When Mark Dantonio decided to take the Cincinnati Bearcats football program in the winter of 2003 he did so knowing exactly what he was getting for a roster. He inherited a veteran group with a lot of experience on both sides of the ball, The roster that was littered with proven contributors and future pros. He had Gino Guidugli coming back for his final season at quarterback, Richard Hall coming off a promising Junior season. A young tight end by the name of Brent Celek seemed like a perfect fit for the offense he wanted to run with his offensive coordinator Don Treadwell. The defense was stocked with talent, and guys that really fit what his preferred quarters coverage scheme in particular Daven Holley and Doug Monaghan stood out as near platonic ideals for their corners and safeties. What really stood out about that team was the front seven Trent Cole, Jamal Enzor, Tyjuan Haggler etc. That group was fast, physical and disruptive. There was a lot to like with that roster.
Dantonio took the job knowing that 2004 was going to be a good year. They improved from 5-7 to 7-5, but it was an up and down year. They picked up some big wins, like housing a ranked Southern Miss squad in Hattiesburg. They also will go down in history as the team that allowed Army to break the longest losing streak in the Black Knights history. There was also the small matter of losing the most lopsided contest in the history of the Keg of Nails. Still the year ended with a bowl win and there was much to be happy about. Except their was a problem looming on the horizon, the Bearcats were losing almost all of their play makers on both sides of the ball.
What Dantonio and his staff decided to do was to go young. They made an explicit bet on their ability to recruit quality contributors, especially on the defense. It was a big risk, but a calculated risk that throwing the pups to the wolves in 2005, the first year in the Big East by the way, would pay dividends in the seasons to come, even if it meant that they would struggle mightily in 2005. Struggle they did.
That 2005 season was rough, really really rough by any and all measurements. Sports Reference pegs the Bearcats SRS* at -9.20. That number is the 4th worst for a UC team since 1990. Football Outsiders F/+ pegged the Bearcats 97th in 2005, the first year of that poll, which is by far the worst ranking by that system. It was a year zero season if ever there was one.
*Simple Rating System a metric that takes strength of schedule and average point differential. The number is based on points above or below average where average is zero.
The core of that 2005 team would stick around for a very long time, some of them on offense, like Dominick Goodman, but most of them on defense, Haruki Nakamura, Mike Mickens and Terrill Byrd. Another would make a name at tight end before exploding as a defensive end, talking of Connor Barwin of course. Those guys would form the core of the that magical 2007 to 2009 run under Brian Kelly. What peaks my interest in that 2005 group at the moment is what we are all seeing from the Bearcats defense in 2015. All you have to do is look at the depth chart.
The Bearcats list 24 players on tonight's two deep against BYU. Of those 24 an eye popping 13 are in their first year playing college football. 10 of those 13 are true or red shirt freshmen, the remainder are junior college players. The Bearcats are not a good defensive team this year, because its effectively impossible to play consistent defense down to down while playing this many new players. This defense is not good, but they are obviously getting better. The leap they made between the Memphis and Miami games was really eye opening.
That is not to say that the Bearcats are going to start winning games with the defense any time soon, but that Miami game really provided a glimmer of how good the Bearcats defense could be in 2016 and beyond; and it all starts up front. Nowhere is the Bearcats youth movement more readily apparent than it is on the defensive line. Here is a fun little game to play. Guess how many members of the Bearcats defensive line rotation this year had played meaningful football before the start of this season? Silverberry Mouhon, Alex Pace and that is the entire list*.
* You could argue Mark Wilson, but last years defensive end rotation was Mouhon, Jerrell Jordan and Terrell Hartsfield. Wilson played, but mostly as a spot sub and special teams guy.
A defense can plug in a first year player or two and let him figure things out as the season goes on without too many negative side effects to the group as a whole. Hell the Bearcats have done it before. Nick Temple became a starter as a true freshman during the 2011 season after a couple of games and the defense manged to post a respectable 54th in defensive S&P for the year. In 2013 UC plugged true freshman Zach Edwards into an otherwise experienced defense in 2013 and again managed to finish 54th in defensive S&P. Going young at one or two positions won't necessarily torpedo a defense. Embracing youth on the scale that the Bearcats have in 2015 certainly has had its down falls.
As I write this the Bearcats are ranked 108th in Defensive S&P+. It goes without saying that if the Bearcats end the year with that rank it would be the worst UC defense of the last decade. Yes it would be even worse than last year's defense which everyone forgets was markedly improved by years end and wound up ranked 52nd. The only defense from the last decade that even comes close to rating out as badly as this group does through five games is can you guess.....? The 2005 defense.
Here is what really excites me about that comparison, the leap that Mickens, Byrd and Co. made from year one to year two. Those guys rocketed up to 22nd in Defensive S&P+ in 2006, they were 18th in 2007 and 26th in 2008 before the bottom dropped out in 2009.
There are no guarantees that the Bearcats will make a similar leap on defense in 2016, but you can already see improvement if you squint hard enough. UC's conventional defensive numbers are near universally abhorrent; 91st in scoring defense, 87th in yards per carry allowed, 85th in yards per attempt allowed, 85th in passer rating defense, 95th in yards per play allowed, and 107th in red zone defense. The only bright spots just happen to be two of the most important statistics associated with winning football games. UC is a downright respectable 50th in red zone touchdown defense defense, and an improbable 8th in third down conversion defense. There is the chance for these young Bearcats to develop into a devastating bend but don't break defense down the road. For now the Bearcats do plenty of breaking, just not enough bending.
To that end the Miami game could very well be noted as the game when these young players first showed signs of turning the corner. The most shocking thing about that game to me was how dominant the Bearcats defensive tackles were against the Hurricanes. Time and again Miami tested Cortez Broughton, Alex Pace and co with inside zone runs to no obvious effect. UC twitter gawked at Jesse Palmer's declaration that the strength of the Bearcats defense is at defensive tackle during the Memphis broadcast, but he was absolutely right. Its not just the starters, Sione Tongamoa has been a pleasant surprise, Lyndon Johnson is an impact sub, Norman Oglesby played really well against Miami. Collectively the DT's had their best game of the season, and the best by that position in a couple of seasons.
Even better is that the Bearcats incredibly young defensive ends started to make an impact with their pass rush. Silverberry Mouhon played his best game of the season. He was held without a sack in the game, but for the first time all season he made his presence known as a pass rusher. Kimoni Fitz, Mark Wilson and Marquese Copeland showed much improved pressure on the quarterbacks. I would argue that this was the best the ends of played as a collective this year, even though the stat sheet doesn't register their impact. The Bearcats will need more of that this week against a banged up Tanner Magnum and the BYU Cougars.
UC is not a finished product yet, and likely won't be until next season, but I really like this young defense. They are aggressive, physical and really fast. Tommy Tuberville said in the Miami post game presser that the staff made the decision after the Miami (OH) game to simply put their best athletes on the field defensively. They don't always know what they are doing, but they can cover for their mistakes with speed. That notion seemed suicidal against Memphis, but it was proven to be correct against the Hurricanes. In the Miami game they looked like a completely different defense. I scarcely recognized the group compared to what I saw in the first two games of the season. Friday night is a big test, but then so was Miami, and they passed that test with flying colors. What will they do tonight?