A whole new era in Cincinnati Bearcats football is going to start this fall. Luke Fickell has been installed as the new coach, but you already knew that. As we get ready for the regular season to get here, one positional group that will be under some scrutiny will be the secondary. A long-time leader of the unit moved on after last year’s disastrous 4-8 squad and we are already talking about a team that was near the middle of the pack in pass defense compared to the rest of the American Athletic Conference, allowing 233.3 yards per game through the air. Fickell, the former defensive coordinator at Ohio State, will no doubt be pushing this year’s group to do better, especially after the Buckeyes ranked seventh nationally in passing yards allowed last season.
The big name here is Zach Edwards, a tackling machine of a safety who finished tied for second in stops for the Bearcats last season with 93. Edwards ended his UC career with 381 tackles, racking up at least 73 in all four years of his tenure. That type of production and durability will be tough to replace or match by anyone currently on the roster. In addition to losing Edwards, the team also lost the versatile Mike Tyson, who could play safety and linebacker and collected five interceptions last season to go with 46 total tackles. He is now trying to make it in the NFL, meaning the Bearcats really need to get solid production out of the youngsters at safety.
The real elephant in the room for this group though is Alex Thomas’ status. After being arrested last week, the junior cornerback was suspended indefinitely. Thomas was one of the team’s starting corners last season and was a pain in the neck for opposing quarterbacks, snagging four interceptions. It remains unclear when he will be back, if ever, so the Bearcats should be operating under the assumption that he won’t be.
Leading the pack for the returning contributors is Tyrell Gilbert, who missed some time with an injury last season, but was generally a solid safety. He will be looked to to fill the void, both in production and leadership, that has been left by Edwards. Gilbert had 40 tackles and forced two fumbles and two picks, showing a real talent for being disruptive both for the running and passing game.
Sticking on the safety side of things, the Bearcats have a few other players they can count on in Davin Pierce, Malik Clements and Carter Jacobs. Pierce, a JUCO-transfer, played sparingly in 12 games but still managed 11 tackles, a sack and two pass breakups. Clements showed more talent as a tackler, finishing with 36. Jacobs did even more than both Pierce and Clements, tallying 43 tackles in 11 games played.
As for cornerbacks, the Bearcats are fortunate enough to retain the services of Linden Stephens, who led the team with seven pass breakups to go with two interceptions. With Stephens and Thomas, UC would be pretty well set for starters on the corners, but now Grant Coleman, Christian Angulo and a group of freshman will need to step up.
Speaking of that group of first-year players, the Bearcats have more than a couple at cornerback. Marquis Smith is a redshirt freshman and former three-star recruit, but there are four true freshman corners on the roster. It remains to be seen if any will be redshirted, but for now Rashaad Stewart, Josiah Robey, Noah Hamlin and Marquese Taylor are the next generation.