When the UCLA Bruins opened the season against the Cincinnati Bearcats last year, the Bearcat defense was absolutely no joke. They dominated the AAC last year in just about all areas and managed to score three defensive touchdowns for the season. They only allowed an average of 303.5 yards and 17.2 points per game, which led their conference in each category during what was a “rebuilding year” under second-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
Let’s look at the rest of the Bearcat defense and see what the Bruins are going to be up against.
The Bearcats had a total of 32 sacks for 219 yards last year, which was triple what they had in 2017. Defensive-minded head coach Luke Fickell is definitely having an impact. This year, they are replacing several guys on the defensive line including Kimoni Fitz, who recorded 20 tackles with nine for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland are also key losses for Cincinnati. The duo combined for 101 tackles and assists last year. These three combined for 15 sacks last year. So, the defensive front is going to have a hard act to follow this year.
Sophomore Myjai Sanders should be lining up at defensive end alongside redshirt junior tackle Elijah Ponder. Sanders played in ten games last year while Ponder played in eight. Each recorded one sack and one tackle for loss. Redshirt sophomore Jabari Taylor should get the start at nose.
Cincinnati is also replacing big numbers in this position. One guy the Bearcats need to replace is Malik Clemens, who had 36 solo tackles last year. Players like redshirt senior Brian Wright, who had 26 solo tackles in 2018, are stepping up to take his place. Redshirt junior Michael Pitts will be in the Jack position, which is a hybrid linebacker/defensive end. Pitts had 18 solo tackles in 2018 while senior Perry Young will play at the Will inside linebacker spot.
Junior Jarell White notched 36 tackles, with seven of those totalling a loss of 20 yards for Bearcat opponents. Wright may turn into Cincinnati’s leading tackler this year, as his five sacks were second only to Copeland. White plays in the “sniper” linebacker position, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Junior Darrian Beavers, a transfer from UConn, will also be in the rotation at sniper.
The Cincinnati secondary was in question last year, partly because Fickell was still putting his defense together and partly because the secondary had yet to see solid frontrunners emerge at safety and corner.
Well, 2018 is behind the Bearcats and it is apparent that Fickell has a plan in place. Expect to see junior Coby Bryant and graduate transfer Cam Jeffries take the lead at the corners while juniors James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest will start at safety. The Cincinnati secondary is stacked with upperclassmen that are long on experience and all of them were leading tacklers on defense last year. This is definitely an area where UCLA could potentially struggle.
As stated before, this Cincinnati defense is going to be tough to beat. After looking at the solid offense and stacked defense, this game is definitely going to be one heck of a challenge for week one and will really show where UCLA has made progress and where we still need to see growth.