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Grading the Defense: 2017

The offense was horrible. The defense was better, but that’s not saying much.

Marshall v Cincinnati Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bearcats football team played their final game of the regular season a little less than two months ago. In that time we’ve begun reviewing the seasons of individual players and we did a comprehensive examination of the offense. In the wake of discussing Jaylyin Minor’s career yesterday, it seems like the right time to hand out grades for the defensive side of the ball.

This is an area that UC is going to hang its hat in years to come, or at least that’s the plan. With a former defensive coordinator at head coach and big name recruits like Malik Vann signing, the Bearcats are structured to win with defense. The first year under Luke Fickell and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman served as a launching point for this strategy. How did it go?

Defensive Line

The Good: Marquise Copeland was easily the best player in the defensive trenches for the Bearcats. In his junior year, the defensive end racked up 63 tackles and 8.0 for loss, including a team-high 3.5 for loss. For his work, Copeland was named an all-American Athletic Conference honorable mention. He, along with Minor, was one of two UC defenders to be recognized in the league’s postseason awards. Kevin Mouhon was also relatively strong, producing 56 tackles, 7.0 TFL and 2.0 sacks.

The Bad: I say relatively strong because the Bearcats once again failed to be an effective pass rushing team. They tied for second-to-last in the conference in sacks (12) and tackles for loss (58). The most disappointing individual performance came from Cortez Broughton, who was serviceable, recording 34 tackles, 3.5 for loss and a sack, but far below the expectations set for him when he was an all-league second team performer in 2016.

UC was also pretty mediocre against the run, which is an area they should have been strong(ish) in considering Broughton had shown an ability to plug running lanes. Opponents rushed for an average of 4.39 yards per carry against the Bearcats, if you want an actual number.

Final Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Good: The fundamentals of the art of tackling were clearly preached excessively in Fickell’s first spring and summer, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the linebacking corps. Both Minor and Perry Young churned out tackles at superior rates. Minor led the AAC in stops (125) while Young ranked seventh with 101. They became the first UC teammates since 2014 to each record at least 100 tackles.

Then there was the emergence of Jarell White, who proved that his recruit ranking was no fluke. Playing in nine games and earning starts by the end, White finished the season with 46 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.

The Bad: Minor and Young were great and White gives hope for the future, but the linebackers suffered from a similar issue as the defensive line. There just wasn’t a lot of pressure to go around. Minor had a single sack and White helped to get half of one. Meanwhile, Young did not have a single one. In addition, the experiment of shifting Tyrell Gilbert from safety to linebacker didn’t yield as much positive production as Fickell and his staff may have wanted.

Final Grade: B

Secondary

The Good: Probably the highlight of the season was performed by safety Malik Clements.

Clements had a good season back there, tallying 60 tackles and that interception. However, cornerback Linden Stephens was the real standout performer, especially since he was the team’s best player in pass coverage. He recorded eight pass deflections, which led the team and had an interception of his own, not to mention 51 tackles. Carter Jacobs was solid at safety as well, earning 80 tackles, a pick and four passes deflected.

The Bad: That interception from Clements was one of only five the Bearcats had all season. That total tied for the 119th most in the country. Additionally, the Bearcats had trouble finding a cornerback partner for Stephens with Alex Thomas suspended indefinitely. Guys like Davin Pierce, Chris Murphy and Marquese Taylor got some chances, and there is certainly promise to be had, but the secondary was usually a problem, and not in the Gary Clark sense.

Final Grade: C-

Overall

Offense was clearly the biggest weakness for the Bearcats in 2017, but the defense wasn’t exactly stellar either. UC ranked 86th in the country in defensive S&P+ while allowing 31.8 points per game.

We’ve harped on it plenty, but it should be repeated that a huge problem that needs an immediate solution is the pass rush. Luckily, Fickell and his staff have made big inroads on the recruiting trail, so ideally that will improve in the coming years. With more pressure should come more mistakes, another area that UC just didn’t excel in. With only 11 forced turnovers, UC tied for 118th in the country. Ouch.

In most other areas, the Bearcats were near the middle of the pack, including passing defense (fifth in the AAC), rushing defense (eighth), opponent third down conversion rate (seventh) and opponent red zone conversion rate (ninth). That’s not the greatest of foundations, but its not the worst either.

Final Grade: C-