The best player for the Cincinnati Bearcats was a linebacker last season. With Luke Fickell inserted in as head coach and his defensive coordinator, Marcus Freeman, also serving as linebackers coach, the Bearcats would love to be in that position again. Unfortunately, the group that Freeman has to work with is a largely young and unproven one, so it will probably get worse before it gets better.
Eric Wilson may very well have been the best player of the Tommy Tuberville era. He registered an American Athletic Conference best 129 tackles last season and managed 261 for his career. He had at least 100 stops in back-to-back campaigns and also led the team in sacks a year ago (3.0) when he more than doubled his previous career-high in tackles for loss (7.5). All good things must come to an end, however, and the Northwestern transfer has moved on from college and is now trying to cut it with the Minnesota Vikings. There are some major areas that Fickell and Freeman need to work on this season, but finding a replacement for Wilson will be one of the more impossible.
Another player who fit in at linebacker, as well as safety, was Mike Tyson, who had five interceptions, 46 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. He wasn’t a pure linebacker, but not having him to fill in will be tough, although Tyrell Gilbert appears set to take on the utility role for the defense.
Finally, the loss of Antonio Kinard and the fact that Bryce Jenkinson will not return leaves the cupboard even more bare. Kinard had a fine final season with the Bearcats, recording 93 tackles, including 7.5 for loss. Jenkinson had 55 tackles in 2015 and was supposed to help form a strong linebacking corps, but an injury cost him the majority of the 2016 season and now he is no longer on the team.
The most experienced linebacker coming back is Jaylyin Minor. You could make the argument that Perry Young is, since he produced at a higher level, but considering Young played in the secondary as well, Minor gets the nod as the most experienced pure linebacker. The senior had 29 tackles, including two for loss last season. Young, meanwhile, broke out his tackling tools as a freshman, racking up 42 stops. He has the potential to be a standout.
The rest of the linebacking corps is made up of newcomers. With RJ Potts one of them, there isn’t a ton of reason to be fearful for the first team, but depth will be an issue. Potts was a three-star recruit and the No. 4 prospect in the state of Indiana. He can also play safety, which shows that the Bearcats are dedicated to bringing in players who can fill in all over the field. Joining Potts are fellow freshmen Kyle Bolden, DeMarco Baker and Jarell White. Then there are redshirt freshmen Ty Sponseller and Joel Dublanko. Sponseller has the best chance at being a constant presence on the field.