2021 Cincinnati Bearcats – Midterm Grades

Our beloved Bearcats are 6-0, heading into the midway point of the season. How have they stacked up to expectations? What can each position group do to improve their grade? We’ll examine how each position group and the coaching staff have performed at the midway point of the season, on our way to a potential College Football Playoff bid.

Offense

Quarterback – A

The Bearcats have relied on Desmond Ridder almost exclusively this season, aside from some mop up duty from Evan Prater. Ridder has generated some buzz as a potential Heisman hopeful and the new girl dad has had a great season so far. QB1 has 16 total TDs to go along with 3 turnovers (2 interceptions and 1 fumble) and has led the Bearcats to an undefeated first half of the season. He has made good decisions passing the ball and has made few mistakes. He’s only used his legs when necessary, which is really surprising based on his past few years. I had assumed he would continue to use his legs as a main weapon, but his arm has developed to be dangerous enough.

Biggest Surprise – Ridder’s arm. He’s shown the ability to get the ball down field and do it accurately. Twelve months ago, a lot of the Bearcat faithful was clamoring for Ben Bryant (now at Eastern Michigan University) to take over at QB in order to help the passing game. Mike Denbrock, Gino Guidugli, and Ridder worked together to get the passing game better and after spending the off season with Jordan Palmer, Ridder has himself looking like an early round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Extra Credit – We know what we have in Ridder and we should continue to march through our AAC schedule. We need to get Evan Prater more passing attempts to get his confidence up for next season or in case of an emergency. It’s evident he’s got the legs to run the Bearcats offense of the past.

Runningback – A+

One of the biggest surprises of this season so far has been RB Jerome Ford. Built Ford Tough has been steady this season, having averaged about 100 yards a game until last weeks explosion against UCF. Ford now has 705 yards rushing along with 12 rushing TDs and has an opportunity to knock off the single season rushing records set by DeMarco McCleskie (1316 yards) and Michael “The Truck” Warren (19 TDs). Ford showed his homerun hitting ability against Georgia in the Peach Bowl and that trend has continued. Behind a strong Offensive Line (more to come on that later), Ford has shown patience letting his blocks set up, making jump cuts, and taking off for big gains. Ford has made a case for himself to also hear his name called on the Bellagio Fountains in April.

The reserve RBs have not gotten as much work as they would have in the past, as Ford has been very productive with his carries. Charles McClelland and Ryan Montgomery, the next men in, have combined for 229 yards and a TD in mop up duty or when Ford needs a break. Talented Sophomore Ethan Wright has himself looking like the next great Bearcat running back totaling 13 rushes for 95 yards and 2 TDs.

Biggest Surprise – Jerome Ford is THE dude. He’s exceeded expectations and looks every bit of the 4 star recruit that went to Alabama. Credit to Quarterback Coach Gino Guidugli for keeping tabs on him and when things got sour in Tuscaloosa, finding him a quick landing spot. It’s not often you get a guy who could threaten the single season rushing and touchdown record in one season.

Extra Credit – Ford needs to continue to effectively rush the ball and wear our opponents down. Ford’s ability to find open holes has almost effectively taken the need for Ridder to use his legs. Ford has the potential to have the biggest rushing season of Bearcat history, and I think he will succeed. It’s going to be a season for the Record Books for Jerome Ford.

Wide Receiver – A

A group that was beleaguered just two years ago took a big step last season and continues to grow under WR Coach Mike Brown. Depth has been the major factor for the success of this group and the Bearcats have 5 WRs with over 100 receiving yards. Alec Pierce has been a strong WR1 so far this season and leads the team with 406 receiving yards and 3 TDs. Tyler Scott, his running mate has 232 yards along with 3 TDs. They continue to find interesting ways to get Tre Tucker the ball, including pop pass reverses (which are effectively a run, but get him the ball in open space) and he managed to get a TD against Notre Dame All American Kyle Hamilton.

Biggest Surprise – Michael Young Jr’s hands. Ridder and Young had great rapport last year and it seemed like he caught everything that went his way. This year they don’t seem to be on the same page, but it hasn’t been much of an issue, aside from Ridder’s first interception of the season, which Young tipped into a defenders hands.

Extra Credit – Michael Young Jr. needs to rebuild his rapport with Ridder. Young Jr. was Ridder’s number 1 returning receiver with 332 yards and 3 TDs last season but their timing has been off and there’s been quite a few drops.

Tight End – B+

Josh Whyle was Ridder’s number 2 target last season, having caught 28 passes for 353 yards and 6 TDs, but this year Leonard Taylor has been the number 1 target from the Tight End position with 16 receptions for 168 yards and 2 TDs. It seems as if Whyle hasn’t been healthy this year, but hopefully he comes on down the stretch as he is my Cincy Slangin’ Beer Mile Bet for TD receptions for the Bearcats. Whyle currently has 73 receiving yards and 1 TD, good for 8th in receiving yards.

Biggest Surprise – Whyle, who is known for talking a lot of trash, being so quiet. Ridder hasn’t needed Whyle as much, as Taylor has proven to be a good soft handed target in the red zone, but having Whyle and Taylor healthy and effective is a recipe for disaster for an opposing defense.

Extra Credit – Not to beat a dead horse, but Whyle is a game changing player. If we get into a tough battle down the stretch, he’s the type of guy you want to throw the ball to in the Red Zone. Whyle needs to get healthy and rebuild his relationship with Ridder and be a big time target in the back 9 of the season.

Offensive Line – A

The position group that had the most questions going into the season has found their stride as we hit the mid way point of the season. The Bearcats seem to have found their starting line-up going forward:

LT – James Tunstall
LG – Jeremy Cooper
C – Jake Renfro
RG – Lorenz Metz
RT – Dylan O’ Quinn

While they’ve struggled a bit with procedural penalties, the Offensive Line has been a big part of Ford and Ridder’s success this season. They’ve provided protection and time for Ridder to throw, allowing a total of 9 sacks this season, good for 25th in the Country. Ridder’s managed to stay upright and they’ve paved the way for Ford to chase history. Freshman John Williams had looked to lock down the LT position, until he made a bone headed play trying to pick up a fumble and run it forward and that’s paved the way for Tunstall to lock in at LT. RG Vinny McConnell came down with a case of Mono which allowed Metz to seize the RG position and his size and athleticism has opened a lot of holes downfield for Ford. It’s yet to be seen if McConnell can take back his RG position.

Biggest Surprise – Lorenz Metz who struggled mightily to play the tackle position has found himself playing the Guard position at a high level. Metz doesn’t fit the typical size for a Guard, as he’s 6’9 which would make him tied for the second tallest player in the NFL. The German struggled at LT over the past couple of years, getting destroyed by Chase Young at Ohio State and against the Bulldogs in the Peach Bowl. He’s settled in nicely at Guard and has the mean streak to get up field as a high level run blocker.

Extra Credit – After dreading how this position group would perform this season, they’ve gone from a question mark to a relative strength with all 5 players eligible to return next season. They need to work on minimizing the penalties, as UC currently sits #53 in penalty yards/game and a big part of that is the offensive line. If they continue to pave the way for Ford to chase history and to keep Ridder upright and healthy, this season is going to be a resounding success for Coach Crook’s squad.

Mike Denbrock and the rest of the Offensive Staff – A

Mike Denbrock, who interviewed for the Vanderbilt Offensive Coordinator position, has been a punching bag of Bearcat faithful over his time at Cincinnati, warranted or not. After making some changes to his offensive scheme in the middle of last season, likely with the input of QB Coach and Passing Game Coordinator Gino Guidugli, Ridder and the Bearcats offense has been firing on all cylinders for the past year as they’ve spent the past year plus in the Top 10 of the AP Poll.

The Bearcats feature the #6 Scoring Offense in the NCAA with 43.5 points per game and average 7.1 yards per offensive play. The staff has built a strong offense with great depth and no serious holes from top to bottom.

Defense

Defensive Line – A-

One of the biggest disappointments thus far has been the lack of sacks from the Defensive Line, but the Bearcats are absolutely bringing the pressure against their opponents. The Bearcats are 67th in the NFLNCAA (Thanks for catching this Coral) with only 13 total sacks, but generate pressure on over 65% of their pass rushes. Opponents have schemed to get the ball out quick to keep Myjai Sanders from getting home and it’s worked as he has 0 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Hometown Hero Malik Vann (get his 513Shirts Gear Here) leads Defensive Linemen with 4.5 tackles for loss and shares the lead with 1.5 sacks. Jabari Taylor and Curtis Brooks also share 1.5 sacks and 6 tackles for loss.

Biggest Surprise – The lack of sacks overall. This defensive line causes nightmares for the opposing offense, Myjai Sanders spends most of his time with 4 hands on his body, but with 3 down linemen most of the time, they don’t get a lot of opportunities to get the QB on the ground. With 13 total sacks and 6 of them coming in one game, they are averaging 1.4 sacks in non-Temple games. The defensive line has been very strong overall and a big part of the defense, but they need to generate pressure down the stretch to be the game changing unit they were projected to be.

Linebackers – A+

Another group we went into this season with a lot of question marks about finds itself being a strength under new Defensive Coordinator and Linebacker Guru Mike Denbrock. Hometown Hero Freshman Deshawn Pace came seemingly out of nowhere at the Sniper position and leads the BlackCats defense in a multitude of categories including Tackles (26), Tackles for Loss (4.5), Interceptions (3), and adds a fumble recovery as well as a half sack. Pace and Van Fossen have shared duties at the Sniper and both have been busy around the ball, with Van Fossen totaling 12 tackles good for 7th on the team. Darrian Beavers has been a force riding at 4th in the team with 18 tackles and leading the team with 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 forced fumbles and recoveries. Joel Dublanko has locked down the center of the field with 20 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

The Bearcats Linebacker core has been so successful because of the pressure the Defensive Line has been able to generate. Mike Tressel has elevated the play of the group and a position we were curious about with the departure of Jarell White this past year, this group is playing at a higher level. Beavers has the build of an NFL player and coming back for his 6th Season is looking to have been a great decision.

Biggest Surprise – The emergence of Deshawn Pace has come as a surprise. Ty Van Fossen had seemingly locked down the position, but Pace has forced the coaching staff’s hands. Tressel has elevated all of these guys.

Extra Credit – Tressel’s guys have turned in all of their assignments on time. Keep continuing to play at this level.

Cornerbacks – A+

There weren’t a lot of questions on the defensive front going into this season and the trend continues with the cornerbacks. The Blackcats defense is currently #1 in the NCAA in Passing Efficiency on defense, allowing completions on only 49.7% of pass attempts, 4 total touchdowns while having 11 total interceptions. The Secondary allows about 172 passing yards a game which is good for 12th in the Country. The team has continued their mantra of allowing underneath passes and making tackles to prevent big plays. Once the opposition makes it to the Red Zone, coverage tightens up and it’s become a chore to cross the goal line.

Sauce Gardner continues to never have allowed a Touchdown in coverage and has shown off some great open field tackling skills, when a guy manages a catch or a running back finds some space. Gardner has 15 tackles, 2 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions so far on the season. Coby Bryant has continued to play at a high level and is unfortunately the brunt of teams avoiding Gardner, it was Bryant who scored the first and only defensive touchdown of the year, against UCF. He has 21 tackles, 7 passes defensed, and an interception on the year. Arquon Bush has managed the slot receivers, garnering 15 tackles, 2 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions.

Biggest Surprise- None.

Extra Credit – Coach Eliano’s guys have turned in all of their assignments on time. Keep continuing to play at this level.

Safeties – A

The Safety group plays hand in hand with our Corners to make one of the best Secondary units in the NCAA. While our corners get a lot of the hype, it’s because of the strong play of Ja’Von Hicks and Bryan Cook that our cornerbacks can continue to be agressive in forcing turnovers.

Bryan Cook really emerged last year during the Peach Bowl as a hard hitting safety and he’s continued that trend this season. Cook is 4th in the team with 34 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, and 4 passes defensed. He’s shown his ability to blow up screen passes and lay big hits into defenders. Hicks hasn’t had as many opportunities to make plays, but he’s still had 12 tackles, 1 interception, 1 pass defensed, and 1 fumble recovery.

Biggest Surprise – None.

Extra Credit – Cook and Hicks need to continue to allow the Corners to play aggressive and be there in the event one of them gets beat. If they can generate more turnovers from the Safety group, it’s going to be smooth sailing through the schedule.

Mike Tressel and the rest of the Defensive Staff – A

The sky was seemingly falling when Marcus Freeman elected to take his talents to South Bend, but the defense hasn’t missed a beat since he’s departed. Tressel has introduced a few wrinkles with defensive alignment, but kept the scheme mostly the same so that our defense can continue to play fast and loose. The Blackcats are the #3 Scoring Defense in the country, allowing on average 13.67 points a game and the #14 Overall Defense allowing 297 yards per game. They boast the #5 Turnover Margin in the country with 15 total turnovers. Expectations are high from this group and the need to continue to play at a high level. They need to continue to pressure the QB and hope that eventually they find themselves with more sacks.

Special Teams – B

The Bearcats have had a strange year on Special Teams, with a lot of highs, but also a lot of lows. Ryan Montgomery struggled early on with a couple of muffed punts, but seems to have gotten his mojo back. Tre Tucker ran a kickoff back for a touchdown. “The Rake” Mason Fletcher has averaged 43.5 yards/ punt and has a strange delivery which has led to a few muffed punt recoveries.

Early in the season, the Bearcats struggled on kickoffs having had a kick off sail out of bounds in each of the first 3 games. A switch from Cole Smith to Alex Bales has steadied that ship, but Cole Smith seems to have a case of the yips on Field Goals. He’s only missed one PAT on the season, but is 3/8 on his attempts for the season, which fortunately didn’t cost us the game at Notre Dame. Smith needs to get his head right, because we will need him for a big kick at some point, otherwise do we look to Alex Bales or freshman Christian Lowery for a big kick?

Biggest Surprise – Mason Fletcher has come in and hasn’t had a significant drop off from one of the best punters in the country last season, James Smith. While we’ve not needed too many big punts to flip the field, Fletcher delivered against Notre Dame.

Extra Credit – Fix Cole Smith’s case of the yips or move on. Smith delivered a big kick in the AAC Championship game last season, so he’s got it in him, but sooner or later we’re going to need a big kick and if he’s not the guy, we need to make sure the guy is ready.

Juncta Juvant

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