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Cincinnati Bearcats Football 2011 Season In Review | Defensive Line

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 15: Derek Wolfe #95 of the Cincinnati Bearcats tackles Dominique Brown #10 of the Louisville Cardinals during the game at Paul Brown Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 15: Derek Wolfe #95 of the Cincinnati Bearcats tackles Dominique Brown #10 of the Louisville Cardinals during the game at Paul Brown Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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QB | RB | WR | TE | OL | DL | LB | DB | ST

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Alternate Title: So having more than 5 guys in a rotation is a good thing

For a while there I was in a pretty good groove pounding one or two of these look back pieces a week. But then I hit a wall, in writing terms, the Basketball team took a turn for the worse and signing day happened so this all got pushed to the background for a while. But we are back at it today.

One of the things that you will continue to see written as this series continues is just how bad the depth was in 2010. The lack of depth manifested itself all over the roster but nowhere was the problem worse than on the defensive side of the ball in the front seven.

Derek Wolfe and John Hughes averaged 70 snaps per game in the 2010 season which is just a massive amount. Ideally you want your bigs to play 40 to 50 snaps per game with the back ups slotted for 20 or 30 depending on the gameplan and opponent. This year Steve Striplings boys more or less hit that target. The end result was arguably the best defensive line in school history. Simply from a numbers standpoint that is the case.

Year Yards Per Carry TFL Sacks Hurries 3rd & Short Defense
2011 2.71 112 46 29 .62
2007-10* 3.41 94 36.3 23.5 .52

*The only defensive line that comes close to this group was the 2007 foursome of Anthony Hoke, Angelo Craig, Terrill Byrd and Adam Hoppel. Their numbers 3.15 per carry, 95 TFL, 42 sacks, 36 hurries and 53.1 3rd down.

The only area where this defensive line was not demonstrably better than the groups that came before them in the recent past is the 3rd down and short defense. In all other respects though this group performed at an incredibly high level for the entire year.

Monsters In The Middle

Cincinnati has a pretty long histroy with producing great defensive linemen, guys who later went on to NFL careers. There was Antwan Peek, and Trent Cole earlier in the decade. More recently there was Angelo Craig and Connor Barwin who both got drafted after monster senior years. The one thing those guys all have in common is that they are all defensive ends. The Bearcats haven't had a lot of great defensive tackles in the last decade. Terrill Byrd and Adam Hopple are the exceptions to that trend, but for year defensive lines at UC have been built from the outside in rather than inside out.

This year flipped the script because in Derek Wolfe and John Hughes were the players that this defense was built around. The list of programs that were able to trot out two NFL bound defensive tackles to start each and every game is very short. Wolfe is the star, he racked up obsene numbers for a defensive tackle, 9.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. He was named to multiple All American teams and he was named Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East by the leagues coaches. Wolfe was great, but Hughes very quietly put together a great year as the other tackle.

Hughes had 51 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks and he did all of that despite playing as a nose tackle for the majority of his snaps absorbing double teams so that Wolfe and the rest of the D-Line could get one on one match ups. The biggest reason this defensive line was so good this year is that the Bearcats had two DT's in the middle that required double teams. That created a ton of space for everyone else to work with.

Ends Rounding Into Form

Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart (and the linebackers) were the primary beneficiaries of the attention that Wolfe and Hughes commanded from offensive lines. Stewart is particularly interesting to me because he hadn't played as a proper defensive end before this year. He was a tweener who played all over the field in high school. In college he was a 3-4 outside backer for 2009 and then a full time OLB in 2010 because there simply weren't enough linebackers for him to move to DE. This year he finally got to move to his natural position and he proceeded to dominate some games, West Virginia and Connecticut come to mind.

Giordano had a somewhat up and down year. He was unquestionably the 4th guy in the pecking order and he came up with a solid 5 sack, 9 TFL, 34 tackle season. But those numbers are more or less what he produced last year. The difference is that last year he played the vast majority of snaps at strong side end. What really curtailed his production is that he was often taken off the field in obvious passing situations when the Bearcats deployed the cheetah/joker** package.

** The coaching staff calls this the Cheetah package. I prefer "the Joker package" but that's just me

The Joker/Cheetah Package

With the increased depth this season Tim Banks and John Jancek were able to go deep in the vault and pull out some ideas that they had before but weren't able to use because of the lack of depth in 2010. What they came up with is a grouping that wreaked havoc upon opposing offensive lines. The Joker is basically a wild card that can do anything at the snap. blitz, rush the passer, drop into coverage, run stunts with the defensive linebacker. Anything at all.

What made it work is the versatility of Walter Stewart who is still athletic enough to drop into coverage credibly but is also a threat to blocking schemes with his pass rushing ability. When the package was first introduced against North Carolina State the personnel groupings were pretty basic. Walt at the Joker, Brandon Mills and Monte Taylor at the ends and either Hughes or Wolfe on the nose.

As the season progressed the personnel variants with the Joker multiplied. There was a big joker package with Hughes and Wolfe at the ends and Jordan Stepp at the nose. There was a small joker package with Mills at the nose and Taylor and Rob Trigg at the ends. A couple times Walt dropped in at an end and Brandon Mills would be the Joker. The package became a nightmare for opposing offenses and a big play machine for the defensive line. The main reason that the defensive line was so good in 2011 was the depth and talent in the front, and nothing but those two qualities on display more than this package.

The One Where I Was Right

In the pre season I gave this group a 9 out of 10 and this to say.

[...]there is legitimate depth here. Not hopeful "if this, this and this happen it should be OK" depth but actual depth. There is strong upper class leadership with Wolfe, Hughes and Stewart and a slew of young talented guys filling out the ranks

I had high expectations for this group, and they exceeded them all. 10.

Give your grade for the defensive line below. But more importantly what were your impressions with the defensive line, both good and bad, and what you are looking for from the guys coming back.