The Cincinnati Bearcats were relatively young last season on the defensive side of the football. Having two freshmen defensive linemen in the trenches, combined with a freshman starting at middle linebacker, made the Bearcats susceptible to the run (and by susceptible, I mean one of the worst in the country).
The pass rush was incredibly awful all season and the rush defense was just below what many would consider average. The Bearcats should be excited heading into this season defensively because, not only is the defensive line returning a whole lot of experience, but the linebackers are too. They return two of their three starters and the two returners finished last season first and third on the team in total tackles. Defensively speaking, the Bearcats should be vastly improved in rush defense and putting pressure on the quarterback.
Leviticus Payne - 2015: C-, 2016: N/A
Payne is listed here because he technically lines up as a nickel corner/linebacker hybrid player, but this past season saw the senior playing on the outside more than anticipated. With the injury to Adrian Witty at corner, Payne was forced to slide to the outside into coverage in an effort to provide some stability in the young secondary. He wasn't particularly impactful, although you saw flashes, on his way to 42 total tackles, which tied with a defensive lineman for 6th most on the team.
In that sense, Payne's departure doesn't really impact the returning linebacker group beyond the fact that they lose a talented, versatile defensive player. While Payne didn't make the plays many expected this season, you have to wonder how his season could have been with a couple different breaks.
Eric Wilson - 2015: B+, 2016: A
Eric Wilson was sensational for the Bearcats last season and I have no doubt he will continue to be next season. He and Zach Edwards were the only two guys on the field who could tackle on a consistent basis, not only in the open field but also in the trenches and the flats as well. He managed to record 106 total tackles last season with 51 of them being solo tackles. He is a promising leader in the front seven and will be a building block for next season.
Bryce Jenkinson - 2015: C, 2016: B-
As a true freshman last season, Jenkinson was thrust into the starting middle linebacker role and never looked back. He was solid in the trenches but was mediocre in the passing game and responded to his reads incredibly slowly. Even so, he was a freshman starting middle linebacker who still managed to have 59 tackles and a sack (which was good for third best on the entire defense) for the Bearcats last season. The good news is that he can only get better and, heading into his second year with plentiful experience, he will be a force to be reckoned with by the season's end.
The Bearcats will be bringing in quite a few linebackers this year. Redshirt freshman Matthew Draper will be available this season and so will their two newly-signed three-star recruits Ty Sponseller and Tyquan Statham. All three of them are solid additions that could very well be competing for a starting role or a key backup role for the Bearcats next season. Draper played for Brush a season ago before redshirting last season, but in high school he was a three-star prospect and the No. 5 middle linebacker in the state of Ohio.
Meanwhile, Sponseller is out of Mason, Ohio and is also a three-star prospect and also the No. 5 outside linebacker in the state of Ohio. Statham, out of Oakwood, Georgia is widely considered the top recruit from the 2016 class and possesses tremendous athleticism for the position.
Antonio Kinard, Jaylyin Minor, Franklin Bruscianelli and the highly-recruited Kevin Mouhon are also coming back next season in the linebacking core.
With young guys coming in behind a top-heavy senior class, the Bearcats should be just fine in the future.