It is almost three months untill the start of Spring Practice, eight months before the start of fall camp and nine months before the actual start of the 2012 season but I feel very confident in saying that the defense will be stronger than the offense.
I am sure you are asking why. The simple reason is that though the depth improved greatly from 2010 this season it will be, if anything, even better in 2012. The Bearcats only started 4 Seniors on the defense in 2011 and only had two other seniors who regularly cracked the rotations at any level. Basically this defense was a couple of Seniors and a whole lot of youth. In terms of pure yardage compared with the rest of the country the defense was better than the offense, and that is something that I don't think anyone really saw coming.
This year the Bearcats settled into a nice 8 man rotation along the defensive line. Derek Wolfe, John Hughes and Jordan Stepp formed the rotation at Defensive Tackle. Those three split the relevant snaps 40/40/20. Hughes and Wolfe are obviously spending next year in the NFL. Stepp will be the anchor inside next year and is coming off a very productive season for a reserve defensive tackle (33 tackles, 2 TFL, .5 sacks). There are yet more talented defensive tackles littering the roster. Roney Lozano, Camaron Beard and Brad Harrah are three guys who Steve Stripling loves. Brandon Mitchell red shirted in 2011 but has a ton of potential
The rotation at DE included Walter Stewart and Dan Giordano started every game and will be returning for their Senior seasons. Brandon Mills was a reserve defensive end who is a situational pass rusher who finished third on the team in sacks with 5.5. The only members of the rotation who need to be replaced Monte Taylor, Rob Trigg who played mainly in the cheetah package on obvious passing downs. Fighting to replace them will be Silverberry Mouhon, Chad West and Chad Hannah. Mouhon was a guy that drew rave reviews in the summer and seems destined for a bright future. The DL has a chance to be pretty good once again despite having to replace two draftable defensive tackle starters.
The Leadership of J.K. Schaffer will obviously be hard to replicate and/or replace. But there are some pretty big pieces coming back. Maalik Bomar will be coming back for his third season of starting. A combination of stellar defensive line play and an ongoing battle with a stinger limited Bomar's production (60 tackles in 2011, 70 in 2010) but he has a wealth of experience (23 career starts). The next man up in, every conceivable sense, is Nick Temple.
Temple cracked the rotation basically from the opening game. He started his first game against N.C. State and started 8 as a true freshman. The first Bearcat linebacker to start any games as a true Freshman since Cory Smith started all 13 in 2005. Temple turned in his best game in the Liberty Bowl notching 8 tackles, .5 tackles for loss and forcing a fumble and coming up with the pick that set up Isaiah Pead's dagger in the 4th quarter.
Temple and Bomar are known quantities. Beyond them is a lot of young talent. Dwight Jackson played a ton last year. He was the guy who filled in for Bomar when he was dealing with his injuries. Solomon Tentman was going to be a rotation guy in 2010 as a true freshman before tearing his ACL. He never achieved full health and only played in 5 games. And there is a cadre of young talented backers set to join the pack. In short two starters and returning and the depth will be even better.
Everyone is back. 7 guys were regular contributors to the secondary in 2011, 6 of them are going to be back in 2012. Deven Drane has the most talent of any Bearcat corner back since the Mike Mickens/Denaglo Smith/ Brandon Underwood days. Drew Frey who somehow made 1st team all Big East is also going to be back. The only guy who won't be back in 2012 is Wesley Richardson who was a great leader and a smart guy who made up for his lack of physical talent by thinking ahead and playing hard. The basic message? Everyone will be back in 2012.
Totting It Up
The Bearcats are going to have to replace some big pieces next year. Derek Wolfe, John Hughes and J.K. Shaffer leave the biggest holes. But there is enough talent coming back to offset those losses in the coming year. If you look at the depth chart from the Liberty Bowl there are 26 players listed on the Bearcats defense. 21 of them will be back in 2012. 14 of the top 20 tacklers. 10 of the 16 players with 2 or more TFL's, and 20.5 of last 2011's 46 sacks will be back as well. The Bearcats are losing some talented guys, but they are bringing a ton of talent back in 2012.