There is a passage from a long ago game week involving a program that was, once upon a time, the Bearcats rival for conference supremacy as they prepared to face down one of the SEC's biggest beasts that really gets to the nub of the issue.
The star or, more apt, biggest star of the LSU defense is "No. 7." [...] To the WVU coaches, (he) is known only by his jersey number, just like the rest of the Tigers. No. 7, listed in the media guide as a cornerback, but in the WVU scouting report as a SAM linebacker, literally playing all over the field and playing faster than anyone out there. From the Cotton Bowl game, there are clips of Mathieu, then wearing No. 14, blowing past a helpless 300-pound Texas A&M offensive tackle to clobber the quarterback and force a fumble. No doubt, No. 7 is a big, big problem.
For the uninitiated No. 7 is Tyrann Mathieu. When the honey badger burst onto the scene he really was seen as a novelty, a one off. A guy with corner back size and a defensive end's instincts for disruption. There really hadn't been a player before that had stamped that particular conception of what a defensive back could be onto the national college football consciousnesses. Now scouts, recruitnicks and coaches all had a word for that kind of player; a Tyrann Mathieu type.
What has become increasingly obvious in the years since the honey badger graced our presence is that there is a profound need for the Tyrann Mathieu type in this era of football. Not that every team needs a Tasmanian devil in the squad, though every defensive coordinator in the country would take one if you had them on offer. No, what defensive coordinators need now more than ever is adaptable, flexible players who can do multiple things at a very high level. What made Mathieu so good wasn't jsut the stuff that made the highlight reels, it wasn't the ample swagger. No it was his ability to inhabit the roles of cover corner and a play making pass rusher more or less simultaneously. He more than anyone else was the one to imprint the idea of a hybrid defender on the nation.
Flash forward four years and hybrid defenders like Mathieu that are a mix of defensive back and linebacker aren't a novelty anymore, they are more or less a requirement, especially at a school like Cincinnati. Unless a coach is blessed enough to work at Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama or any of the other two dozen or so schools that can go out and get the cream of the recruiting crop year after year without really trying it is neigh impossible to play modern offenses in base alignments and not wind up as a pile of flaming rubble. Bearcat fans should know.
The Bearcats defense was a mess early in the year in 2014, we all know that. What most people don't know, or didn't notice at the time was that the Bearcats played much more fundamentally sound defense in the second half of the year. The lightening of the schedule with SMU, South Florida and Tulane coming in back to back weeks after the Miami (FL) game played its part. Tommy Tuberville and his staff really changed their approach to the game, and that paid huge dividends. They ditched the passive zone schemes favored by Hank Hughes and played a ton more man, they blitzed more and became much more aggressive.
Part of that was personnel driven, the Bearcats didn't have a great defensive front a year ago. They didn't have enough bodies. They couldn't get enough pressure on the quarterback with a four man rush. To compensate they had to blitz more. Those blitzes forced the Bearcats into much more man coverage outside and underneath. As it turned out the Bearcats were actually quite good at man coverage. to the point that Tubs is handing the keys to his defense over to Steve Clinkscale, a defensive backs coach for his entire career on the premise of playing a whole lot more man.
No Bearcat benefited more from the philosophical realignment than Leviticus Payne. Payne is not the Honey Badger, but his is fast, agile and tough enough to routinely stick his neck into the pile to stop the run. His skill set does two things for the Bearcats defense. It keeps the Bearcats defense flexible and adaptable to almost any offense the Bearcats could face. No matter what the opposition was running the Bearcats could, for the most part, keep it in base and match up reasonably well with the opposing offense. That is the utility of having a guy who can cover running backs, slot receivers and tight ends at a high level while at the same time being physical against the run. At this point in the evolution of college football, having a guy with that ability is a must, especially when playing teams that like to spread the field and push the tempo as many teams in this league prefer to do.
The extension of that flexibility is that it allowed UC to blitz with a little bit more freedom and aggression to supplement a pass rush that was lack luster at times in 2014. It seems counter intuitive that keeping things simple would allow the defense to get more aggressive, but that's exactly what happened.
The Bearcats hardly blitzed at all early in the season. They were more than content to sit in passive zones and make the opposing offense move the ball down the field in a piecemeal fashion. It didn't work, Ohio State, Memphis and Miami ran the ball at will against the Bearcats light run boxes. More to the point the Bearcats defensive backs proved themselves to be ill suited to play the myriad of coverage and the seemingly innumerable variations. UC didn't just play cover two, three or four, they played all the variations thereof. It was a lot to handle mentally, and breakdowns were frequent.
The Bearcats defensive staff fell victim to one of the most common logical fallacies in coaching, namely that the beset way to hide any inherent weaknesses by simply running more stuff. That is an appealing thought to the hubris of a coach. But it doesn't work in college with its strict limits on practice time and coach and player interactions. Rather than giving the Bearcats over matched squad answers for every question, that approach only served to confuse them and slow them down. It was only after the Bearcats defensive staff settled on a handful of concepts that the defense improved, and they only improved once they started playing faster.
It would be an oversimplification to say that the Bearcats switch to a more aggressive man coverage oriented schemes were made for Leviticus Payne. But its impossible to deny that Payne came into his own after the switch. It is a small irony that it was Payne's ability to do everything well that allowed the Bearcats to pick a couple of concepts and run the wheels off of them. I mean look at this stat line. He was 4th on the team in tackles (both solo and total), 4th in TFL, 6th in sacks, and 1st in passes broken up.
If you read any of the pre season prognostications about the Bearcats this summer they all say more or less the same thing. If the defense can just be average UC has an excellent shot for an access bowl spot. The tone generally implies that average is a bridge too far for this group. On that I disagree. For the last 8 or so games of the season the Bearcats played average to slightly above average defense, and as a result UC played and looked like a fringe top 25 team, and I see no reason why the Bearcats can't do so again this season. Yes they lost a lot of contributors from last years team, but from everything I have heard indicates that the Bearcats are bigger, faster, more talented and are playing with a purpose on defense. That more than anything happening on the offensive side of the ball has me excited about this season.