Luke Fickell has made a career out of coaching defenses, and has made that side of the ball his specialty. Last year, the Bearcats ranked 93rd in the country in scoring defense, a ranking that Fickell is looking to improve this year. In eight games, they allowed over 31 points and tied for 121st nationally in sacks.
In 2017, Fickell hired defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, someone who also traces their football roots back to Ohio State. He’s young and doesn’t have a ton of experience, but shares the same vision of having a defense that disrupts the opposing team’s offense, creates turnovers, and puts pressure on the quarterback.
In 2017, Cincinnati had a team total of five interceptions and 12 sacks. I’m sure Fickell would like to see those numbers much higher, especially since their opponents’ average is double. We’re looking at another rebuilding year as Freeman is in his second season with Cincinnati, so their defensive statistics aren’t as impressive as they may be at the end of this year.
Let’s break down the defense we’ll see on Saturday.
Senior tackles Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland will be bringing the most experience and success up front. Copeland earned honorable mention All-AAC honors last year and led the Bearcats with 3.5 sacks and also added 31 solo tackles.
Their defensive ends include seniors Kimoni Fitz and Kevin Mouhon as well as sophomores Ethan Tucky and Michael Pitts. Mouhon led the ends with two sacks and added 7 tackles for loss last year. Tucky was a transfer from Boston College, so he sat out 2017 and will now finish his three years of eligibility with the Bearcats. He was originally recruited to Boston College by now-Cincinnati assistant Al Washington, so it looks like he followed his position coach.
The linebacking corps will be looking to replace outside linebacker Jaylyin Minor, who graduated last year and led the team with 64 tackles. Junior Perry Young will be filling his shoes as is the top returning tackler, with a total of 101 stops (56 solo) last year. Junior Bryan Wright has moved from defensive end to middle linebacker. According to an interview with Cincinnati.com, Luke Fickell says, “I really feel like Bryan Wright can make us a different defense in a lot of things that he can do.” Additionally, the Bearcats employ a Sniper position, which is a hybrid outside linebacker/safety. Senior Malik Clements is the number one man for the job, but also has competition from sophomore Jarell White. The two combined for over 100 total tackles last year. So, clearly this position enhances the Bearcat defense.
This is the biggest question mark for the Cincinnati defense. During spring and summer practices, cornerback frontrunners included senior Tyrell Gilbert, sophomore TJ Johnson, sophomore Coby Bryant, Bowling Green graduate transfer Cameron Jefferies, and redshirt freshman Noah Hamlin. Gilbert had 43 tackles last season, three of which went for a loss while Jeffries had 28 last year at Bowling Green.
At safety, sophomores James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest have emerged as the top picks, while senior Chris Murphy returns with the most in game experience.
UCLA has definitely got this one. There’s no way Cincinnati’s defense has improved enough since last year to beat the Bruins, even though UCLA has a new head coach and quarterback. Just looking at raw numbers shows what bad shape their defense was in last year and I just don’t see any way the Bruins lose this one with Chip Kelly at the helm.