In the Tommy Tuberville era the Cincinnati Bearcats have put below average defensive products on the field in each of that last two seasons. They ranked 54th in Defensive S&P+ in 2013, and they followed that up with a ranking of 69th in the same metric in 2014. It's not unfair or even that unkind to say that we all expected better defense from a Tuberville team. With this offense it has been enough to win sort of big, but you don't hire Tommy Tuberville to be perfectly average on defense.
So where too from here? How do the Bearcats improve on that side of the ball? To get an answer to that question you have to ask yourself a different one, where did it go wrong? Well we know the answer to that, Butch Jones neglected the line of scrimmage in his recruiting. He didn't recruit enough difference makers to win consistently at the point of attack. Hell he didn't recruit enough linemen period. Tuberville has taken steps to correct those problems with his recruiting. In the 2014 and 2015 classes UC signed 20 players who will start practice today playing along the offensive or defensive line. To put that into some perspective, that is as many as Butch Jones signed in three cycles.
Butch had two problems in his recruiting with the Bearcats, one is what could be called positional balance. In three classes Butch and his staff signed 12 wide receivers and just six offensive linemen. Six. A team can play, at most, five receivers on a given play. For most of the Jones era the Bearcats played in 11 personnel* and as a result UC essentially recruited four deep at receiver. A team has to have five linemen on the field for every snap, so the Bearcats were in essence one deep along the offensive line. That is what is known in the business as fucking up your numbers.**
*One back, one tight end, three receivers
**Okay that is what I call it, most coaches would just call it really, really, dumb
The other issue is that Butch Jones didn't recruit enough players that make a consistent impact along the line of scrimmage. Admittedly that isn't much of a problem for the offensive line where the quality has been remarkably high. Afterall Jones recruited Deyshawn Bond, Justin Murray, Parker Ehinger and Ryan Leahy, also known as 4/5ths of the 2015 Bearcats starting offensive line. Butch recruited really, really talented prospects up front, he just didn't recruit enough of them. The defensive line in the Tuberville era has had an inverted version of the problem.
On a simple numbers basis the Bearcats have enough defensive linemen, but the quality is too low. Tommy Tuberville would love to have a deep defensive line rotation. In an ideal world he would play 10 defensive linemen each and every game. That world has been a dream for the last two seasons. In 2013 the Bearcats rotation was basically six deep with three tackles (Jordan Stepp, Adam Dempsey and Mitch Meador) and three ends (Silverberry Mouhon, Brad Harrah and Jerrell Jordan/Terrell Hartsfield*). Last year it was much the same with Mouhon, Hartsfield and Jordan at end, and Brandon Mitchell, Alex Pace and Harrah at the tackles.
*Jordan started the year as the third end in the rotation, by the end of it Hartsfield took that spot, a sign of things to come
That Brad Harrah, the Bearcats best defensive end against the run, was forced to play as a three technique defensive tackle shows the scale of the problem. Without enough defensive linemen ready to contribute the Bearcats had to try to work around their lack of depth and quality They simply had to play Harrah at DT. Hank Hughes first attempt at a solution was to, do something....? I really don't know what he was trying to do, but it didn't work. After the first five disastrous weeks the Bearcats changed their approach, went with more man coverage, with more blitzing to mask the lack of talent up front. They got away with it against most of the teams scheduled down the stretch, but Virginia Tech's moribund offense had no trouble dominating the Bearcats undersized front on the ground.
Which brings us back to the crux of the issue, and in my opinion the season, the play of the defensive line. Tommy Tuberville has hinted that the Bearcats will be adjusting to a new style of play on defense.
Defensively, we've changed a little bit of things that we do with our front. We've probably worked more on blitz this spring than we did last year, because we're going to be a pretty good man coverage team.
That is an example of the adaptability of Tubs. He remains very much a part of the Jimmy Johnson coaching tree, meaning a deep abiding faith in the old Miami 4-3. Whatever UC does this year on defense it is not likely to resemble that scheme in principal or in practice. It might have taken a couple of seasons, but Tubs has figured out what he has to do defensively in this league, and with the talent he can get. An expressed willingness to blitz signals multiple messages.
One is that the Bearcats staff has a great deal of faith in their secondary and it's ability to cover this leagues receivers in one on one situations. They should; Adrian Witty is back after missing last year, Zach Edwards is arguably the best safety in the conference, Andre Jones stabilized the other safety spot after supplanting Mike Tyson. Grant Coleman played pretty well down the stretch, but he will have to fight to keep a playing spot over all of the younger and more talented corners waiting in the wings. Guys like J.J. Pinckney, Alex Thomas, Linden Stephens and Aaron Brown will be front line players eventually, but its impossible to know when their time will be.
Another message that a willingness to blitz sends is an admission that the Bearcats are not ready to beat offenses rushing the passer with four down linemen. Robert Prunty really, really likes his young ends particularly Landon Brazile, Kevin Mouhon*, and Kimoni Fitz, all of whom are red shirt freshmen. But will any of them be able to give the Bearcats good reps this year? That is very much an open question, they will get there in a year or two, but in the meantime keep dialing up those blitzes. Blitzing also has an ancillary benefit, it is a way to take advantage of this linebacker corps one advantage over last years decorated group, speed. This is a much, much faster group from top to bottom. Leveraging that speed into pressure isn't exactly a new idea for the Bearcats, it's something they have done before to great effect (for example, see the 2011 season).
*Mouhon the Younger is rehabbing an injury and will be out for the first few weeks of fall camp
In retrospect the interesting and unique about that 2011 defense isn't that they got really creative with their blitz's and personnel groupings. Afterall nothing that the Bearcats did that year was new to football. For that matter it wasn't even new to the Bearcats, it was simply a variation on a theme. No, what was interesting is that Cincinnati had Derek Wolfe and John Hughes as their starting defensive tackles. Tim Banks and John Jancek had the ability to get as creative and exotic as they wanted to in their alignments and blitzes knowing that they had a rock solid foundation up the middle.
Think of it in these terms. You are going to a restaurant with your partner. The place seems to have it all; a great waterfront location, modern decor and finishes, an extraordinarily friendly and helpful staff. Everything you experienced from the moment you entered the door has heightened your expectations for the food. But the first bite is bad and it doesn't get better. As it turns out the restaurant doesn't have high quality ingredients. It wasn't their intention, but the effect is that of a place trying desperately to mask something.
The Cincinnati Bearcats defense under Tuberville has been that restaurant through two seasons. They have done a lot to mask the flaws in the roster they inherited, and they have done the job reasonably well all things considered. But there was always something missing, something that's just a little bit off. Just go back and think about the Bearcats losses over the last two years. With the lone exception of the South Florida game in 2013* all of the Bearcats other losses have come against teams that have dominated the line of scrimmage with their running games. In those seven losses the Bearcats have allowed 1,785 yards on 339 carries and 14 touchdowns, that's 255 yards per game on 5.3 yards per attempt. In the other 19 games of the Tuberville era UC allowed 1,961 yards on 585 attempts and 16 touchdowns (103 yards per game, 3.4 per carry). I don't really need to tell any of you that allowing 250 yards on the ground per game is bad do I?
*The latest in a long line of exceptionally weird games between the Bulls and the Bearcats
Those numbers are why the Bearcats biggest question as they head into camp is about the defensive tackles. They are starting over from last year as only Alex Pace returns with any meaningful experience. But there is more talent at this position than there has been at any point since Wolfe and Hughes moved on. In a couple different press conferences Tuberville made allusions to having a group sitting on the bench that was more talented from a physical perspective than the guys that played last year, but they just were not ready for the speed or physicality of the game.
The two men that Tubs was talking about without referring to them by name are red shirt Junior defensive tackles Sione Tongamoa and Hakeem Allonce. Tubs made the highly unusual decision to sit both of his incoming JUCO defensive tackles because they weren't ready to deal with the increased speed and physicality of the game at this level. A year ago Tongamoa simply was not ready to hold up physically against division I competition. But he really impressed with his work ethic this off season and he has seen some of the biggest weight room gains of any Bearcat. For Allonce the problem was inverted, he could physically hold up at the point of attack a year ago. What he couldn't do was run. Over the last year Allonce has lost nearly 30 pounds. Allonce is still new to football, and he has to work on a his fundamentals, playing with good pad level in particular, but he will be more capable of giving spot reps this year than he was last.
If it was just the red shirts that the Bearcats were counting on to make a leap I would be concerned, that is the spot the Bearcats have been in for seemingly every season since 2011. If you were to go back and look at the DT previews on this site over the last few years it wouldn't be hard to find a line that goes "this group just needs player X to make a leap for this group to excel." This difference this year is that the Bearcats aren't in the position where one player has to make a huge progression.
They have Pace who made his big leap last year, even while battling injuries. One could argue that he was the Bearcats second best defensive lineman after Terrell Hartsfield. While Cortez Broughton isn't a proven commodity in the way that Pace is, he is going to shock people with his play this year. Inside the program Broughton is a guy that the defensive staff is in love with. In fact their biggest question about the red shirt freshman wasn't whether or not he could help this year.* instead the question was how they could best leverage his athleticism into production. To that end they had Broughton practice at defensive end for the bowl where he more than held his own. In the spring he moved back to tackle and quickly entrenched himself as a starter. Broughton hasn't proven it yet to the world at large, but within the football offices he is a known quantity.
*And that is the standard question about all red shirt freshmen
There is also Lyndon Johnson, another incoming JUCO who Robert Prunty and Kenny Ingram fought over. In the end Tubs intervened and Johnson will start out as a defensive tackle. What really stands out about Johnson is that he can run. I mean he can really, really run. The Bearcats have not exactly been awash in big athletes who can run sideline to sideline over the last few years, but with Johnson and Broughton that will start to change this year.
At this point I know what you are thinking. How is this different from any other year where the Bearcats stake the fortunes of the defense on whether or not they can get one guy at defensive tackle to take the leap? The difference is that Kenny Ingram has options. I expect the rotation to be Pace, Brouhgton, Johnson, and probably Tongamoa. But I wouldn't be shocked in the least if Chris Burton is the guy who comes out of nowhere to claim 20 snaps a game. It could be Chris Ferguson who makes that leap after spending a year learning on the job. Hell Allonce could surprise everyone and put it all together this year as opposed to next.
For the first time in a long time the Bearcats have options at defensive tackle, in year's past the Bearcats had projects who's completion date was a great unknown. They still have projects on the depth chart, they just have fewer of them than they have had in years past. This year the Bearcats have guys that can play, what's unknown is how much they can play. That makes a huge difference because it gives UC something they haven't had at this position since 2011; a margin for error.