One of the biggest reasons Cincinnati was able to win at least a share of its third Big East title last season was a rejuvenated defense that feasted on making tackles behind the line and forcing turnovers.
Although seven starters return to the group, the focus during spring practice is squarely on the four players missing -- and on who will replace them in the lineup.
Cincinnati loses co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, leading tackler J.K. Schaffer and huge inside presence John Hughes. Starting safety Wesley Richardson also is gone, putting recently promoted defensive coordinator John Jancek on the spot immediately.
"I told our defense those players have graduated and moved on, but the expectations haven't," Jancek said in a recent phone interview. "The expectations remain the same, and so it's just a matter of the players that we have on our team taking advantage of those opportunities and fulfilling those expectations. I'm very excited about some of the younger players that have been growing and developing in our program. We have some big shoes to fill, losing the amount of production we did through the middle of our defense. It's challenging and exciting and provides other people with a great opportunity."
Last season, Cincinnati ranked No. 1 in the nation in tackles for loss and No. 2 in sacks. Factor in several other key senior departures, and the Bearcats are losing players who accounted for 52 percent of those tackles behind the line and 55 percent of their sacks. The biggest menace was Wolfe, who had 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks alone. He was a huge reason Cincinnati finished tied for No. 6 in the nation in rush defense last year.
Wolfe and Hughes were space-eaters in the middle, each weighing more than 300 pounds. With them gone, Cincinnati will be smaller up front. Camaron Beard and Jordan Stepp are the front-runners to win the starting jobs, and neither weighs 300 pounds. Of all the defensive linemen listed on the current roster, only redshirt freshman Brandon Mitchell weighs 300 pounds or more.
Add in the loss of Schaffer, huge in run support and pass coverage and the surest tackler the Bearcats have had the past three seasons, and you see why there is so much interest in how the Bearcats fill the void.
"We're ready to go ahead and build our own identity," said defensive end Walter Stewart, who has the most tackles for loss (11) and sacks (six) of all returning players. "We have good coaches, and we're going to develop our younger players in the spring and summer during camp. There's a lot of opportunity on the field with big John gone, Wolfe, JK -- it opens the door for another person."
The philosophy won't change -- Cincinnati will continue to be aggressive, try to force turnovers and stay disciplined. Incredibly, the Bearcats had only one offside penalty all season on the line -- that belonged to departing senior Monte Taylor. Stewart, Dan Giordano and Brandon Mills return at defensive end, and all three are seniors -- putting them in charge of helping the younger players along.
At linebacker, Jancek said Solomon Tentman would go into the spring with the first unit, with junior college transfer Greg Blair also in the mix. But the Bearcats are training outside linebacker Nick Temple to play inside when they go to substitution packages and nickel defense. Temple played as a true freshman last season and shows the athleticism and versatility needed to play both.
"I don't know what his learning curve will be now that he'll be inside," Jancek said. "I have played him in the past at the inside linebacker spot. He showed signs of having some good instincts and some good vision and things that you need to have at the position."
The secondary does return three starters and cornerback Dominique Battle, but this is a group that is still in major need of improvement. Plus, it just lost defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs, so how many strides are made at this position will also be something to watch.
Jancek realizes that the team must take steps this spring. But he likes the group of players he has on his side.
"There's a lot of unknowns for us at this point," Jancek said. "We've lost some of the key players from this past season, and we're still trying to find out what the new guys can do. We know that we have a great group of individuals in regards to work ethic and character and guys who are committed. That's really exciting for us as coaches. We'll know more as we work through spring ball whose skill sets are going to be utilized for us this season."