In 2011, the Cincinnati Bearcats led the Big East in sacks with 46. In 2012, they ranked second in the league (30). In 2013, their first year in the American Athletic Conference, they ranked second again (35). In 2014, they finished second once again, accumulating another 35 sacks.
Then 2015 came.
During last year’s 7-6 campaign, the Bearcats managed to bring down a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage only 13 times. It was the first time since 2005, when they managed only 17 sacks, that they had failed to get to 20. Even in 2010 (Cincinnati’s last losing season), the Bearcats still managed to cobble together 26 sacks, which may have ranked second to last in the Big East, but was still twice as many as UC had last season.
So. Where did all those sacks go? And, more importantly, how can UC get back to the level it was at during the last decade?
The easy answer to the first question is the team lots its best pass rushers. Terrell Hartsfield (9.0 sacks) and Jeff Luc (6.5) had more sacks combined in 2014 than UC did as a team in 2015. Unfortunately, neither was around last season when Silverberry Mouhon led the team with 4.5 sacks. Speaking of Mouhon, his steep drop in production after his strong sophomore year did not help UC’s slide. After registering 9.5 sacks in 2013, tied for third-most in the AAC, he had only 8.5 combined the next two seasons. Offensive lines were able to focus a great deal of attention on Mouhon, UC’s only real pass-rusher, in 2015, as the rest of the defensive line managed only 7.5 sacks. Now foes won’t have to deal with him, which means a defensive line that certainly has experience, needs to be more aggressive when teams decide to throw.
However, the defensive line is not the only position group at fault. Luc was royalty among pass-rushing linebackers, but he did not leave an heir to his throne. Freshman Bryce Jenkinson managed to record the only sack by a Cincinnati linebacker in 2015. Fellow linebacker Eric Wilson, who led the Bearcats in tackles, couldn’t even come in for half a sack.
Aside from a personnel issue, you might also want to make the argument that UC just had fewer opportunities to rush the passer. After all, the Bearcats got smoked once or twice and played from behind a few times. Those are situations when an opponent will start running the ball heavily, taking chances to get at the quarterback away.
You can throw that argument right out the window, as there were 409 pass attempts against UC last season and 508 rushing attempts. The Bearcats ranked seventh in the league in both areas. SMU was thrown on only 311 times and still got 16 sacks. UConn also had fewer pass attempts against it (401) and more sacks (21). Sure, AAC sack leader Houston was thrown on a league-high 500 times, but did those extra chances really make up for the fact that the Cougars had 23 more sacks than UC? Of course using pass and run attempts as a measure of sack opportunities is an imperfect strategy, since they do not take into account actual sacks or broken plays when a quarterback scrambled. However, it does show that UC was not being forced to defend that many more running plays or fewer passing attacks than anyone else in the league.
There has been a restructuring in the defensive coaching staff for the 2016 season and it will be interesting to see what that will do for UC’s sack troubles. Associate head coach and defensive ends coach Robert Prunty was promoted to co-defensive coordinator along with Jeff Koonz. Koonz coached the linebackers at Louisiana Tech the last four years. The Bulldogs averaged 26.25 sacks a year during that time, although linebackers only had 1.5 in 2015. Kenny Ingram is another new addition to the staff. The former director of player of development at Auburn, Ingram will be coaching the defensive tackles. His resume also includes his post as defensive line coach at Arkansas State.
Whether or not those changes will lead to increased aggression is obviously yet to be seen. During UC’s spring game Kevin Mouhon stood out by recording three sacks. He is listed as a linebacker and will likely line up on the outside. He could even step in as a defensive end, following in the footsteps of his older brother Silverberry. Defensive linemen Landon Brazile and Kimoni Fitz each recorded a sack in the spring game as well. Those are promising signs, even if they didn’t come on a fall Saturday.
The defense has a lot more work to do than just simply creating more pressure during intra-squad scrimmages. The Bearcats obviously need to do it when the big lights are on. Accomplishing that goal could be the first domino that needs to fall in order to get UC back in contention not only on defense, but overall.