The lull of the offseason has allowed the opportunity to present new additions to Bearcats Nation. Some of you may have noticed the shiny new countdown clock at the top of the column on the left as well as a couple of installations in a new segment that will see more activity this fall called UC Drinking Games. Another segment that I’ll be rolling out in more regularity this year is called ‘Statestify’ which will take look at certain games or topics from a numbers standpoint.
First up is the discussion of Cincinnati’s defense and more specifically what Coach Jones is bringing back this Fall. The common thought is that, like everywhere else on the Bearcat football team year-in and year-out, there are just so many key players for this team to replace. That’s one of the reasons why pundits can’t seem to move UC higher than 4th in the Big East and continuously do so each and every preseason. And yes, guys like Derek Wolfe and J.K. Schaffer will be missed but that in no way means this defense won’t be every bit as suffocating as it was last year.
Let’s start in the secondary. The Bearcats return all but one player in this unit. One. This is clearly the single most experienced position group on the team. They actually got an added boost late last year with the NCAA allowing then-senior Dominique Battle a medical redshirt after having blown out his knee against South Florida. The numbers tell the same story. Cincinnati’s secondary in 2012 will bring back 80% of their recorded tackles and 91% of their interceptions.
Let’s compare this to the 2008 season when the Bearcats were bringing back essentially everyone in the secondary except for Haruki Nakamura. On paper it sounds encouraging hearing that veterans like DeAngelo Smith and Mike Mickens were returning to anchor the secondary. But by the numbers that position group actually returned less than what the 2012 unit will. UC’s 2008 defensive backs brought back just 68% of their recorded tackles (Haruki carried that ’07 secondary) and 80% of their interceptions. Even so it appears that the 2008 unit actually improved compared to the previous year, allowing about 50 yards less through the air per game (206 yds in ’08, 254 yds in ’07) than their 2007 counterparts.
That’s especially encouraging considering statistically the returning 2008 secondary returned less tackles and interceptions than the 2012 unit will. Perhaps the reason is what the defensive line brought back in 2008. In many ways the play of the linemen and defensive backs are linked. If the front-four doesn’t pressure the quarterback, the secondary will be left covering wide receivers for unnecessarily long amounts of time and are susceptible to giving up big players (see: Tennessee, 2011). On the flip side, if the front-four rattles the quarterback, the secondary benefits by picking off errant passes (see: Every game but Tennessee, 2011).
The 2008 defensive line returned 58% of their tackles and and 54% of their sacks while the 2012 unit will return just 50% and 45% of their sacks. Advantage, the 2008 Bearcats. The primary difference is that the 2008 DL replaced their outside ends (Craig, Hoke) whereas the 2012 unit is replacing their interior linemen (Wolfe, Hughes). The X-factor on the 2008 squad was Connor Barwin. Then head coach Brian Kelly worked miracles with some of his players and Barwin was perhaps his best project. A tight end in 2007, Barwin was switched to defensive end in 2008 and as a result the edges of the defensive line saw almost no drop off in production despite losing two seniors the previous offseason. #5 lead the team with 11 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, 7 quarterback hurries, and had 49 tackles en route to a 2nd-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. Is there a Connor Barwin on the interior of the 2012 defensive line to stem the loss of Wolfe and Hughes? The odds say probably not but there are other ways UC’s defense can accomplish this.
Regardless, let’s be honest replacing 600 lbs of roadblock isn’t easy. What Cincinnati does return in 2012 is a rotational lineman Jordan Stepp and a redshirt sophomore Camaron Beard, two players who currently average one inch shorter and 18 lbs lighter than their predecessors. From a pure size standpoint the Bearcats are certainly in danger of being very vulnerable against the run up the middle next season. Therefore it will be up to the linebackers to be especially smart in their gap control.
Perhaps the biggest name Cincinnati is losing on defense will be linebacker J.K. Schaffer. While going unpicked in the past NFL Draft, he has since taken his hefty college resume to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Schaffer and Maryland transfer Ben Pooler are the only players who have departed from the linebacking corps but are taking 49% of this position’s tackles with them.
But even thought UC’s linebackers are returning just 51%* of their tackles from last season, I don’t think the loss of experience here will be that devastating to this squad. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Cincinnati will be employing the Nickel defense in the coming years more than ever just because of the nature of the game. As a result, the Bearcats will be more likely to play just two linebackers, a very experienced Maalik Bomar and stud youngster Nick Temple, along with a very good, battle-hardened nickelback Chris Williams.
*Mitch Meador would be included in this number but he is moving from linebacker to defensive line in 2012.
Even more so, Cincinnati will probably roll out more and more of the Joker Package next fall. In this formation the front seven regularly rotate between the 4 – 3 (four linemen, three linebackers) and the 3 – 4 (three linemen, four linebackers). This creates confusion on the offensive line as they adjust to facing different personnel on defense. This is especially important because the Bearcats can essentially hedge their inexperience on the interior of the defensive line both by keeping the offense guessing and loading linebackers in the box. It worked in 2011 and there’s no reason UC can’t see close to the same production next year.
So when you step back and look at the defense as a whole, the Bearcats aren’t looking that bad, relative to how most mainstream publications would look at UC’s situation at least. The secondary is one of the most experienced position groups the Bearcats have returned in years. It should help that UC will have a proper coach teaching these players and coordinator organizing the schemes. I also don’t think losing Derek Wolfe and John Hughes will be as devastating to this secondary as some would lead you to believe. Cincinnati still boasts a freight train of a pass rusher in Walter Stewart and a sparkplug in Brandon Mills. Those two alone should cause tons of fits for opposing quarterbacks. Against the run, the interior of UC’s defensive line is measurably smaller. They will require the linebackers and/or nickelback to assist in run support more in 2012 than in 2011. But that shouldn’t be a cause for concern considering Maalik Bomar and Chris Williams are equally experienced and Nick Temple got a ton of reps last season. Each understands their roles in the defense and where to plug the gaps in the offensive line well. Overall I would be shocked if the 2012 defense fell off a cliff to 2010 or even 2009 levels next season.