A deep and talented defensive line led by Walter Stewart figures to be the strength of the Bearcats defense in 2012 (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
On paper the strongest side of the ball for the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2012 is the Defense. 7 starters from the Liberty Bowl return this year. 8 if you want to count Dominique Battle as a starter, he only lost out on his job due to injury. If you want to count the nickle back as a position apart rather than as the third corner the number becomes 9 with Chris Williams coming back.
That doesn't mean that the group is without questions. Four Senior starters with a combined 122 starts are walking out the door. And with them goes 4/5's of the 2011 defensive spine. Those are (were) the biggest question marks for the defense heading into spring. After 15 spring practices this is a reading of the situation.
Starters: Walter Stewart and Dan Giordano - These two both come back for a second season as a starting pairing. Between them they had 11 sacks, 20 TFL, 78 tackles, 12 QB hurries, 9 pass breakups and 5 forced fumbles. Both improved over their sophomore years, though for different reasons. Stewart finally got to play his natural position, Giordano used his experience from 2010 to improve. This is arguably the best DE tandem in the Big East in 2012. Giordano just needed more reps to make the leap.
Back Ups: Brandon Mills and Silverberry Mohoun - Mills is a guy who can thrive in a situational role but can be easily exploited as an every down starter. To wit, in 2010 Mills had 12.5 TFL and 6 Sacks. Last year playing maybe 40 per cent the number of snaps he had 7 TFL and 5.5 sacks. His numbers declined, but not in proportion to his decrease in reps. He is back for a third year of causing offensive line coaches to lose sleep.
Mohoun is a guy who really took fully advantage of his red shirt year. He hit the weight room, he was the scout team player of the year for defense and now he is primed to be a key figure in a Senior dominated rotation. Coach Stripling loves what he brings to the table with his get off and quickness. It might be early to call him UC's next great pass rushing terror. But he is probably UC's next great pass rushing terror.
Starters: Jordan Stepp and Camaron Beard - Literally and figuratively the two biggest holes to fill for the defense in 2012. It is nearly impossible to match the production that John Hughes and Derek Wolfe displayed last year. 34 TFL and 14 sacks is a massive debt to pay. But Beard and Stepp don't have to match that production. What they have to do is allow the John Jancek to deploy the same old blitz happy scheme without leaving massive and exploitable gaps in the interior of the defensive line. They shouldn't have a problem doing just that. Stepp in particular really stepped it up this spring.
Back Up: Brandon Mitchell - With Roney Lozano's injury keeping him sidelined until mid October at the earliest it will be in the hands of Brandon Mitchell to be the one and only back up. Mitchell would probably be in the rotation even with a healthy Lozano because Mitchell is the biggest guy on the team at 6'2" 320 and that gives some versatility to a DT group that is, for the most part, predicated on speed and quickness over brute strength.
Starters: Maalik Bomar, Solomon Tentman and Nick Temple - That is WILL, MIKE, SAM from left to right. The obvious news here is Tentman is stepping in for J.K. Schaffer at the mike. Tentman really had an excellent spring and locked down the mike job relatively early in the process. He isn't yet 100 per cent, but barring any set backs he should be by September. When UC goes to the Nickle, which will be often, Nick Temple will slide inside to J.K.'s old nickle spot and Tentman will depart.
Back Ups: Dwight Jackson, Greg Blair and someone - Blair is Tentman's presumptive back up. He is another guy who had a good spring. Jackson played in 10 games last year and got plenty of first team reps as Bomar's understudy when Bomar struggled with stingers down the stretch. I have no earthly idea who winds up as the Temple of Doom's back up. I could be any one of five guys. For now I will refrain from listing the lot.
Starters: Camerron Cheatham and Deven Drane - Field and Boundary respectively. Drane is the most gifted cover guy here since Mike Mickens. He has that kind of ability. Ask Mohamed Sanu, Drane put a blanket on him and kept him under 40 yards on 6 catches, with no TD's. He took firm control of the starting job when Dominique Battle tore his ACL on this play against USF. Cheatham had an injury plagued spring*, but he is still the presumptive starter as I write.
* So did Drane for what its worth
update: Not entirely sure how it happened but I seemed to have made up an injury for Cheatham in the process of writing about Drane's injury issues this spring. Once more to establish the basic facts, Drane had injury issues, Cheatham did not. Hat tip to Cheawhooer for pointing out the breadth of my idiocy
Back Ups: Trenier Orr and Dominique Battle - If/when Battle gets back from his injury he will be in the two deep somewhere, probably as Drane's back up. Orr took full advantage of his chance and played well running with the one's as the big three dealt with injuries. Orr impressed everyone and can't really be counted out with a chance to nab Cheatham's spot.
Starter: Chris Williams - Williams finally found a role on defense and he thrived in it. He is fine covering slot receivers, but where he really excelled was blitzing from the slot and playing the run. Williams picked up 46 tackles, 4.5 TFL and 2 sacks last year. The job is his for another year.
Back Up: Reuben Johnson - Johnson was a corner in 2010 but was moved to nickle for last year. He missed action for two different stretches, one at the start of the year and one in the middle. It's unlikely that Johnson will unseat Williams.
Starters: Drew Frey and Arryn Chenault - Frey is back for his 10,000th year in red and black and is coming off a phenomenal season a year ago. He had a rough start, particularly against Tennessee, but he rebounded in a big way and is unassailable at Free Safety. Chenault is the odds on favorite to replace Richardson. His name isn't there in permanent ink yet, but it's penciled in and underlined. Chenault plays the game like Richardson, but is more gifted athletically.
Back Ups: Adrian Witty and Malcolm Murray - Purely speculative here. Both were in competition with Chenault for the starting job at strong. Obviously both lost out. Still I would feel comfortable with either guy back there in a pinch.