There was no shortage of star power on defense for the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2018. How else can you explain the fact that they stood near the top of just about every defensive category in the American Athletic Conference? Among the brightest of those stars was safety James Wiggins and the Bearcats are fortunate enough to have him back for an encore this fall.
Wiggins’ stock rose rather quickly in 2018 as the former three-star prospect stepped into a major role after playing sparingly in 2017. He would go on to start in 12 of the Bearcats’ 13 games last season. The only game he didn’t start was the Military Bowl against Virginia Tech and he still managed three tackles and an interception in that victory.
That interception wasn’t of the run-of-the-mill variety either. As he would prove time and time again throughout the season, Wiggins was as clutch as anyone on the roster. When he picked off Virginia Tech’s Ryan Willis inside UC territory late in the fourth quarter, it not only added to his season total, it allowed the Bearcats to hold on for a 35-31 triumph. It was one of four interceptions he made last season, which led the Bearcats and tied for second in the American Athletic Conference. Those picks also helped the Bearcats collect 12 as a team, which more than doubled their total from the previous season.
The Virginia Tech game wasn’t the only time he had an interception that directly finished a UC victory. His interception at the goal line during the final minute against Ohio sealed a wild comeback win. He also put the final points on the board during an overtime win against SMU when he returned an interception 86 yards for a touchdown.
Wiggins’ skill at making plays on the ball went beyond creating turnovers. As a safety he defended against the pass exceptionally well, with nine passes defended and five pass breakups, showing that he could cover most receivers and lend support to UC’s cornerbacks when the time called for it.
All of his pass defense skills were a major factor in earning him second-team all-conference honors, but Wiggins was also one of the best tacklers on the team last year and he should be again in 2019. He finished fourth on the roster in total stops (54) and tied for the team-lead with 36 solo efforts, proving that he is more than capable of making plays in the open field without much support. Among those 54 total tackles, only a pair went for loss, so it will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman utilizes him more in blitz packages this fall.
In addition to his work on defense, Wiggins was an important contributor on special teams, as he served as UC’s primary kick returner. He returned 13 kicks and averaged 20.9 yards per return. The Bearcats could stand to be a bit better in the return game and Wiggins could really help, but we’ll have to see if head coach Luke Fickell opts to keep him in in the role or tasks him with focusing solely on defense.
As the Bearcats enter the 2019 season, Wiggins is definitely one of the most important players on the roster. He teams with Darrick Forrest as a part of one of the better safety duos in the AAC and after the year he had in 2018, if he makes any improvement at all, the rest of the league will be in a lot of trouble.