BearcatLair.com wraps up its four part preview of the 2011 football Bearcats with this look at the Cincinnati defensive backs and punters.
The return of cornerback Dominique Battle will be a big uplift for the Bearcats defense in 2011
Although interceptions aren’t solely the responsibility of the defensive backs, they’re the ones that get the bulk of them, and last season Cincinnati’s DB’s simply didn’t get enough touches.
With only eight interceptions in 2010, the UC defense was tied for 99th in the country. Only eleven FBS schools did worse. Although the inability to get “picks” doesn’t necessarily guarantee a poor season, the last time the Bearcats intercepted fewer than eight passes (2005), they finished with a 5-7 record.
It’s tough to project the starters at the beginning of camp because several veterans like Dominique Battle, Reuben Johnson and Wes Richardson weren’t completely healthy in the spring. Nevertheless, I think they may start with Dominique Battle (CB), Cam Cheatham (CB), Drew Frey (SS), Wes Richardson (FS) and Chris Williams or Reuben Johnson (NB).
The return of cornerback Dominique Battle after last year’s season ending knee surgery should help, but skill players don’t always return to form right away so the senior may get off to a slow start. However, Battle proved to be a major contributor in 2009 when he made 60 tackles and picked off two passes in helping the Bearcats post a 12-0 regular season record. If he returns to form, he’s a no-brainer to start at cornerback.
One of the bright spots in last year’s secondary was the play of Reuben Johnson. The true junior was third on the team with 62 tackles (tops among the DB’s) with one interception, but Johnson has been slowed by a knee injury and was held out of much of spring practice. The physical Johnson is expected to compete for the staring nickel back position that the Bearcats use quite frequently, when I saw him running in July, he still had a hitch in his gait.
Cam Cheatham saw extensive playing time in 2010 making ten starts at cornerback, but he tallied only 26 tackles with one interception. However, the experience gained from last season should elevate his game this year. After a good spring, all signs point to this redshirt junior having a breakout season in 2011.
After starting at strong safety the last two seasons, Drew Frey returns for his junior year. Frey’s 52 tackles (11 games) was sixth on the squad in 2010 but down from his 64 stops (12 games) the previous year, but the former Clinton Massie star has been good for two interceptions per year. With a year of playing this defensive system now under his belt, expect more production from Frey in 2011.
Former walk-on Wes Richardson is the incumbent at free safety after making 42 tackles with two interceptions last season, but the competition will be lining up in an attempt to unseat the senior. The UC staff got a good look at some others during the spring as Richardson missed reps due to his rehab from shoulder surgery. Like Frey and the others, Richardson is now more familiar with the defensive scheme, and hopefully, many of the blown coverages from this group last year will disappear.
Chris Williams (10 tackles in 2010) has played cornerback, safety and now nickel back for the Bearcats, and he’s expected to battle Reuben Johnson for the starting nickel spot in camp. Due to Johnson’s injury, Williams got the lion’s share of the reps last spring and seemed to adjust well to his new role, but the Winton Woods grad has struggled to stay healthy in previous seasons. A competition between these two highly recruited players should prove interesting.
After making two starts at the nickel back position last season, Patrick Lambert (23 tackles and 1 int. in 2010) returned to safety in the spring. In fact, the Florida junior ended spring as the top free safety. Like Richardson, Lambert gets noticed every training camp for some of his big hits.
Junior college defensive back Malcolm Murray transferred to Cincinnati in time to participate in spring football. Understandably, Murray occasionally looked lost as he tried to learn the new defense, but that experience should help the free safety when training camp starts on Monday.
Sophomore cornerbacks Deven Drane and Adrian Witty were forced into action last year due to a lack of overall depth, and Drane even made a start against UConn. While Drane has been slowed by an injury, he appears healthy now. Witty has enjoyed a great off-season in the weight room adding some much needed bulk. Both these kids have great potential and could easily see their roles increase in 2011.
Arryn Chenault will also be looking to get into the mix at safety, but the true sophomore has been battling a knee issue for quite some time. Chenault is known as a hitter, but he is unproven as he missed much of last year’s camp due to that knee injury.
In his short time at UC, Demitri Beal has bounced around a bit, but the redshirt freshman is now back with the defensive backs and hoping to contribute this year.
Cornerbacks Reuben Haley and Aaron Roberson would have to be considered high quality walk-ons. Both are hard workers and have shown improvement every year. At the very least, these two will help on special teams, but they also have a legitimate shot at passing some scholarship players this season.
Freshman cornerback Trenier Orr from Winter Garden, Florida will get his feet wet in training camp but shouldn’t be needed to contribute this year.
Walk-on Isiah Vaugh was a teammate of Damon Julian (WR) at Pierce Community College in California, and the safety joined the UC program in time to participate in spring football. Although listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds at his junior college, Vaugh’s size is more appropriately listed as 6-foot, 200 pounds on Cincinnati’s website.
With the return of Pat O’Donnell this position seems set. The junior improved from averaging 37.9 yards on seven punts as a freshman to 41.9 yards last season. That stat ranked him No. 46 in the country in 2010. O’Donnell’s leg is as lively as Cincinnati’s former All-American and Cincinnati Bengals’ punter Kevin Huber, and it wasn’t until Huber’s junior season that he really started to get consistent. Expect O’Donnell to show even more improvement in 2011.
O’Donnell doubles as the holder on place kicks.
Walk-on John Lloyd will return after having an excellent career at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, but like many young kickers, Lloyd needs to become more consistent and will be working on that in training camp.
Freshman walk-on Eric Ernst (McNick) will also be joining the squad this season.
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