In a way, that is what this entire season is going to be about, the line of scrimmage. It has consistently been the bane of the Bearcats' existence. Think back to the last time we saw the Bearcats in a game setting.
It is impossible to scheme your way around not having true, honest-to-goodness difference-makers at the defensive tackle position. At a certain point teams are going to do exactly what Virginia Tech did. They will get big, bring in two tight ends and run power and inside zone until you stop it. The Bearcats simply couldn't stop it. That was true last year, it was true this year in the season opener, and it was true today. UC hid that fact pretty well for most of the year, but it wasn't at any point something that wasn't an issue. But that state of affairs is not a permanent, it can and will change.
It is changing. The question of the moment, perhaps even the question of the season for the Bearcats, is whether or not the defensive line will come along far enough to allow the Bearcats offense some kind of margin for error. That is something that we don't know today, and won't know for sure at the end of the Spring Game tomorrow.
UC has really upgraded the talent level in the secondary. The linebackers are just as talented as they were last year, but there are more of them. None of that will matter much if the spine of the Bearcats defense doesn't get better. UC had good linebackers last year too with Nick Temple and Jeff Luc, but it didn't really matter when the line of scrimmage got pushed into their laps on each and every running play. That's where the growth has to come for on this defense.
Tommy Tuberville and Steven Clinkscale finally have some options at defensive tackle this season. That was not really the case last year when they had to move Brad Harrah inside to the three technique tackle spot just to put a serviceable line on the field. Unfortunately, one of those options will probably not be Brandon Mitchell who is likely to miss the entire 2015 season to injury.
Still, new Defensive Tackles coach Kenny Ingram has to like the group he has inherited. Alex Pace was the Bearcats' best DT at the end of the season, and Chris Burton became a contributor late in the season. Cortez Broughton is a monster-in-waiting. Sione Tongamoa and Hakeem Allonce are more prepared for the rigors of major college football. Then you have wild cards like Chris Furgeson, a kid with immense potential but limited experience. Incoming JUCO Lyndon Johnson* is a guy that the staff raves about.
*Will not be on campus until June
In the past, the question for the Bearcats has been about having enough guys capable of playing the interior line positions. That was certainly the case last year and in 2012 as well. I don't think that will really be the case in 2015. Tuberville mentioned in numerous press conferences that they had guys who were as talented as the front line contributors. Early on, the coaching staff made the decision to red shirt the majority of those guys, even the JUCO's Tongamoa and Allonce, which is highly unusual.
Red shirting is a bet, a bet that you can survive a year where you are thin on depth but long on experience hoping that you can buy an extra year for the guys coming up through the ranks. UC survived last year, but only just. They weren't anything other than competent at defensive tackle. The goal this year is, and should be, higher than competent. Ingram has the pieces to work with; it's just a matter of putting them in the right spots.
What's less certain is the development at defensive end. Jerrell Jordan and Terrell Hartsfield have departed, leaving Silverberry Mouhon as the only returning player with anything resembling experience. Mark Wilson is the heir- apparent to Silverberry at weakside defensive end, but he is the only end who has, you know, played in a college football game.
Robert Prunty and Steve Clinkscale have made an interesting choice over the last week or so. What they have done is hold Mouhon the Elder out of 11 on 11's, not because he is hurt, but because the young guys need the reps more than he does. Same goes for Mark Wilson, though I think he might actually have picked up a knock at some point and I would expect to seem him out there Saturday. In their stead young guys like Kevin Mouhon, Kimoni Fritz and Landon Brazile have been getting a lot of looks against the Bearcats' first team offensive line.
Tomorrow morning, the offense is probably going to carry the day, as well it should. This was a top 30 offense nationally a year ago and will probably be one of the 10 or 15 best in the country in 2015. They should control things against the Bearcats' defense. If they do, that should not be seen as a reason to panic. What you are looking for is how the young guys respond to this environment. That doesn't just go for the defensive line. A lot of familiar faces like Zach Edwards, Mekale McKay, and Alex Pace won't be out there. You will see new faces in new positions, how they respond is going to be crucial for this team. This will be the first time that we see their collective response, and that's why Spring Games are always interesting.