What's really interesting about the evolution of this spot with the Bearcats is the way in which the requirements of the position have changed over the years. Under Butch Jones the nickel back was usually Chris Williams, and the requirements weren't so much in coverage as they were in bringing pressure. Tim Banks and John Jancek both loved to bring Williams off the edge, and Williams was very good at feeling the blocking scheme and defeating it with his speed. Williams ended his career with close to 10 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and a forced fumble.
When Butch Jones and his staff departed Williams went with them as he had exhausted his eligibility, and the position changed a bit because the player who stepped into that role was Adrian Witty. For the first few games of the season the Bearcats had a strange rotation in the defensive backfield. Witty was the starter at free safety, at least at first, and Zach Edwards was ostensibly the nickle. But when Edwards came into the game it was Witty who slid down and occupied the nickel while Edwards went to free safety. After a few games Edwards was too good to keep off the field and Witty played as the nickel.
That proved to be a good fit for Witty as the way Art Kaufman deployed the position was as a coverage linebacker. A guy with coverage responsibilities first and foremost, but who stuck his head into the running game when called for. That was a perfect fit for what Kaufman wanted. Witty ended up 5th on the team in tackles last year playing that coverage linebacker role.
When Hank Hughes took the job and came back to Cincinnati he brought with him yet another conception of what the nickel back is supposed to do. His vision for the position is different because of the way that he deploys his personnel in those obvious passing downs. In most obvious passing downs Hughes goes to his speed grouping* with three down linemen, a hybrid end OLB and two linebackers. Those six are responsible for A) getting pressure on the quarterback B) being sound against the run in their gaps. The other five play coverage, whether that is man or zone, their first and only objective is to be sound, but aggressive in their coverage.
* I don't know what Hughes calls his, but every coach has a name for it
That is the kind of sound and flexible scheme that is becoming a must in college football. UConn ran a ton of that package a year ago under Hughes. The results weren't good because the Huskies simply do not have the players to make that kind of scheme work. They weren't good enough in coverage and didn't have enough pass rushing to make that work for them over the long course of the season.
The Bearcats however have better personnel and better pass rushing than those Huskies did. That is why I am cautiously optimistic, or as optimistic as you can be with essentially a brand new defensive coaching staff. The Bearcats have the pass rush and enough versatility in their scheme to make this work up front. And in LEVITICUS PAYNE they have a legit third corner who can lock down on the speedy slot receivers who are all over the place in the AAC. There are a lot of schools in the AAC where Payne would be a starter this year, but his main aim for 2014 is to make the Bearcats nickel package as effective as possible, and that is a role that should really suit him.