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 reach the end of this series, as we’ll be looking at the defensive lines for each side.
Rushing the passer isn’t the greatest strength of the Virginia Tech defense. Obviously that is not entirely the fault of the defensive line, but it certainly carries a large burden in that area. Tying for 80th in the nation in sacks (24.0), the Hokies have struggled to get pressure on the opposing signal caller all year. It hasn’t been made easier since top pass rusher Houshun Gaines suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Gaines, a redshirt junior defensive lineman, had 4.5 sacks before being lost for the year in November.
Without Gaines, redshirt freshman Zion Debose has been the primary option at left defensive end. Debose was a rotational player before getting the starting gig, having appeared in all 12 games this season, but he only produced half a tackle for loss in that limited time.
Since Gaines is out and Debose is still improving, the Hokies’ best contributor on the defensive line is redshirt senior Ricky Walker, who lines up at right defensive tackle. A 2017 All-Atlantic Coast Conference honorable mention, Walker was even better this year, earning second-team honors. He played in 12 games and only had 2.0 sacks. However, he led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and is a real force up the middle. Walker pairs with redshirt sophomore nose tackle Jarrod Hewitt, who produced 13 tackles in 10 games.
Filing out the starting lineup is right defensive end Emmanuel Belmar. A redshirt sophomore from Georgia, Belmar had 24 tackles, 4.0 for loss, 2.0 sacks and started nine times.
Whereas Virginia Tech has some issues to work out on the defensive line before Monday, the epicenter of the Bearcats’ defense is the line. Defensive line coach Steven Stripling, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and head coach Luke Fickell have really found a scheme that works and emphasizes the skills of everyone in the unit. For a team that struggled for years to find consistent work up front, this year’s team has been a revelation.
It starts with senior defensive tackle Cortez Broughton. If a comeback player of the year award existed in college football, it would belong to Broughton. He was a second-team all-conference selection in 2016 but regressed quite a bit in 2017. With a year in Fickell’s system under his belt, however, Broughton’s production skyrocketed this year. He tallied 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, setting career-best marks by a wide margin. In fact, he had amassed a total of 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in his first three seasons. This year’s work catapulted him to the All-AAC first team and helped UC produce 30 sacks as a team for the first time since 2014.
The Bearcats’ defensive line isn’t just Broughton, however. Marquise Copeland has not put up the flashy numbers, but he has been a solid player at nose tackle, helping plug holes and chase down rushers in the backfield. A second-team all-conference selection, Copeland really came alive in the regular season finale against East Carolina when he had 2.0 sacks.
More consistent pass rushing has come from defensive end Kimoni Fitz and Michael Pitts, who plays the hybrid JACK position for UC’s defense. Both guys are effective at pinning their ears back and attacking. Fitz had 4.5 sacks and 9.0 total tackles for loss this season. Pitts had 4.0 sacks of his own. Both players can also make the more mundane plays, as they had 51 and 30 tackles, respectively.
There is depth on the line as well. Ethan Tucky can play at the JACK post and Curtis Brooks and freshman Malik Vann can be counted on elsewhere on the line.