2012 Cincinnati Preview - Defense
Cincinnati P Pat O'Donnell
Cincinnati P Pat O'Donnell
Posted Jun 20, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Cincinnati Bearcat Defense

Cincinnati Bearcats

Preview 2012 - Defense

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What you need to know: It was extremely tough to run on the Bearcats in 2011. This fall? Not so much. The staff's chief concern this offseason will be to fortify the middle of the unit, which loses prodigious DT Derek Wolfe, NT John Hughes and All-Big East MLB JK Schaffer. In their place will likely step Camaron Beard, Jordan Stepp and Solomon Tentman, respectively. The trio is young and upwardly-mobile, but is also inexperienced and unlikely to prevent opposing teams from running the ball right up the gut. Cincinnati, though, will be a lot tougher to beat on the flanks. Seniors Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart give the program a couple of hard-charging defensive ends capable of collapsing the pocket and tracking down ballcarriers from behind. Stewart, in particular, has the length and athleticism to really get pro scouts excited. The outside linebackers, Maalik Bomar and Nick Temple, are not very big, but they will go from sideline to sideline in a hurry, and will be deployed occasionally on the blitz. Three starters are back in the secondary, with none more valuable than SS Drew Frey. The returning First Team All-Big East pick hits like a linebacker, but will also provide cover for a young and somewhat vulnerable collection of cornerbacks.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Drew Frey, 73
Sacks: Walter Stewart, 6
Interceptions: Camerron Cheatham, Deven Drane, 3

Star of the defense: Senior DE Walter Stewart
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LB Solomon Tentman
Unsung star on the rise: Junior CB Deven Drane
Best pro prospect: Stewart
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Stewart, 2) Senior SS Drew Frey, 3) Drane
Strength of the defense: The ends, getting pressure, defensive backfield, creating takeaways
Weakness of the defense: The tackles, rebuilt middle of the D, linebackers

Defensive Line

The 2012 D-line will be a tale of two very different stories entering the season; the ends are reloading, while the tackles are regrouping. First, the good news. The Bearcats are bringing back both of last season's starters on the outside. Senior Walter Stewart is the new catalyst up front, a 6-5, 247-pound condor on the edge who's primary objective is to get into the backfield. After bouncing around, he finally found a home up front in 2011, making 44 tackles, 11 stops for loss, six sacks, eight pass breakups, three fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles. Best of all, his play became more disruptive once the Big East portion of the schedule began. Stewart plays with cat-quickness, and has the long and lean frame to obstruct the quarterback's throwing lane.

On the opposite end of Stewart is 6-4, 257-pound senior Dan Giordano , who is more of a strongside option at the position. Without a lot of attention, he play as a full-timer a year ago, making 34 stops, nine tackles for loss, five sacks and a team-high seven quarterback hurries. He's very tough at the point of attack, operating with heavy hands, light feet and maximum intensity. While not in same league as Stewart as a pure pass rusher, he'll be an asset to the Cincy front four.

Coming off the bench at end will be 5-10, 252-pound senior Brandon Mills, a luxury as a reserve. He's played a ton for the Bearcats, collecting 88 tackles, 19.5 stops for loss and 11.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Better suited to be a situational pass rusher, as opposed to an every-down guy, he can be effective defensive weapon when used properly by the staff.

There's just no way around it—the line will have a hard time recovering from the graduations of All-American Derek Wolfe and John Hughes, the tackle tandem that collaborated on 34 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks in 2011. Their successors have clown-sized shoes to fill. Taking over for Wolfe will be 6-5, 274-pound sophomore Camaron Beard. He had a cup of coffee in five games, making four tackles. The three-star recruit from Indianapolis has maintained his quickness despite adding considerable weight since first arriving.

At the nose, 6-1, 274-pound junior Jordan Stepp is taking over for Hughes. He's been a key part of the rotation over the last two seasons, making 33 tackles and a couple of stops for loss in 2011. While not very big, he's rather hyperactive off the snap, and uses proper pad level in order to get leverage on opposing blockers.

Exiting spring, the backup at both interior positions was 6-4, 265-pound junior Mitch Meador . A two-time letterwinner largely because of his work on special teams, he'll get a lot more reps on defense out of necessity this fall.

Watch Out For .... Stewart to continue being used liberally in "cheetah" packages. Basically, the team wants to maximize the versatility of No. 54 as much as possible, especially on obvious passing downs . In these situations, the end will be given the green light to freelance wherever he's needed, going anywhere from exploding into the pocket to dropping back into coverage.
Strength: The ends. The rotation of Stewart, Giordano and Mills is as good as any in the conference. In fact, if the three seniors play up to their potential in 2012, the Bearcats will boast one of the nation's top 20 or so best collections of pass rushing ends.
Weakness: The tackles. While Beard and Stepp are nice players, the falloff from Wolfe and Hughes would unnerve many cliff divers. The Bearcats are going to be more vulnerable up the gut, a virtual inevitability for the upcoming season. A lack of depth will also be an issue, as Meador attempts to wear multiple hats.
Outlook: Cincinnati can't possibly match last year's production up front, when the D-line took up squatter's rights in opposing backfields. Still, there's plenty to be excited about. The Stewart-led ends will cause a lot of problems for headaches. And while Stepp and Beard are certainly not Hughes and Wolfe, it doesn't mean that they won't be productive in 2012.
Rating: 7


The corps of linebackers is about move forward without its best performer, all-star JK Schaffer who had at least 100 tackles in each of the last three seasons. He leaves an enormous void in the middle that looks as if it'll be filled by 6-2, 227-pound Solomon Tentman. The sophomore has always had the talent to succeed at this level, but a serious knee injury has kept him from even approaching his potential. However, he's coming off an outstanding spring session, and if the knee remains strong, possesses the range and tenacity to become one of the breakout defenders of 2012.

The veteran at the second level is 6-2, 224-pound senior Maalik Bomar, a fixture at weakside. Back for a third season as the starter, he finished fifth on the team with 61 stops in 2011, adding a couple of fumble recoveries. He's added good weight over the years, yet remains a very active defender who's at his best when going from sideline-to-sideline.

The emerging star of the group is 5-10, 221-pound sophomore Nick Temple , who busted out of the gates by starting eight games as a rookie, and making 35 tackles. Looking like a safety once he left high school, he has packed on the weight, and proven to the coaching staff that he's tough enough to handle the strongside position. With a full season in the lineup, it'll be interesting to see how high Temple can ascend in his second year on campus.

The most experienced of the reserves is Temple's classmate, 6-1, 208-pound sophomore Dwight Jackson , a letterman in his debut season. He made 15 tackles, chipping in both on defense and special teams. He'll use 2012 to get stronger in the weight room, and more instinctive on the field before supplanting Bomar at weakside next fall.

Watch Out For .... the health of Tentman's knee. His performance in the spring allowed the staff to exhale for a moment about the linebackers. However, he's coming back from a serious injury, and there are no guarantees that he won't suffer a setback. The team likes his backup, 6-2, 261-pound JUCO transfer Greg Blair, but would prefer to have him coming off the bench.
Strength: Speed and range. While certainly an imperfect group entering the season, few opponents are going to out run the Cincinnati linebackers from sideline-to-sideline. They can all fly to the football, using their raw physical abilities to get off the snap quickly and make a beeline to the man with the ball.
Weakness: Lack of experience. Bomar stands out as the glaring exception of a very young and unproven collection of linebackers. In fact, the other five players currently comprising the two-deep have just three career letters between them. The Bearcats are putting a lot of faith in sophomores who could be overwhelmed at times this season.
Outlook: The Bearcats are going to jet all over the field in 2012. Sometimes they'll nail they'll target, and sometimes they'll simply whiff. The linebackers are very good athletes, but are still a year away from being quality defenders. The middle will be a particularly tenuous spot, with a rehabbing sophomore taking over for the school's premier linebacker in quite some time.
Rating: 6.5


The defensive backfield was spotty in 2011, but did get better as the season progressed. Now, the Bearcats are hoping to take another step forward with the return of five players who started at least one game last fall. The headliner of the group will be 6-3, 209-pound senior SS Drew Frey, a fourth-year starter for the program. The one-time cornerback is a versatile defender who can fill lanes on running plays, yet also cover with reasonable effectiveness. Second on the team with 73 tackles in 2011, First Team All-Big East selection also picked off two passes and broke up eight more. What won't show in a box score is how his veteran leadership and attitude impact the younger players around him.

Sophomore Adrian Witty may only be 5-10 and 184 pounds, but he's plenty tough, and will spend the year behind Frey at strong safety. He appeared in all but one game in 2011, finishing the year with 15 stops.

The team's free safety will be a newcomer, 6-0, 205-pound Arryn Chenault . While the junior has lettered in both of his years, making nine tackles in 2011, he has just one career start on the resume. He's one of the better all-around athletes of the secondary, which the coaches hope will pay immediate dividends to the pass defense.

While 5-11, 187-pound junior Deven Drane is only at the halfway point of his career, he already looks as if he'll become the program's best cover corner of the past few seasons. After an injury forced him into the lineup, he played extremely well, starting eight games, and making 42 tackles, three picks and a team-high 12 passes defended. Star Rutgers WR Mohamed Sanu caught six balls for just 38 yards against the Bearcats last Nov. 19. Drane was the corner who blanketed him all afternoon.

While Drane is at boundary corner, 5-9, 192-pound senior Cameron Cheatham is expected to be the field corner. He was in the lineup for all 13 games a year ago, making 59 tackles, three picks and seven pass breakups. One of the veterans of this defense, he still needs to fine-tune his coverage skills, especially since his size is cause for concern when matched up with bigger receivers.

Fingers are crossed that cornerback Dominique Battle can make a successful return from last year's season-ending knee injury. In fact, each of his last two years has been cut short by a serious knee injury, which is cause for concern about his future. When healthy, the 5-11, 190-pound senior brings a brash attitude and a ton of experience to the Cincinnati defensive backfield. In five starts a year ago, he had 23 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and a pair of picks.

Watch Out For .... Drane to become a household name … at least in Big East circles. He was just getting revved up a year ago, when the season came to an end. Now that he's had an entire offseason to prepare as an undisputed starter, he could blossom into the program's best cover corner since Mike Mickens was on campus.
Strength: The cornerbacks. If Battle can return to form, he'll be an integral cog in the rotation or as a possible nickel back. He and Cheatham are seasoned veterans, and Drane is the kind of defensive back who can shut down the other team's best receiver.
Weakness: Lapses. The Bearcats took a step forward in 2011, and could continue in that direction during the fall. However, the secondary has got to avoid the lapses that felled it last year, such as getting shredded by Tennessee, and allowing 409 yards and three touchdown passes to an average South Florida passing team.
Outlook: Cincinnati has good reason to be optimistic about the upcoming season. The secondary features a nice blend of veterans, such as Frey, Cheatham and Battle, and a riser in Drane. If the defensive backfield can achieve a higher level of consistency, it has the parts to serve as the backbone for a rebuilding D.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

With just about everyone back from a year ago, Cincinnati expects the special teams unit to once again be an asset in 2012. Sophomore Tony Miliano will reprise his role as the team's placekicker, a year after connecting on 17-of-25 field goal attempts. While surprisingly accurate beyond 40 yards, his four blocked kicks need to be addressed.

At punter, senior Pat O'Donnell has evolved into an underrated weapon for the special teams and the defense. The 6-5, 217-pounder, with the desired pop and leg whip, averaged a league-best 43.8 yards, en route to being named First Team All-Big East.

The return game will be the domain of shifty sophomore Ralph David Abernathy IV . While Abernathy has no experience fielding punts, he ranked 14th nationally on kickoffs, averaging 26.5 yards, and taking one back for a touchdown in the Liberty Bowl.

Watch Out For .... Abernathy's comfort level on punts. He's just 5-7 and 168 pounds, and vulnerable to getting plastered shortly after catching the ball. The Bearcats are hopeful he can provide a spark, particularly after the program ranked 79th nationally at less than seven yards a return.
Strength: Proven parts. With the exception of long snapper Tom DeTemple, everyone is back on special teams for the Bearcats. The punter will set the standard in the league, and the kicker is looking to build upon a solid debut. Cincinnati has an experienced unit that's poised to become a difference-maker for the offense and defense.
Weakness: Blocked kicks. Miliano has to tighten up his game and improve his fundamentals so that fewer of his kicks are batted back. Four of field goal attempts were blocked, while he missed three extra points in 2011.
Outlook: There's a lot to like about the special teams unit, which is approaching the level it was at when Brian Kelly was still around. O'Donnell and Abernathy are serious assets to the defense and offense, respectively, while Miliano expects to kick with more consistency this fall. The coverage teams are chock full of good athletes who can keep teams from breaking off a long play.
Rating: 8

- 2012 Cincinnati Preview | 2012 Cincinnati Offense
- 2012 Cincinnati Defense | 2012 Cincinnati Depth Chart
- Cincinnati Previews  2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006