One of the three 2014 AAC co-champions, the Cincinnati Bearcats entered fall camp as the runaway preseason favorite to claim the solo crown in 2015. With all of the returning offensive talent, centered on quarterback Gunner Kiel, it’s easy to see why the media overwhelmingly expect the Bearcats to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship Game.
What most appear to be overlooking is the dreadful 2014 performance of Cincinnati’s defense. After a 55-34 shellacking from the Miami Hurricanes, the Bearcats fell to 125th in total defense, and ended the season at 96th after taking advantage of a much lighter second half of the schedule against some offensively inept conference opponents.
The poor numbers, as bad as they were, don’t really tell the full story. The Bearcats were plagued by missed tackles, blown coverages/assignments and a lack of a consistent pass rush. And as I said before, the numbers were aided by games against the likes of SMU, USF, Tulane, UConn and Temple, who only combined for an average of 8.0 points a game against UC. If you contrast that with Cincinnati’s other eight opponents, the lowest total scored was 24 by Miami (OH) and the Bearcats allowed an astonishingly awful average of 39.3 points per game. I almost can’t even believe that number, but it happened.
Cincinnati obviously has a ton of room for improvement, but it lost several key contributors in Terrell Hartsfield, Jeff Luc and Nick Temple. As if it wouldn’t be hard enough to recover from such a rough season, those three were arguably the most productive of the Bearcat defenders.
Another added difficulty is that UC is on its third defensive coordinator in three years. Steve Clinkscale and Robert Prunty are sharing the title, but Clinkscale will be calling the plays on game day.
“We’ve got a lot of speed. We’re athletic. We’re tall. We have very good football players, we’ve just got to put it all together. We’ve got to coach them better, which we’ll do this year,” said Clinkscale, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
It really could be that simple. Cincinnati has been at or near the top in recruiting in the AAC, and has even won over some more nationally touted prospects of late. If the staff can figure out a way to put the right guys in the right situation to succeed, this turnaround could happen quickly. It was just in 2013 that the Bearcats ranked ninth in total defense, so they aren’t too far removed from being an incredibly solid unit.
With guys like Silverberry Mouhon and Zach Edwards returning, along with Adrian Witty coming back from a leg injury that cost him his 2014 season, there seems to be a good mix of experienced and young talent out there. But will it all gel under Clinkscale?
“We know coach Clink, so we know how he wants to operate,” said Mouhon.
Head coach Tommy Tuberville seems to be pleased with how his defense has looked at the start of camp, as he said, “The defense is a little bit farther ahead than we are on offense. I think that’s good.”
That statement from Tuberville is shocking considering the continuity of offensive talent the Bearcats have, but it also could be a little lip service to keep the confidence of his defense high.
Witty probably said it best when talking about what mentality Cincinnati’s defense needs to have this season: “The mindset now is either kill or be killed. You’ve got to have that instinct every time you go on the field. You can’t dwell on what happened before.”