In less than a month, the UCLA Bruins will be heading to Nippert Stadium to mark the start of the 2019 football season for the Cincinnati Bearcats. In preparation of that game, we’ll be going through each position group on the roster, and breaking down said group, starting off with the defensive backs.
Some big news came about late last week, that being Alabama transfer Kyriq McDonald would be granted immediate eligibility for the Bearcats. McDonald was originally a three-star safety, and after spending two years in Tuscaloosa, decided he would be transferring to Cincinnati. There was some uncertainty on whether or not his waiver would be granted, but in the end, everything worked out. McDonald will have three years of eligibility, and while he may not make much of an immediate impact, he’ll help deepen a paper thin group of safeties by joining sophomore Ja’von Hicks in backing up juniors James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest.
After an incredible breakout season in 2018, James Wiggins comes into the year with high expectations, landing himself on the Thorpe Award and Nagurski Trophy watch lists and first team all-AAC. These expectations are more than warranted, however, as the Miami native finished the 2018 season with 54 total tackles, four interceptions, and one forced fumble. Easily the most impressive aspect of his game shown this far is his ability to step up when needed. Out of his four interceptions, three of them capped off the opponent’s final drive of the game. Wiggins is a special player, and could very well be departing for the NFL after this season. As for now, however, he’s a Bearcat, and should be one of the stronger spots on this defense.
Teaming up with Wiggins will nearly undoubtably be Darrick Forrest, a junior out of Columbus who put up some really impressive numbers as well last season. As a sophomore, Forrest appeared in all thirteen games along with Wiggins, and put up 49 total tackles, two pass deflections, an interception, and a fumble recovery. Those numbers are nothing short of impressive, not to mention coming from an underclassman at the time. For the second straight season, Wiggins and Forrest should combine to form one of the most dangerous duos in the conference yet again.
While those two safety spots are all but locks at this point, there’s still some uncertainty on who will be the two starting cornerbacks come August 29th. After a rather uneventful freshman campaign in 2017, Coby Bryant had a breakout season last year, consisting of 30 solo tackles, 11 pass deflections, two interceptions, and one forced fumble. As a starter in every game last year, Bryant’s spot is a lock, but with Tyrell Gilbert’s departure, there’s an opportunity for a new face to step up.
One of the bigger stories that developed this offseason for the Bearcats was sophomore cornerback Noah Hamlin’s withdrawal from the program, stemming from an incident involving a traffic stop in Pittsburgh last month. While Hamlin may not have produced much as a redshirt freshman, he was expected to see an increase in reps this season. Taking Hamlin out of the equation ultimately gives the coaching staff two choices for the second starting cornerback spot: Arquon Bush and Cam Jefferies.
Arquon Bush was redshirted last season, but appeared in the regular season finale against East Carolina, and man, did he make the most of it. Bush had arguably the best individual performance of any defensive player all season long. He finished the game with three solo tackles, two interceptions, and one fumble recovery. If somehow that didn’t impress you, he also returned one of those interceptions back for a touchdown as well. While Bush may lack the experience, he makes up for it in potential and flat out talent.
On the other side of the coin, Cam Jefferies enters the 2019 season as a graduate senior from Bowling Green State with three seasons under his belt. He was a solid rotation player last season, appearing in every game and putting up some solid numbers. He finished 2018 with 34 total tackles, 12 pass deflections, two fumble recoveries, and an interception. With Tyrell Gilbert struggling with injuries throughout last season, Jefferies also stepped up and started a few games as well.
Camp Higher Ground is going down as we speak, which helps give some insight on who will end up starting at cornerback when the season comes around. According to BearcatJournal.com’s Chad Brendel, Bush was playing with the first team defense on day one, but has since been overtaken by Jefferies on day five. My guess would be Jefferies keeps that spot, but nevertheless, Bush will see some significant playing time this upcoming season. The most likely candidate to round out the rotation is Taj Ward, a redshirt freshman who appears to have already cracked into the second team, according to Chad Brendel’s Camp Practice Report Day 5.
While depth may be a concern for the Bearcats’ secondary, talent and experience aren’t. All four of the projected starters appeared in every game last season, and finished the year with significant production. If this group can stay remotely healthy throughout the upcoming season, they could very well end up being among the nation’s best yet again.