2010 Cincinnati Preview – Defense
Cincinnati LB Walter Stewart
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Cincinnati Bearcat Defense
Preview 2010 - Defense
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What you need to know: Considering the fact that only one starter returned, Cincinnati couldn't be faulted for springing leaks from time to time a year ago. The Bearcats held up about as well as could be expected, which should benefit this squad. Co-coordinators Tim Banks and John Jancek inherit a team that returns six starters and is getting reacquainted with the 4-3 alignment. While the first line of defense will be decent, led by next-level DT Derek Wolfe, depth is going to be a concern throughout the unit. At linebacker, JK Schaffer and Walter Stewart are athletic playmakers on the outside, but Tennessee transfer Dorian Davis needs to prove he can handle the middle. For the second straight year, the secondary will be vulnerable against established passing attacks until a true lockdown corner can be developed.
Star of the defense: Junior DE Derek Wolfe
Tackles: JK Schaffer, 100
Sacks: Derek Wolfe, 5
Interceptions: JK Schaffer, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Reuben Johnson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Walter Stewart
Best pro prospect: Wolfe
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Wolfe, 2) Junior LB JK Schaffer, 3) Stewart
Strength of the defense: The interior linemen, outside linebackers, run defense, backfield pressure
Weakness of the defense: The ends, inside linebackers, pass defense, takeaways, red zone defense, third down defense
Projected Starters: The Bearcats are getting hit with a double-whammy on the line, losing a trio of veterans to graduation at the same time as they shift to a 4-3. Depth could be a casualty. The anchor during this transition period will be 6-5, 302-pound junior Derek Wolfe, who's going to play on Sundays before too long. He's exactly what coaches look for in a defensive tackle, a big and physically imposing specimen, who's also quick enough to get penetration. Passed over by Big East voters after making 41 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and five sacks, he'll be impossible to overlook this fall.
Joining Wolfe on the inside will be 6-2, 305-pound junior John Hughes, the staff's choice to handle the nose. He's done a tremendous job off the bench the last two seasons, chipping in 23 tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks in 2009. With a strong upper body and good leverage, he's able to hold his ground, eat up space, and allow those around him to make plays.
The situation on the outside is quite a bit more precarious and unsettled. To help out the ends, sophomore Brandon Mills has been relocated from tackle. Although not the prototype at 5-10 and 266 pounds, he's been proven naysayers wrong his entire life, using a non-stop motor, quick feet, and great pad level to beat his man. He made a lot of big plays in his first year out of high, collecting 25 tackles, eight stops behind the line, and 3.5 sacks exclusively in a reserve role.
Battling to hold on to the other end opening is 6-4, 246-pound sophomore Dan Giordano, who performed well in his first season as a reserve. A touted recruit from the 2008 class, he has quick hands, quick feet, and plays with maximum intensity. Providing support to both the pass rush and run defense, he contributed 42 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks.
Projected Top Reserves: Pushing Giordano for playing time is 6-3, 264-pound junior Rob Trigg, a two-time letterwinner. Last season, however, he was limited to just a pair of games, six tackles, and 2.5 stops for loss. He has more size on the outside than the other contenders, which is going to help in Cincinnati's quest to slow down opposing running games.
On the inside, there's hope that 6-4, 265-pound redshirt freshman Sean McClellan can jumped into the rotation early in his career. He's a scrapper and a future leader, who has packed on weight since arriving on campus. If he can hold up at the point of attack and help out versus the run, he's in the right place to get reps and earn a letter.
Watch Out For .... Mills to be a very pleasant surprise in his first year on the job. At his size, he looks like your local butcher instead of an FBS defensive lineman. However, in this case, looks can be deceiving. He's just so difficult to block, especially for rangy blockers, which is going to lead top some unexpected results.
Strength: The inside guys. In Wolfe and Hughes, the Bearcats harbor a couple of talented run stoppers, who can also shoot the gap and pressure the pocket. North of 300 pounds and strong in the upper body, it's going to be tough to move either player of his base.
Weakness: Depth of talent. While the first unit could very well wind up being an asset and exceed expectations, don't expect the same results from the backups. After Trigg, the exception, the second and third teams will be brimming with young, inexperience, and uncertainty.
Outlook: Wolfe may be a star, but after him the first line of defense may only be serviceable. Overall depth is a concern that won't go away quickly, and who is going to get after the passer on a consistent? As of right now, the Bearcats are lacking the kind of rush end that commands double-teams.
Projected Starters: Even without leading tackler Andre Revels, Cincinnati isn't worried about a drop-off at linebacker in 2010. However, that doesn't mean the unit will be otherworldly either. A sense of comfort can be found in the outside linebackers. At weakside, 6-1, 223-pound junior JK Schaffer is coming off a solid debut that matched the staff's expectations. A starter in all but one game, he was second on the team with 100 tackles, adding 5.5 tackles for loss, three picks, and six passes defended. A terrific all-around athlete, he also has the instincts to be in the right place at the right time.
Over at strongside, 6-5, 226-pound sophomore Walter Stewart is on the brink of becoming a four-year starter and a very special player. After bouncing between here and end, he appears to have found a home where he can roam freely and use his cat-quickness and long frame to make his presence felt all over the field. In a precursor of things to come, he debuted with 59 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks, earning Freshman All-American recognition.
The newcomer of the unit in the middle will be 6-2, 225-pound senior Dorian Davis, a second-year transfer from Tennessee. In his first season on campus, he made 26 tackles and contributed on special teams. He brings explosive athleticism and a knack for laying the lumber, encouraging signs for a program that has its fingers crossed about its least experienced starter.
Projected Top Reserves: At strongside, Cincinnati is thrilled to be getting back 6-2, 222-pound junior Robby Armstrong from knee surgery. He was limited to just four games and 15 tackles in a season that was supposed to be his busiest as a Bearcat. If he can finally get past the injury bug and get back to full strength, he has the agility and know-how to be a valuable defender off the bench.
There are high hopes for 6-1, 195-pound sophomore Maalik Bomar, the team's backup at weakside. Sure, he's built like a safety, but he's no pushover and has room to add muscle to his frame. Although he didn't get a chance to show it much on special teams, making just seven tackles in nine games, he's the type of player who is always operating on attack mode.
Watch Out For .... Stewart to start blossoming into a Big East star. His physical skills are obvious to anyone who puts in his film and breaks down his quick-twitch explosion and condor-like frame. What's not so obvious is how much he's had to endure, overcoming a rugged upbringing, just to get to this point.
Strength: The outside guys. In Schaffer and Stewart, the Bearcats have more than just a couple of returning players. They have a pair of defenders beginning to peak and on the brink of all-star recognition, Both have outstanding range, covering lots of ground in pass defense and as pass rushers.
Weakness: Inexperience on the inside. Can Davis handle this promotion to such an important spot on the field? It's possible, but no one knows for certain. Plus, behind him on the depth chart is even more inexperience, a concern for the run defense.
Outlook: If everyone stays healthy, UC has as much potential at linebacker in years, especially on the outside. Stewart and Schaffer are beginning to peak, and Davis began his career in the SEC. The return of Armstrong and emergence of Bomar are keys to bolstering the second unit.
Projected Starters: Half of last year's starting secondary is back, which means the other half, naturally, must be replaced. The biggest loss is Aaron Webster, an All-Big East first teamer at free safety. The favorite to replace him is 6-0, 193-pound junior Wesley Richardson, who has lettered in each of his first two seasons. A former walk-on, he earned a scholarship in 2009, making 21 tackles in 13 games. A heady and hard-working player, he'll need to improve in coverage in order to hold off bigger and more heralded Bearcat defenders.
The returning starter at strong safety will be 6-4, 205-pound sophomore Drew Frey, who showed what he could do when he was completely healthy. After missing most of 2008 with a broken arm, he became one of the rising young players of the defensive backfield, making 64 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and two picks. A one-time corner, he possesses the size, agility, and instincts to grow into an all-star safety before he's through.
The Bearcats' top cornerback will be 6-0, 184-pound junior Dominique Battle, the school's Newcomer of the Year in 2008 and a 12-game starter in 2009. Not afraid to get physical at the line of scrimmage, he had 60 tackles, four stops behind the line, and two interceptions. More important, he's continuously improving as a pass defender and has terrific ball skills.
The growth of Battle means the other cornerback could get picked on plenty this season. For now, that responsibility could belong to 5-10, 173-pound sophomore Reuben Johnson, who's used a strong offseason to nudge ahead in a very tight race. A year ago, he appeared in 11 games, but made just five tackles and rarely showed up on defense. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in April, but isn't expected to lose any burst or miss any time in the summer.
Projected Top Reserves: Going stride-for-stride with Johnson is 5-9, 187-pound sophomore Cameron Cheatham, who actually began the spring in the top spot. He played in all 13 games a year ago, earning one start and making 13 tackles. While he has the speed and athleticism to compete at this level, his size could become a factor against longer receivers.
Providing cover to Frey at strong safety will be 6-1, 193-pound sophomore Pat Lambert, who earned a letter and made seven stops in his first season. He's a long and lean athlete, with the intensity and hitting ability to press up and become a factor in run defense.
Watch Out For .... Johnson and Cheatam to duke it out right through the summer. The two corners were close in the spring, with Johnson nudging ahead by the end of the session. Whoever gets the nod better be on his best behavior because opposing quarterbacks will want to attack him right away.
Strength: Ball skills. The Bearcats were second to only West Virginia in the Big East a year ago, picking off 16 passes. Generally speaking, they do a nice job of turning batted balls into interceptions, and possess the athletic ability to know what to do with it once it's in their hands.
Weakness: Soft coverage. Since losing so many key players to the NFL a couple of years ago, Cincinnati has been predictably vulnerable through the air. Last year's squad allowed more than a 63% completion percentage and 230 passing yards a game. Losing two starters won't make life any simpler.
Outlook: While Battle and Frey are a couple of quality players, the secondary as a whole is going to be average. It'll hold its ground against mediocre passers, but the better hurlers on the schedule, such as Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Rutgers' Tom Savage will find the soft spots.
Projected Starters: Senior Jake Rogers is back for one more season as the regular placekicker, and hopefully a higher degree of consistency. At 6-3 and 205 pounds, he gets plenty of pop on the ball, but accuracy has been an on-going issue. Two years ago, he was just 16-of-23 on field goals. Last season, he went 12-of-18, including 3-of-7 from beyond 40 yards. While he's been buffered by an offense that's been sensational in the red zone, what happens if the Bearcats stall more often this fall?
As the punter, Rogers averaged 41.6 yards, but is about to be replaced by sophomore Patrick O'Donnell. The 6-5, 210-pounder was heavily recruited for this very moment, showcasing enough leg strength and whip to have the program hoping it's landed the second-coming of Kevin Huber.
How do you replace Mardy Gilyard, one of the nation's most electrifying return men? The Bearcats will begin by trying out junior D.J Woods on punts and kickoffs. He has nice moves in the open field, but also has enormous shoes to fill.
Watch Out For .... O'Donnell's development. While young and experienced, he's also that rare punter to receive a scholarship to play for the program. He looks the part and has the ingredients to support a defense that's going to need it.
Strength: Covering kicks. While punt coverage was sketchy, the Bearcats were tight on kickoffs, yielding just 20 yards an opportunity. Of course, it helped immensely that the strong-legged Rogers averaged just under 67 yards a kickoff, fourth highest in the nation.
Weakness: The kicking game. In general, there's a lack of consistency in the kicking game, as Cincinnati breaks in a punter and holds out hope that Rogers can straighten out his kicks. He's under 70% on field goals over the last two seasons, which could cost the team a close game this year.
Outlook: Losing Gilyard really hurts. He, more than anyone else, made this unit special. Without him, the Bearcats are likely to be ordinary. O'Donnell will take his first steps toward becoming a three-year starter and could wind up wearing multiple hats if Rogers doesn't come around.
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