Before going into last season, numerous fans and analysts expected that the Bearcat defense would be far from elite. Everyone knew they were starting a true freshman at linebacker, freshmen on the defensive line, and even more youth in the secondary. Countless people, myself included, figured it would be the kind of year where the Bearcats are torched through the air game after game and have to fight to stay in those games with offense of their own, but I was delightfully surprised by the young secondary.
They finished the season 66th in the country with 224.3 passing yards allowed per game, which isn't good, but it is a lot better than their rushing defense statistics (94th in the country). In fact, many people don't realize how efficient the Bearcats really were in the secondary this past season and if you take a closer look, you can see how dominant they were. If you take away the Memphis game, the one that had two quarterbacks throwing for almost 500 yards a piece in a 99-point shootout, the Bearcats defense drops to giving up a mere 173.8 passing yards per game; which happens to be tied for 9th best in the entire country. The best part is all four of them are returning.
Zach Edwards - 2015: A-, 2016: A
He was an absolute stud last season. This kid can play football and if you don't know the name yet as a fan, you haven't been watching. From the free safety position, he snatched three of the nine interceptions the defense had, was second on the team with 94 tackles, and led the team in pass breakups as well. Not to mention he was fourth on the team in tackles for a loss and had a forced fumble. All teams in the conference are on notice because if this kid matures any higher going into his senior year, he will be finding himself a place at the next level. He flies around the field making plays all game long and that's a trait you can hardly find at the free safety position.
Gilbert Tyrell - 2015: B-, 2016: B+
He was only a freshman last season, but he showed glimpses of what he can be in a year or so. At the strong safety position, he notched 50 tackles, six pass break ups, and an interception in the season. Statistically, he was formidable on the defensive side of the football, but youth will always find a way to show itself here and there. Going into his sophomore year, he has a lot to be excited about with the way the defense is going to be looking for the Bearcats next season. Expect him to be dominant again next year paired with his teammate Zach Edwards at the safety level.
The Rest of the Pack
The secondary of the Bearcats is loaded with talent, but runs thin on experience. They played two freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary last season, so look for this team to have a more seasoned approach next year. There are a few guys that were not mentioned that deserve their credit and they are Linden Stephens and JJ Pinckney, who both started last season and played pretty well for themselves. It is a good sign to see the Bearcats bringing back all four guys because they all have experience together and, building off of last season, the Cincinnati secondary has the potential to turn into even a greater strength defensively.