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Military Bowl Position Preview: Secondary

Led by second-team all-conference safety James Wiggins, the Bearcats have a talented group of defensive backs. Can Virginia Tech match them?

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bearcats are going to a bowl game! Unfortunately, they won’t be playing until Dec. 31. That means we’ve got to do something to pass the time. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Military Bowl between the Bearcats and Virginia Tech Hokies, we’ll be breaking down the matchup position by position. Today we’ll be looking at the secondaries for each side.


Virginia Tech

Much like the Bearcats run a unique system on defense that features the JACK position, the Hokies also utilize a defensive system that puts an emphasis on versatility, especially in the secondary. Sure, the depth chart has your cornerbacks and safeties listed, but they also have positions like ROVER and WHIP. When it all comes together, it can be pretty solid, but that hasn’t always been the case this season, as the Hokies rank ninth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in passing defense.

On the corners, the Hokies are powered by youth and talent. Redshirt freshman Caleb Farly starts on the right side and at 6’2”, 202 pounds, he has the size to contend with bigger receivers. He led the team with seven passes defended and tied for the most interceptions (two). Then there’s sophomore Bryce Watts, who mans the left side of the field. He managed six passes defended and a pick, but neither player is particularly productive when it comes to bringing ball carriers down.

That job normally falls to the more versatile defenders in the secondary, such as ROVER Reggie Floyd and WHIP Khalil Ladler. The former is a junior defensive back that can make plays in coverage and behind the line of scrimmage. He brought in two picks this season and added 9.5 tackles for loss. A sound tackler, he had 72 total stops, which ranked second on the team. Ladler is another defensive back that could potentially slide down and play a traditional linebacker position, at least based on his tackling work. He had 61 total, including 4.5 for loss during the regular season. Free safety Divine Deablo is another playmaker, with 53 tackles, 4.5 for loss and a couple pass deflections.

Outside of the starters, the depth is found mainly at cornerback, where Jovonn Quillen managed 36 tackles and four passes defended.

Cincinnati

Versatility is a hallmark of UC’s defensive work as well. Guys like Tyrell Gilbert and Malik Clements have played multiple positions during their tenure. Gilbert is still in the secondary, but after beginning his career as a safety, he has been lining up at cornerback. Clements made the permanent move to linebacker this season, but we’ll talk about him later.

Back to Gilbert, who started in six games this season and appeared in 11, although he sat out against East Carolina in the regular season finale. Luckily for the Bearcats, they have some real depth at cornerback, especially if Arquon Bush’s breakout performance against the Pirates is any indication. Coby Bryant is probably the best cover corner on the team after starting in 11 of 12 games and leading the team with 11 passes defended and nine pass breakups. Cam Jefferies is another guy who can fit in all over the secondary and although he made some mistakes during the year, he still finished with nine pass breakups and three tackles for loss.

We’ve saved the best for last when discussing the secondary. The UC defense is anchored by its line, but all the flash is at safety. James Wiggins has been the primary supplier this season. First he ended a desperate comeback attempt against Ohio with an interception in the at the goal line. He followed that up with an 86-yard, walk-off pick six against SMU in overtime at the end of October. Wiggins can really do anything, as he finished the regular season with 51 tackles, three picks, eight passes defended, five pass breakups and a forced fumble. As if having a guy like Wiggins wasn’t enough, the Bearcats are lucky to have another talented safety in Darrick Forrest, who doesn’t have the big-time numbers (43 tackles, one interception), but has been a reliable player on the back end all the same.

Thanks to the efforts of the secondary, the Bearcats are allowing opposing quarterbacks to produce a QB rating of only 107.2 this season, while letting up less than 200 yards passing per game. If the Hokies are hoping to throw their way to victory, they might want to think twice.

Advantage: Cincinnati