how tough it is to stay at the top.
"It stings and it motivates you," Schaffer said. "It shows you what you need to do to be successful. You can't get complacent. You can't let off the gas pedal. If you win and you keep doing the same things you did before, somebody's going to catch up to you. We saw everybody's A-game, that's for sure."
Cincinnati's nonconference schedule includes a game at Tennessee and a home date vs. North Carolina State. For the first time, the Bearcats will play two of their home games at the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium, against Big East rivals Louisville and West Virginia.
One thing is clear: It's a season that will either re-ignite fan interest or make it dwindle even more.
"I think it's big for the program," Collaros said. "It's big for us as a class. We always talk about what we want to be remembered by, what our legacy is.
"We want to get things back on track."