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2011 Cincinnati Preview – Defense
Cincinnati DT Derek Wolfe
Cincinnati DT Derek Wolfe
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jun 5, 2011


CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Cincinnati Bearcat Defense


Cincinnati Bearcats

Preview 2011 - Defense



- 2011 Cincinnati Preview | 2011 Cincinnati Offense
- 2011 Cincinnati Defense | 2011 Cincinnati Depth Chart
- Cincinnati Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006

What you need to know: No program in the country brings back more starters than Cincinnati, promising news for a unit that struggled badly a year ago. In fact, not only is everyone returning, but 15 players who started a game in 2010 are still on campus. The Bearcats have no choice but to be better this fall. The strength on this side of the ball will be the defensive line, which boasts next-level DT Derek Wolfe and last year’s leading sacker Brandon Mills. Mills, however, might not start if converted LB Walter Stewart remains at end, testament to this group depth and underrated talent. The leader of the defense, though, is actually a linebacker, tackling machine JK Schaffer. The biggest reclamation project is in the secondary, a group that got burned all season and was a microcosm for the defense’s ability to manufacture turnovers. While the front seven ought to be fine, the defensive backfield is the key that unlocks the fortune of the 2011 D.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: JK Schaffer, 111
Sacks: Brandon Mills, 6
Interceptions: Drew Frey, Wes Richardson, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB JK Schaffer
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Dominique Battle
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE Brandon Mills
Best pro prospect: Senior DT Derek Wolfe
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Schaffer, 2) Wolfe, 3) Junior DE Walter Stewart
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, depth and experience, run defense
Weakness of the defense: Sacks, pass defense, takeaways, third down defense, red zone defense

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: In what’s going to become a common theme on this defense, the line is flush with veterans and returning starters. Five players, in fact, started games in 2010, with an import coming over from the linebacker corps. If Steve Stripling can maximize the talent of his kids this fall and dial up a little more pressure, the D-line has a chance to be the strength of the defense.

The anchor on the inside is 6-5, 300-pound senior Derek Wolfe, a defensive tackle with a future in the NFL. A fixture up front since his rookie year, he started every game in 2010, making 48 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, and four sacks. One of the team leaders, he’s very physical at the point of attack, yet quick enough to shoot the gap and make plays behind the line.

Next to Wolfe at the nose is 6-4, 305-pound senior John Hughes, who played well in his debut as the starter. He made 47 tackles and 4.5 stops for loss, sliding nicely up and down the line. A rock with his play and his demeanor, he’s a good fit to anchor nose tackle. His understudy for one more year will be 6-1, 273-pound sophomore Jordan Stepp , an undersized yet hyperactive linemen who had 20 tackles and 3.5 stops for loss.

The big news at defensive end is the scheduled return of 6-5, 244-pound junior Walter Stewart , who spent last season at outside linebacker. A tremendous all-around athlete, he had 60 tackles, eight stops for loss, and two sacks with an opportunity to play more in space. He has a long frame and the cat-like quickness to get around the edge in a hurry. Assuming Stewart stays put on the line, he’s going to go head-to-head with 5-10, 245-pound junior Brandon Mills, who made a successful switch from tackle a year ago. While hardly the prototype in terms of size, he’s extremely quick and tough to block straight up. Without any notice, he exploded for 58 tackles and a team-high 12.5 stops for loss, and six sacks.

At strongside end, Cincinnati will once again go with 6-4, 260-pound junior Dan Giordano , a starter in all but two games last season. A warrior, he has quick hands, light feet, and plays with maximum intensity. Providing support to both the pass rush and run D, he chipped in 36 tackles, eight stops for loss, and four sacks.

Watch Out For .... Stewart’s final destination. The fact that he’s listed as a possible starter at defensive end and strongside linebacker is an indication of the paucity of talent at the latter position. He’s proven he can play either position and Mills certainly stuck his landing as a starter, which could have Stewart packing his bags again.
Strength: Depth and experience. Unlike this time last year, this is an upperclassmen-dominated line that brings 16 letters of experience and a ton of starts to the two-deep. Even if Stewart doesn’t stay up front, Cincinnati will boast a quality collection of talent that will rotate into the lineup on a regular basis.
Weakness: More consistency from the pass rush. Yeah, Cincy was a respectable 38th nationally in sacks, but more than one-quarter of those came at the expense of an awful Rutgers front wall. The Bearcats need to bring the heat on a more consistent basis, especially considering their experience and overall talent level.
Outlook: Not a single Cincinnati defensive lineman earned a spot on the All-Big East team in 2010, but that changes this fall. The team has multiple players good enough to earn honors in 2011, a sound unit capable of meshing into something special. Particularly if Stewart remains at end, the Bearcats could be home to one of the sneaky-good front walls on the East Coast.
Rating: 7.5

Linebackers

State of the Unit: Fast and ferocious is how the staff wants its linebackers to play, roaming all corners of the field for an opponent to hit. The Bearcats have been successful in meeting that objective, molding quality athletes into effective defenders. Two of last year’s starters and top tacklers, with a third regular still in limbo whether he’ll wind up on the first or second level of the D.

Back for a final year in the middle is 6-1, 232-pound senior JK Schaffer, a third-year starter for the Bearcats. He followed up a terrific debut by earning second team All-Big East honors, making a team-high 111 tackles, 9.5 stops for loss, three sacks, and two forced fumbles. More than just a terrific all-around athlete, he has the instincts and field awareness to rack up more than 100 stops and a handful of team awards in his finale.

Locking down weakside is 6-2, 219-pound junior Maalik Bomar, a linebacker in a safety’s body. In his first year as a full-timer, he delivered on the opportunity, finishing second on the team with 70 tackles and adding eight stops behind the line and two sacks. While he’s added more muscle in the offseason, his range and quickness have not been sacrificed.

Strongside is a question mark heading into the summer. Had the staff not decided to move 6-5, 244-pound junior Walter Stewart to defensive end, the debate would be over. However, that’s his more ideal position, which could create an immediate opening for 6-1, 205-pound Dwight Jackson , a rookie from Miami. While obviously raw, he fills the necessary athletic requirements to play this position for the Bearcats. In fact, the depth chart will be brimming with freshmen this fall, including 5-11, 214-pound rookie Nick Temple behind Bomar and 6-3, 233-pound redshirt freshman Corey Mason , who’s also in the hunt at strongside.

Watch Out For .... the situation at strongside. Does Stewart return after playing on the line in the spring? Or do the kids make it possible for him to play end in 2011? Those are two pivotal questions that’ll go a long way to determining the eventual grade and consistency of this unit.
Strength: Range. While an imperfect group entering the season, few opponents are going to out run the Bearcat linebackers from sideline-to-sideline. They can all fly to the football, using their raw abilities to get off the snap quickly and make a beeline to the man with the ball.
Weakness: Inexperience on the B team. It’s a troubling situation that’s bound to get worse if Stewart winds up relocating. The Bearcats are extremely young on the second and third teams, backup units that will be the exclusive domain of redshirt freshmen and first-year players.
Outlook: A lot is going to depend on what happens at strongside, which will be decided later on in the summer. In the middle and at weakside, however, Cincinnati is set with Schaffer and Bomar, respectively. Schaffer is one of the Big East’s most underrated players, a quality defender not getting enough attention nationally.
Rating: 7

Secondary

State of the Unit: After struggling big time in pass defense last year, the Cincinnati coaching staff is holding open auditions at multiple positions this offseason. The Bearcats had all kinds of problems when the ball was in the air, ranking 106th nationally in pass efficiency defense and sporting a hideous 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Regardless of class or experience, the four best defensive backs are getting on the field this fall.

At strong safety, 6-3, 203-pound junior Drew Frey is one of the stalwarts of the secondary, returning for his third season as a starter. He’ll be looking to bounce back after his production waned in 2010, making 52 stops and a couple of picks. One of the leaders of the group, the one-time corner has the size and agility to emerge into an all-star. His backup will be 6-1, 198-pound junior Pat Lambert , who started a pair of games and had 23 stops last fall. A versatile Bearcat, he can also contribute at nickel.

At free safety, the frontrunner is 6-0, 200-pound senior Wesley Richardson , a starter in 10 games last season. A former walk-on, who earned a scholarship in 2009, he delivered a career-high 42 tackles and two interceptions. Coachable and heady, he’s one of the smartest players of the group.

The competition at the nickel is between a couple of juniors, 5-10, 191-pound Reuben Johnson and 5-11, 194-pound Chris Williams . Johnson was productive as a starter in 2010, finishing third on the team with 62 tackles. Explosive, yet still raw, he needs to continue working on his cover skills. Williams was pressed into action last year, starting four games, but only making 10 tackles and rarely making his presence felt.

The big news at cornerback is the return of 5-11, 185-pound senior Dominique Battle, who missed last year’s final eight games with a knee injury. Arguably the team’s top cover guy, he’s not bashful about defending the run, and can stun receivers with a jam at the line of scrimmage. However, he’s currently being challenged by 5-11, 180-pound sophomore Deven Drane, a letterwinner in his first season of action. One of the rising playmakers of the secondary, he started one game, had nine tackles, and laid a nice foundation for his future.

Joining Battle or Drane in the lineup will be the other corner, 5-9, 190-pound junior Cameron Cheatham. Although he started 10 games in 2010 and had 43 tackles, he needs to improve his coverage technique, a particular concern because of the size he gives away to opposing receivers.

Watch Out For .... the health of Battle’s knee. He should be fine long before the opener, but any injury of this kind is cause for concern and trepidation. Whether or not he holds off Drane, Cincinnati needs Battle back to 100% so he can help upgrade the coverage in the secondary.
Strength: Seasoning. Young and inexperienced a year ago, the Bearcat secondary won’t be so green this fall. In fact, Cincinnati boasts a whopping 13 players who’ve earned a letter, a pair of junior-college transfers, and just two underclassmen among its top 10 defensive backs.
Weakness: Soft coverage. For the second straight year, the Bearcats were just too doggone soft when the ball was in the air. Playing in a league not known for its prolific passers, the program ranked last in completion percentage, interceptions, and touchdown passes yielded.
Outlook: With everyone back, including a healthy Battle, the situation has to improve, but by how much? It’s a question that’ll say a lot about how far the Bearcats go this fall. While there’s not much in the form of star power, the group does have ample experience, which should be parlayed into a few more takeaways and a reduction in all of those big plays allowed.
Rating: 6

Special Teams

State of the Unit: The graduation of long-time regular Jake Rogers has left the Bearcats looking for a new placekicker, a search that’ll continue through the summer. The competitors are redshirt freshman Tony Miliano and junior Danny Milligan . Miliano has a big leg and is coming off a successful high school career. However, he was unable to shake Milligan, Cincy’s jack-of-all-trades, who’s played wide receiver since arriving.

At punter, junior Pat O’Donnell is back for a second year as the regular. A 6-5, 217-pounder with a tremendous leg whip and pop, he averaged just under 42 yards a punt and hanging the ball high in the air.

Senior D.J Woods handled punts and kickoffs a year ago, rarely breaking loose, yet is being challenged for touches by junior Darrin Williams, sophomore Anthony McClung, and junior Kenbrell Thompkins .

Watch Out For .... the competition in the return game. The Bearcats are looking for a spark that Woods was unable to provide, ranking 72nd nationally on punt returns and 94th on kickoffs. The staff refused to name a starter in the spring, throwing open the competition once again in the summer.
Strength: O’Donnell. He did a nice job of replacing Kevin Huber in 2010, and figures to keep getting better with more chances. He’s got a booming leg, the kind of punch that’s going to help a defense out of jams by dictating field position.
Weakness: The uncertainty at placekicker. As experienced as Rogers was, he was also inconsistent. And now, the situation figures to get even worse. Miliano should have the edge, but the fact that he hasn’t shaken a wide receiver during the offseason cannot bode well for the kicking game.
Outlook: The Cincinnati special teams unit has gone steadily downhill over the last couple of seasons, and could really be in trouble this fall. O’Donnell is an undisputed building block of the group, but a placekicker needs to be developed and the return game and coverage units have plenty of work to do.
Rating: 6.5

- 2011 Cincinnati Preview | 2011 Cincinnati Offense
- 2011 Cincinnati Defense | 2011 Cincinnati Depth Chart
- Cincinnati Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006