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August 25, 2008
The Bearcat defense has a chance to be one of the best in the BIG EAST Conference this year. It would also not be surprising if at some point they start all seniors.
Returning Terrill Byrd and Adam Hoppel gives Cincinnati two experienced veterans, and with Ricardo Mathews and John Hughes as back-ups, it's somewhat surprising the staff has apparently chosen to play Derek Wolfe as a true freshman. Losing Byrd and possibly Hoppel for the season opener may have forced their hand a bit, but if Wolfe is third on the depth chart, how much playing time will he actually see after the EKU game?
Most Improved Terrill Byrd. It seems somewhat insane to pick a preseason All-American as most improved, but I really think Byrd just keeps getting better every year. It seems like everyone struggles to block the guy, and his production just keeps going up with each year of experience. I expect him to improve on his 17 tackles for loss and 8 sacks from 2007, even though he will draw plenty of attention from opposing offensive coordinators.
Next man in Ricardo Mathews. This is a guy with all the tools, and heading into his junior season, his career was slipping away without much fanfare. If Hoppel's calf injury lingers, Mathews will need to take over. He currently has 13 tackles in 20 games, but he should be heading into the prime of his career.
In the spring, this was a position of need. Now it's a position of depth. Anthony Hoke set a new season sack record with 13 in 2007, and I think Connor Barwin could very well challenge that record in 2008. Lamonte Nelms is another player that has paid his dues and is ready to take his spot in the limelight as a starter.
Most Improved After regaining the eligibility he lost prior to the 2007 International Bowl, Curtis Young hasn't shown much rust. I think he's been very disruptive, and he can play both inside at tackle or at his more natural position of defensive end. He's kind of bounced around the depth chart at DE and DT, but when he gets his chance, I think he'll be very productive in whatever role he's given.
Next man in Craig Carey. He brings a lot of energy to the field, and I just don't think Alex Daniels is quite 100% after that Achilles problem. The biggest question mark for Carey will be how well he plays the run. I have no doubt he'll be a handful on pressuring the passer since he's so athletic, but can the ex-quarterback hold up at the point of attack? If he can, his career will extend beyond UC.
Middle Linebacker/Weak Side Linebacker
There are no question marks here. Sharing the middle linebacker spot, Ryan Manalac and Andre Revels combined to record 142 tackles in 2007, and both return. Manalac will play exclusively in the middle while Revels will probably also see some time on the weak side. This should give both players more snaps in 2008. Torry Cornett has claimed the weak side spot and has positioned himself well for the future.
Most Improved J.K. Schaffer. The true freshman from LaSalle impressed me from the time I saw him in summer workouts. He already had the body to play in college, and you won't find a better kid or harder worker. Now he's basically come out of nowhere to challenge for playing time as a true freshman.
Next man in A guy that I believe has made some progress this summer is redshirt freshman Ricardo Thompson. The Withrow grad is not in the two deep yet, but he's starting to sneak in a rep or two on occasion. With Manalac, Cornett and Delbert Ferguson leaving after this season, Thompson should move up the food chain.
Strong Side Linebacker
As a four year starter, Corey Smith is expected to get a lot of opportunities playing on the strong side in 2008. With a big season, Smith could even put himself in the UC record books. Sam Garnes is tenth in career tackles with 317. Smith enters the season with 204. Smith would have to stay healthy, something he's struggled to do in his career, but playing 70 or more snaps a game will give him plenty of opportunities to make plays.
Most Improved Robby Armstrong. I really thought Armstrong would be a candidate to transfer until his performance in spring practices. Now I'm really hoping Robby gets at least 20 plays a game. Corey Smith has had shoulder issues, and I wonder how he'll hold up, and Armstrong could really use the experience for next season.
Next man in Tomaz Hilton. The redshirt freshman was not 100% healthy during the spring as he battled mono, but Tomaz has turned some heads this summer. He still has a way to go, but he'll get plenty of reps next spring to continue learning this new position.
The NFL scouts flocked to get an early look at the Big Three (Mickens, D. Smith and Underwood) during summer practices. I have to admit the thought of moving a 2nd team All-BIG EAST cornerback, who also led the country in interceptions, to safety just seemed strange, but it goes to show how highly the staff thinks of Brandon Underwood. Mickens is battle tested, but Underwood still has something to prove. My one question with Underwood deals with whether he's physical enough in run support.
Most Improved Brad Jones. He came to UC with the size and speed to make an immediate impact, but he seemed slow to transition to college football. Now Jones is taking reps at both safety and cornerback and looks ready to make an impact.
Next man in Bruce Horner and Dominique Battle are so close I just can't pick one, and when I see them taking reps, I think the staff feels the same way. Both are young and have a lot to learn, but both will probably redshirt this season. Four years from now, we Bearcats fans will be glad they did.
With DeAngelo Smith claiming the free safety spot, there is plenty of competition for the strong safety position. Brad Jones, Aaron Webster, Cedric Tolbert and Drew Frey are all candidates for playing time.
Most Improved In my mind, this is clearly Drew Frey. The kid played against very few, if any, Division IA players while at Clinton Massie High School and separated his shoulder minutes before the first scrimmage last summer and missed the entire season. Now he's challenging veterans for playing time.
Next man in Just like with the cornerbacks, I'm splitting my vote. Walk-on Wes Richardson and true freshman Patrick Lambert have equally impressed me with their nose for the football and hard hitting. Richardson is in his second season and has made great strides, and Lambert has not been intimated at all by college football. Both players seem to have great attitudes and will be major contributors in the future.
Long snapper Mike Windt has been very solid. I don't recall a bad snap all last season, and his back-up, Tom DeTemple is also quite good. Every time I see DeTemple, I wonder how in the heck that kid didn't do more than just long snap at Moeller. The Bearcats are in great shape at this important spot.
Kevin Huber will be hard pressed to match last year's numbers, but one might worry about how the rugby punts could mentally affect his normal routine of standing back there and blasting away. With kickers and punters, I think a big part of the game is mental anyway.
One player that will too often go unnoticed is Collin McCafferty as a special teams' coverage guy. The redshirt sophomore is fearless and seems to be on any special teams' unit that needs someone with a kamikaze attitude. It's tough to find players that are willing to run full speed down the field and literally throw their body into wedges or slam into a kick returner also running at full speed, but that is exactly what McCafferty will do.