When the Cincinnati Bearcats added four players in the secondary for the 2019 class in June, it was clear that bringing depth to that part of the roster was a priority for Luke Fickell and his coaching staff. It’s easy to see why, since the Bearcats’ have been hemorrhaging secondary talent over the last few years, losing Zach Edwards and Mike Tyson before last season and enduring middling pass defense along the way.
Entering the 2018 season, the Bearcats’ secondary is still thin when it comes to experience, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. Let’s take a look at the makeup of this positional group as it currently stands since those 2019 reinforcements aren’t going to be able to contribute for at least another year.
There are more players that have left the secondary than is ideal. It starts with standout cornerback Linden Stephens, who finished his underappreciated UC career in 2017 when he set a career-high with 51 tackles and eight pass deflections.
Having a standout like Stephens in coverage on the edge was a big bonus for the Bearcats, but perhaps the positional group that lost the most was the safeties. Carter Jacobs, Grant Coleman and Davin Pierce all fit into the rotation, with each appearing in all 12 games last season. All three are gone. Pierce’s departure leaves perhaps the largest “what if?” question on Bearcats’ fans minds. Pierce was a fairly touted recruit from junior college but he only recorded 33 tackles and three passes defended in his two seasons at UC.
Luckily for the Bearcats and safeties coach Jon Tenuta, the best returning players in the secondary play safety. Both Tyrell Gilbert and Malik Clements have flashed star potential in the past. Clements, who had that thrilling game-winning interception against Miami-Ohio last fall, is entering his senior season following a 60-tackle campaign in 2017, easily the best of his career. Gilbert is a senior as well and has proven to be a strong tackler and pass defender. Additionally, he is adept at creating turnovers, with four forced fumbles and four interceptions over the last three years.
Other safeties that are back in the mix include senior Chris Murphy, sophomore James Wiggins, junior Sheldon Doss, sophomore Collin Widecan and sophomore Darrick Forrest. Murphy is the only one of that group to have much game experience, as he had 27 tackles and three passes defended a year ago. He also tallied two tackles for loss so he has a varied skill set to be sure.
At corner, Marquis Smith, Coby Bryant and Christian Angulo, are the elder statesmen. It would stand to reason that Smith and Bryant will have the inside track at starting gigs. Last season, Smith had 11 tackles and played in 12 games while Bryant also appeared in 12 games. Angulo played extremely sparingly in eight games after redshirting in 2015 and sitting on the bench for all of 2016. None of those are particularly impressive resumes, but that speaks to the lack of experience on the depth chart.
At corner, transfer TJ Johnson could step in right away. He redshirted at Penn State in 2016 before coming to UC last August. He was a three-star recruit and high school star in Ohio before becoming a Nittany Lion. Keep an eye on him in the summer. Josiah Robey and Noah Hamlin are both redshirt freshmen on the team and Arquon Bush and Taj Ward are true freshmen that were three-star members of UC’s ballyhooed 2018 recruiting class.
That class also featured Ja’Von Hicks and Darnell Shields, while redshirt Tre Murry is also in the mix. Shields was named the No. 2 safety in Ohio for the 2018 recruiting cycle and Hicks is continuing the burgeoning tradition of recruiting locally under Fickell, as he played high school ball at Colerain in Cincinnati.