There is always a lighthouse. That is what the video game classic Bioshock tells us. It is an important thought to hang onto in times of trouble, like when a mix between a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea scuba diver and the Hulk with a huge drill for an arm is hurtling at you or when your favorite college football team is winless in league play and heading in the wrong direction.
That second situation is where the Cincinnati Bearcats find themselves. Its a dark and dreary place. Much like Andrew Ryan’s underwater Libertarian utopia of Rapture, the UC football program has gone from the elevated heights of glory to the depths of mediocrity or worse.
But instead of harping on the litany of negatives, such as why Tommy Tuberville should be sent on the next bus out of town, let’s try to cling to the small bits of promise that exist. Sure, chances of winning the American Athletic Conference are out the window and may be followed by bowl contention soon, but there are just a few things to be happy about.
A second-team All-AAC linebacker in 2015, Wilson is playing as well as any defender in the conference. A tackling machine, Wilson has brought down 65 ball carriers this season, which leads the league and is the fourth-best total in the entire country. He has had double-digit tackles in four games and had nine and seven in the two contests he missed on. Of course, having plentiful opportunities for tackles isn’t great, since the three players above Wilson play for the likes of Kent State (Nate Holley), New Mexico State (Rodney Butler) and FIU (Treyvon Williams). Still, having a UC player be the best in the conference at something, in this case tackling, is a nice respite from the storm.
Wilson isn’t just tackling folks who get past the line of scrimmage, however. He also has a team-high 3.0 sacks (which would have tied for second for the 2015 Bearcats) and is second on the team in tackles for loss (5.5). If you are looking for an MVP for this shipwreck, Wilson is it.
The Future at WR
Nate Cole is clearly the top target for the Bearcats. The senior has waited a while to take on that role, as he was buried on the depth chart last season. Now he has 364 yards and four touchdowns on 35 receptions. Those last two totals are team-highs.
But Cole won’t be playing for UC next year. That’s sad because you hate to see a player with his talent not go out on a high note. However, Cole’s departure will not leave an entirely barren cupboard at wideout.
If you are wondering how Cole is not leading the Bearcats in receiving yards, its because junior Devin Gray exists. The JUCO transfer is having a breakout year for UC as the WR2, turning 29 receptions into 442 yards and a touchdown. He had a career-best nine receptions for 98 yards against UConn and has had at least four receptions in five of six games this year. Cole is the only player on the roster to match that type of production.
Kahlil Lewis is another underclass receiver who will be making plays for UC for years to come. A sophomore, Lewis didn’t burst out of the gate in 2016, but he has been much more involved in the offense the last three weeks. After accumulating only 77 yards on seven catches the first three weeks, the 6’0” wideout has tallied 17 receptions and 222 yards over the last three. As the offense continues to slog through its first year under Zac Taylor, there is some solace in the fact that the receiving posts are under control.
Ross Trail ... Kind of
Hear me out.
It appears that Trail and Hayden Moore will be competing for the starting quarterback job for the next few years and after this season, there’s no way Trail won’t be given a shot to take over in the spring, if not earlier. The former four-star prospect is supposed to be the future of the program, a program that has usually relied heavily on the pass. A redshirt freshman, Trail has already been thrown into the fire, as he started against Miami-Ohio and USF when Moore was sidelined with an ankle injury. Sure, he didn’t play all that well in those contests, but he still managed to put up 494 yards on 65.7 percent passing. The six interceptions he has thrown this season severely diminish any positives, but perhaps forging Trail in the flames of this dumpster fire will lead to bigger things in 2017 and beyond.
Dane Evans of Tulsa provides a nice example of how well that could work out. He played in eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2013 and had 10 interceptions compared to four touchdowns. Since then, he has thrown 57 touchdown passes and been intercepted 32 times, while amassing 8,561 yards. Last season he put up 4,332 yards and had 25 touchdowns to eight picks.
None of these things will save the 2016 season and none of them will matter if UC doesn’t figure out what needs to be done to get back on track (hint: fire Tuberville), but having hope for the future is worth holding onto.
There is always a lighthouse.