Tom Groeschen Cincinnati Enquirer
Published 4:09 PM EDT Oct 2, 2018
The Cincinnati Bearcats are ranked above No. 1-ranked Alabama in a key NCAA football defensive category. UC also is ranked higher than No. 2 Georgia, No. 3 Ohio State and most other FBS schools.
The Bearcats (5-0, 1-0 American Athletic Conference East) rank No. 2 nationally in scoring defense at 12.2 points per game, behind only No. 10-ranked Washington (11.6). Last year at this time, UC was 89th in scoring defense. (Incidentally, Alabama and Georgia are tied for No. 5 in scoring defense this year, and Ohio State is tied for No. 27).
UC also ranks No. 7 nationally in total defense at 276.0 yards per game. Last year at this time, the Bearcats were No. 82 in that category. UC also ranks No. 1 nationally in pass efficiency defense (89.7), after ranking 92nd in that category at this time last year.
While UC obviously has not played the schedule of the aforementioned powers, the Bearcats have held three opponents (Miami RedHawks, Alabama A&M and UConn) to seven points or less.
UC senior defensive end Kimoni Fitz, who had a career-best 2.5 tackles for loss in last Saturday’s 49-7 romp at UConn, said the Bearcats are aware of their rankings, particularly the No. 2 spot in scoring defense. The team also tries not to thump its collective chest about it, Fitz said Tuesday.
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“We don’t really talk about it, but being on social media and stuff, you definitely run past that a couple of times,” Fitz said. “Seeing that we’re the second-best scoring defense in the nation, that just gives it to our players and coaches. Just keep on playing out. Keep playing for championships.”
What is the difference this year? Aside from about half the starters being in their first year on the No. 1 unit, are there differences in terms of technique? It began in training camp, as many observers have noticed sharper, surer tackling and harder hitting. Plus, upgrades in speed and quickness.
“When we’ve had issues, it’s been in tackling,” UC head coach Luke Fickell said. “We’ve done a much better job covering down the field, allowing ourselves to challenge guys. Which, in turn, makes people have to make some big plays. There are contested throws and catches, and that’s what we want. The combination of tackling better and tracking the ball, it gives you the opportunity for your guys to make big plays.”
Defensive tackle Cortez Broughton, who has 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss this year, said there is no hidden secret to the defensive improvement.
“One thing we really emphasize is getting to the ball,” Broughton said. “Get to the ball, get to the ball, get to the ball. Finish every play. Little things like that. Putting your hat on the ball, swarming the football. Those are some of the biggest things we’ve been doing.”
The starters for most of the year have been defensive ends Fitz and Michael Pitts, defensive tackles Broughton and Marquise Copeland, linebackers Perry Young, Bryan Wright and Malik Clements, cornerbacks Tyrell Gilbert (Princeton High School) and Coby Bryant, and safeties James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest.
Linebacker Jarell White (La Salle High School) started in Young’s place against Ohio University when the latter was injured. Also, cornerback Cam Jefferies has made two starts, including last week at UConn.
“There’s a big emphasis on tackling every week,” Fitz said. “Tracking the hip, trying to get the ball carrier down. Another big emphasis is trying to create turnovers, and dominate third down. We just want to keep going and being one of the best defenses in the nation.”
THE STAFF: Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker, is in his second year as UC defensive coordinator. Freeman is joined by defensive line coach Steve Stripling, safeties coach Jon Tenuta and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens. Mickens is a former UC All-America cornerback.
Freeman also handles linebackers. Special teams coordinator Brian Mason also coaches the “sniper” position, a hybrid linebacker/safety slot.
CAMPBELL, DOAKS OUT: Senior center Garrett Campbell (St. Xavier HS) has a broken ankle and is out indefinitely, Fickell said. Campbell was hurt during the UConn game, and his replacement is redshirt freshman Jakari Robinson.
Sophomore running backs Gerrid Doaks, last year’s top UC rusher with 513 yards, recently had groin surgery and also is out indefinitely, Fickell said. Doaks has not played all year.
Fickell would not rule either Campbell or Doaks out for the year, trying to leave a window open for them to return. UC needs one win for bowl eligibility, which means the Bearcats should be playing deep into December.
ON DECK: The Bearcats next play host to Tulane (2-3, 1-0 AAC West) on Saturday at noon on ESPNU. UC expects a crowd of about 34,000 for the Homecoming game, athletic director Mike Bohn said.
Tulane comes off a 40-24 upset of AAC West preseason favorite Memphis. UC is a 7 1/2-point favorite.
Cincinnati (5-0, 1-0 AAC East) vs. Tulane (2-3, 1-0 AAC West)
Saturday, Noon at Nippert Stadium (40,000)
Radio: 700 WLW-AM
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