Normally when a coach leaves a team the football program takes a step backward. Cincinnati fans know this all too well when Brian Kelly left Clifton in the middle of the night to take over a reeling Notre Dame program after wrapping up a 12 – 0 campaign with UC. The ensuing 365 days was chaos culminating in a frustrating 4 – 8 season in Butch Jones’ first year at the wheel of the Good Ship Bearcats.
On a micro level, the same can be said for assistant coaches. Players can struggle at times adjusting to new schemes, new commands, and overall a new way of doing things. The learning curve generally hits reset when a coach is replaced.
But by the numbers it doesn’t look like this has happened much at all to Cincinnati secondary with the departure of Kerry Coombs.
The longtime UC position coach left Clifton in March to venture up I-70 and work for one of the most prestigious and well-connected head coaches in college football today Urban Meyer. At the time I thought it was a smart career move for Kerry and was surely the correct decision in moving him one step closer to a head coaching gig at the collegiate level. At the same time that it was good for him, I felt it was also good for the Bearcats. It’s beating a dead horse at this point but I was never completely in favor of Coombs’ decisions as a coach at Cincinnati. You can read a multi-paragraph explanation of my views in the piece I linked to previously but in short I thought his ability to teach Bearcat DB’s advanced techniques was subpar and he made “interesting” depth chart decisions to say the least.
Yes he was a good “rah-rah” coach, providing oodles of energy on the sidelines, but beyond that he left a lot to be desired.
To replace Coombs, Butch Jones split his duties between newly-hired Shannon Morrison from Memphis and Mark Elder who would coach the cornerbacks and safeties respectively. And so far the results have been extremely promising.
Lets start with the overall yards allowed which can be deceptive. For example, the Colorado State Rams finished 13th in 2011 giving up just 179 yards through the air per game but lost 9 games last year. So take those raw numbers with a grain of salt. The Bearcats have surrendered about 250 passing yards per game which places them 84th nationally. But believe it or not that’s actually an 11-yard improvement from 2011.
But what I’m really interested in are the touchdowns allowed. Forget the raw yardage. Give up all the yards you want, but as long as you keep the other team out of the endzone and off the scoreboard I’m a happy camper. And this secondary is making mighty happy in this department. So far in 2012, Cincinnati has given up just 5 passing touchdowns (T-11th) and is on pace to give up just 12 this season (through 12 games of course). By comparison the 2011 unit gave up 17 passing touchdowns, the 2010 unit 25 TDs, and the 2009 unit 16 TDs.
And Cincinnati isn’t surrendering the big play through the air that they were so susceptible to under Coombs. There have been a few instances of blown coverages (there always will be at any level of football) but by and large this secondary is much improved from previous seasons in this area. UC has allowed just 7 plays of 25 yards or more through five games and are on pace to give up about 17 through a 12-game season. How did previous secondaries fair? Much worse. Both the 2011 and 2010 units gave 25 plays of 25 yards or more. Even the 2008 squad loaded with studs like Mike Mickens, DeAngelo Smith, and Brandon Underwood gave up more passing plays of at least 25 yards (20 of them) than the 2012 secondary.
Finally, the defensive backs on the 2012 squad are as disruptive to opposing passing games as ever. When the ball is in the air, they swarm to the intended receiver and force incompletions by any means necessary. They’ve already broken up 24 passes through five games. For the record, the 2010 defense broke up 25 passes all year. Projected out over the course of 12 games and Cincinnati’s secondary will break up about 57 passes this year which would be the most since 2008. And they are keeping opposing quarterbacks from getting into a rhythm as well. They are allowing about 59% of every pass to be completed, the lowest ratio since that same 2008 team.
So the Bearcats give up tons of yardage through the air. That stat cannot be argued. But by a number of key metrics they are actually an improved unit with Mark Elder and Shannon Morrison tag-teaming the coaching duties. It’s a good sign and paints a picture of a dominating backend of the defense that rivals the 2008 unit.
No matter the praise they deserve UC’s secondary will face a tough test this week in the Toledo Rockets. I’ve marked this as a “trap game” for the Bearcats primarily because of the passing attack they will face. Toledo ranks 30th in points scored per game (36.4), 31st in passing offense (285 yards per game), and 26th in total offense (475 yards per game). Despite losing key pieces in the offseason (head coach, #1 receiver) they are still a dangerous scoring machine. Also their quarterback Terrance Owens doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, throwing just three interceptions this year (T-36th), and distributes the ball all over the field.
The Rockets will be Cincinnati’s secondary’s biggest test thus far in 2012 and perhaps their biggest test of the entire season. We’ll know more about them after Saturday night but so far the Bearcats’ defensive backs are playing their best football in years.