Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports officially confirmed late Wednesday night that Bearcats star safety James Wiggins would not play Thursday night vs UCLA due to a knee injury. The report also stated he would be out indefinitely. It’s unknown if rumors earlier this week about a torn ACL are true or not, but for now the Bearcats will need to plan for life without Wiggins.
Wiggins led the team with 4 interceptions in 2018, 3 of which were game clinchers. There was the amazing goal line stand vs Ohio, when the Bobcats were on the one yard line with under a minute to go. There was the incredible walk-off pick six on the road vs SMU. And there was the game clinched in the Military Bowl against Virginia Tech.
It’s not just the interceptions, Wiggins emerged as a big time play maker and leader on the Bearcats’ top 15 ranked defense last year. He will be missed. But the team will need to work quickly to replace him.
The two most logical replacements are Kyriq McDonald or Ja’Von Hicks, who showed up as backup safeties on this week’s depth chart.
McDonald, a red-shirt sophomore, transferred to UC from Alabama and was granted immediate eligibility for 2019. McDonald was mostly used on special teams and did not make a major impact defensively for the Tide. He was the 45th ranked CB and 476th ranked overall player in 2017 out of high school, and something about him made Nick Saban fall in love. There were two games in 2017, as a freshman, where McDonald was named the team’s special teams player of the week by the coaches. Playing special teams requires a certain type of desire, so clearly the passion and the work ethic is certainly there.
Hicks is a true sophomore and a local Cincinnati product from Colerain high school. He was originally recruited as a WR and converted to defense. He played just 5 games as a true freshman in 2018 and did not make a significant impact. He had 11 total tackles and deflected one pass.
I have faith that either man could get the job done, stepping in for Wiggins next to strong safety Darrick Forrest. And I’m sure Luke Fickell and Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman will be excited to work with either guy to push them and develop them.
However, with respect to those two, I have another idea. Fickell and Freeman should plug Jarrell White into this spot.
Despite playing significant snaps in 2017 and 2018, White’s job as a starter is shaky as he was listed with an “or” in this week’s initial depth chart. UConn transfer Darrian Beavers has really impressed the coaching staff and will see a lot of playing time. Why not allow Beavers to be a full-time player and shift White’s position? White was second on the team with 58 tackles in 2018. He is, what’s called a, sniper linebacker and is all over the field on every play. He has excellent field vision and awareness and kind of sounds like a safety. In fact, in 2017, there were times where White was clearly playing a hybrid linebacker/safety role.
There’s a reason for that...
White did everything in high school. He played both sides of the ball and dominated at running back. He alternated between safety and linebacker and as a junior, he had 75 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and recoveries primarily as a safety. Overall in his career, he had 70 tackles, a fumble recovery and two interceptions (including one TD).
The only problem with this plan is the Bearcats schedule does not exactly offer time for experimenting. While many teams face FCS squads or lower-tiered opponents, the Bearcats play up a level weeks 1 and 2 with UCLA, followed by Ohio State. To win those games, they must be perfect and mistake-free. Not a good time to try new schemes.
The earliest this plan could realistically roll out would be week 3 vs Miami Ohio, which is well-timed because there a week off between Miami and Marshall, so it could allow coaches to run the tape and work with White on his mistakes and help refine his game in time for a tough road game at Marshall After that, is UCF and at Houston.
It’s possible that the first 6 games put the Bearcats in such a big hole, that it doesn’t matter who plays safety. It’s also possible the combination of McDonald, Hicks, and potentially White put the Bearcats in position to make a serious run in the second half of the season and possibly get Wiggins back from injury or have enough juice with his replacement to keep pushing forward.
It remains to be seen what happens, but I have full confidence in this coaching staff to put the players in the best position (literally and figuratively) to succeed and to win games.