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Returning Player Refresher: Linden Stephens

After becoming a full-time starter halfway through the 2015 season, Stephens showed that the UC secondary has another potential star on its hands.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For the first half of the 2015 season, Linden Stephens was just a part of the rotation for the Cincinnati Bearcats secondary. However, down the stretch, as the group got nicked by some injuries and more playing time became available, he began to be leaned on more heavily. Increased responsibility was a good thing for Stephens, who started the final seven games of the season after being a backup in the first six. In those first six games, UC allowed 233.7 passing yards per game. That number dropped to 201.9 in the seven games after. To be fair, in some of those (*cough* San Diego State *cough*) the opponent didn’t really need to be throwing all that much and Stephens cannot take all the credit for the shift. Yet, the fact remains: when Stephens started, the UC secondary was tougher to move the ball against.

One of Stephen’s biggest strengths was bringing down ball carriers, an ability that is often lacking for most cornerbacks. Stephens only had 34 tackles on the year, good enough for just ninth on the team. However, 28 of those stops were solo jobs. With 4.67 more solo tackles than assisted, he easily led the team, with Zach Edwards (who piled up 94 tackles overall) next on the list with 64 solo tackles and 30 assisted. Stephens didn’t do much of that work in the backfield, with just a single tackle for loss, but there’s no denying he showed great promise in the most essential defensive function.

Stephens also showed a great eye for the ball, grabbing two interceptions while racking up three passes defended (including one breakup) despite starting in just over half of the games Cincinnati was involved in. His biggest interception of the season came against UCF. It may seem odd to call anything during a 52-7 rout the "biggest" anything of the season, but Stephen’s interception of Justin Holman, which he returned 14 yards, came when the game was still in question (relatively), as UC was only up 14-0 at the time.

Stephens' best games of the season, or at least his most productive, came against East Carolina and Houston. Although he couldn't stop Davon Grayson from catching a 10-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter against the Pirates, he finished with six total tackles, tying for the second-most on the team and matching the personal-best he set earlier in the year against Houston. UC went on to win that game 19-16 on a walkoff field goal from Andrew Gantz, so ensuring every ball carrier went down and went down quickly was obviously paramount. The outcome of the Houston matchup wasn't as positive, but Stephens helped UC hold the Cougars to just 161 yards passing.

In 2016, Stephens, who was recruited by new co-defensive coordinator Robert Prunty, will likely play an even larger role in the secondary, especially as the team is replacing Leviticus Payne. UC has to feel good about that, especially if the 6’0" junior continues to produce as a full-time starter rather than a part-time one.