Going into Saturday night’s game with Miami (Ohio), the Bearcat defense has shown an inability to create negative plays for opposing offenses. In four games this season, UC has recorded only 8 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. Projecting those stats over a twelve game schedule, the Bearcats would have only 24 sacks and 72 tackles for loss. Those numbers would be their lowest team totals since 2003 when they managed only 22 sacks and 68 TFL on their way to posting a 5-7 record. Cincinnati’s only other losing season this decade was in 2005 when they managed only 24 sacks and 74 tackles for loss in an eleven game season. That year the Bearcats went 4-7.
Conversely, during the last three seasons when Cincinnati averaged 11 wins a year, the Bearcats averaged 39 sacks and 100 tackles for loss.
If the Bearcats’ defense is to be more disruptive, it will likely need to see improvement from almost every player on the defensive front, but the man best suited for the task is Walter Stewart.
Playing the “sam” linebacker spot last season as a redshirt freshman, Stewart showed his big play capability. Making eleven starts, Stewart intercepted a pass and recorded 13 stops behind the line of scrimmage (-71 yards), and after a year’s experience, some added weight and a spring that saw him virtually unblockable, much was expected from the Teays Valley grad this year. But so far, the numbers really haven’t improved as shown by his 1 sack and 3 tackles for loss (only -16 yards). Making this even more perplexing is the fact that the redshirt sophomore doesn’t play much outside linebacker anymore and is usually lined up as a defensive end.
“I’ve been playing a lot more d-end this year,” said Stewart. “We’ve been running a lot of nickel because teams want to throw the ball, and we get an extra DB on the field.”
Opponents are attacking UC more through the air but not by a considerable margin (153 passes to 141 runs). Stewart’s need to play almost exclusively on the defensive line is primarily due to a lack of depth on the defensive edge and at linebacker.
With the overall sacks way down this season, Stewart was asked to identify the problem.
“Some of it is our technique and understanding of the defense,” he said. “Defensively, we’re not jelling, and we just need to come together as a defense and tighten up. If we can start to eliminate the mistakes, I think the TFL’s and turnovers will start to come.”
Most FBS defensive ends weigh at least 250 pounds. The size of Miami’s starters Morris Council (253 pounds) and Jason Semms (254 pounds) are more the norm, but Stewart, who weighs only 235 pounds, feels his lack of size isn’t a major issue.
“It can affect me in some situations,” he admitted. “But I was playing in kind of the same thing last year, and I weighed between 210 and 215.”
Despite the considerable size disadvantage, Stewart said he prefers playing on the defensive front rather than playing outside linebacker.
“I do feel more comfortable playing on the D-line. I feel I can play in space, but defensive end is easier for me. It’s less thinking and just simpler.”
Although the fingers are usually pointed at the defensive line for any lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, everyone has to share the blame for the inability of creating negative plays for opposing offenses.
“The secondary has to work hand-in-hand with the d-line,” said Stewart. “If we’re not getting pressure, they (the offense) will have plenty of time to get the ball out, but if the secondary is playing great, we have more time to get to the quarterback.”
Another glaring problem for the UC defense is the fact it has generated only five take-aways in four games. This week in practice there has been a greater emphasis on ripping the ball out from ball carriers, and Stewart admits his crew has been lacking in getting turnovers.
“That is below our standard. We’re focusing on getting after the football. That includes stripping it, holding people up, gang tackling, tipping balls and making interceptions.”
Playing primarily on the edge last spring, Stewart was a major force, but he hasn’t been able to carry that performance into this season. He was asked why.
“I’ve been playing some linebacker and some d-line whereas in the spring I was just playing d-line. All the terminology, techniques and responsibilities have kind of slowed me down. I’m thinking a lot more than just playing, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable and think I’m about to get going.”
Facing quarterback Zac Dysert on Saturday, the Bearcat defense might well need a rejuvenated Stewart to keep the Victory Bell in Clifton.