There were many reasons the Cincinnati Bearcats won 11 games (including the Military Bowl) in 2018. However, there is no denying that the primary driver was the incredible ascension of the defensive unit. Head coach Luke Fickell’s experience as a defensive coordinator clearly influenced how his team played and what they emphasized. Credit must also be given to defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who helped plan the defensive scheme and empower his players to execute it to near perfection. While congratulating the coaching staff is all well and good, it still came down to each individual on the defensive roster to make everything click into place like it did. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the many successes and the few stumbles for the unit in 2018.
The Good: You can really take your pick of stars from this group. After years of attempting and failing to reinvigorate the pass rush, something finally stuck. The Bearcats finished with 31 sacks as a team, which was their most since 2014 and the first time since that season they had more than 20. The bulk of those sacks came from the guys up front, with Cortez Broughton (6.5), Kimoni Fitz (4.5) and Marquise Copeland (4.0) accounting for a large portion.
As you can tell from his team-leading sack total, Broughton had the best year of any defensive lineman. The senior defensive tackle was among the top five players in the American Athletic Conference in tackles for loss (17.5) and his presence in the middle of the line played no small part in boosting UC’s run defense. Fitz also had a career year and Copeland was consistent all year before coming on strong to end it with a flurry of pass rushing production.
An examination of the defensive line would be remiss without including the work at the JACK position by Michael Pitts. The post is a bit of a hybrid, but Pitts didn’t seem to be affected by the multi-faceted requirements. He finished with 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks to further improve UC’s ability to make running the ball and dropping back to pass a nightmare.
Depth was also abundant for the Bearcats, with Ethan Tucky, Curtis Brooks and Marcus Brown all doing their share.
The Bad: Even with a full year of tape to go over, there just weren’t many reasons to be negative about this group.
Final Grade: A
The Good: The linebackers played an important role in the improved pass rush, especially Bryan Wright, who had 5.0 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Led by Wright, this year’s group was a bit more of a mix-and-match unit, with multiple looks presented and lots of opportunities for different players on the roster. What was expected from every linebacker, however, was effective tackling. To a man, everyone stepped up. Malik Clements converted from safety to lead the Bearcats in tackles (68) while the No. 2 and No. 3 tacklers were Jarell White (58) and Wright (55). Even Perry Young, who suffered a torn ACL and played only eight games, managed to accumulate 45 stops.
The Bad: The injury to Young was outside of the team’s control but it still made an impact. Young amassed 101 tackles in 2017, including 9.0 for loss. Having him for a full season could have lifted the defense even further. In addition, while White had a solid season, he did not take the leap that was expected for his sophomore season, especially in terms of creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Outside of the primary contributors, the Bearcats didn’t have the greatest depth, with Joel Dublanko one of the most productive reserves.
Final Grade: B+
The Good: UC was known more for its run defense this season but it was pretty great against the pass as well. The Bearcats allowed less than 200 passing yards per game and ranked third in the AAC in pass breakups. Cornerbacks Tyrell Gilbert, Coby Bryant and Cam Jefferies were a trio of cover guys who were able to keep pace with most receivers and anticipate where the ball would be thrown. Even freshman Arquon Bush made an impact at the position as a freshman, as he snagged two interceptions in the regular season finale against East Carolina.
Despite Bush’s incredible effort against the Pirates, nobody on the team was as great at creating turnovers as safety James Wiggins. If there was one player whose stock rose the highest this season, it’s probably him. The sophomore had four interceptions, nine passes defended and five pass breakups. On top of that, he found time to rank fourth on the team in tackles (54). Wiggins’ partner at the other safety spot was fellow sophomore Darrick Forrest, who had a solid year in his own right.
The Bad: The final numbers looked good. Giving up less than 200 passing yards per game is nothing to be mad about. However, in some games, the secondary broke down more than it should have, particularly in UC’s two losses to Temple and UCF. The secondary also did little to help closer to the line of scrimmage with only a handful of tackles for loss among the unit.
Final Grade: B
As you can probably tell, trying to find things to complain about is akin to grasping at straws. The Bearcats were a top 25 defense based on S&P+ and they had the statistical evidence to support that. They ranked 13th in the country in run defense (113 yards allowed per game) and tied for eighth in scoring defense (17.2 points per game). They also knew how to stop drives in their tracks, ranking fifth and better than even national champion Clemson in opponent third down conversion rate (28.35 percent). Player turnover will make replicating this past season a challenge. Broughton, Copeland and Fitz are among the key contributors who are headed to the next phase of their careers. Still, after what the Bearcats accomplished on defense this season, it wouldn’t be the best idea to doubt them.
Final Grade: A