If you spent much time listening to, or reading the comments of Tommy Tuberville in the wake of his first season in Cincinnati the main theme wasn't hard to find. This quote from Tubs on signing day hits the nail on the head.
"It's a solid class that will help us," Tuberville said. "There are some very skilled guys with athletic ability who we believe will grow and develop into pretty good football players. We were able to identify our needs and go after them. We recruit as much speed and quickness as possible. It always starts with speed, whether a lineman or skill player. That is my philosophy."
Uncharacteristically Tubs didn't just come out and say that the Bearcats weren't fast enough, but it would be hard to mistake his meaning for anything else. Team speed wasn't a huge problem for the offense. That was a group that battled, injuries, inconsistency and a somewhat muddled philosophy to post records for total yards (6,137), and yards per play (7.37). But there was a noticeable deficit of team speed on defense.
The 2013 defense was, by most statistical measures one of the best in recent UC history. But that was a group that thrived by keeping everyone in front of them in the zone and generally not allowing big plays. The Bearcats were 22nd at allowing plays of 10 or more yards, and 15th at allowing plays of 20 or more yards.The second of those marks is by far the best the Bearcats have posted since the stats began being kept.* UC was slightly better at preventing 10 yard plays in 2010, of all years.
*Starting with the 2010 season
What made the defense last year so good was that the Bearcats were a sound football team at every level. They knew they roles, and played them to a tee. That meant that they were exceedingly difficult to create breakdowns on. Teddy Bridgewater aside the Bearcats of 2013 were always in the right position, and they almost always finished plays. That was a fundamentally sound group, but it wasn't unassailable. Smart teams found favorable matchups, in the passing game in particular.
There weren't many teams that were able to exploit the fact that the Bearcats played two middle linebackers in their base personnel. But the ones that did really exploited it. Think of SMU putting Jeff Luc and Greg Blair in one on one situations with their slot receivers time after time, and the Ponies won those matchups time after time. That game was indicative of the linebackers in 2013. Most of the time their lack of outright speed didn't matter because as a collective they played with a lot of intelligence so they were usually in the right spot waiting for the play. But on the rare occasions where they were caught out of position the lack of recovery speed really mattered.
Enter Eric Wilson, the forgotten man of the Bearcats projected starting trio. Wilson is a safety sized linebacker who can really run. That means the Cats now can throw two guys with very similar sizes and dimensions out there in Wilson and Nick Temple. In theory that will allow them to blanket most slot receivers and running backs in the intermediate area. Between Temple, Wilson and Luc* the Bearcats linebackers will be able to cover a ton of ground this year.
* Who wasn't a particularly quick or agile by outside linebacker standards, but is well above average in both regards for a MIKE
That also give the Bearcats the option to say in their base defensive looks more often. That is going to be a real asset for the Bearcats in their games against hurry up no huddle offenses in 2014. Being able to stay in base personnel might seem like a trivial matter, but it is a huge bonus when playing teams like Ohio State that are spreading you out to run the football. It allows the defense to keep its general shape regardless of what the offense is trying to do. In this day and age of football having a hybrid player like Wilson is a huge advantage for a defense.