The Cincinnati Bearcats boasted one of the top defenses in the nation in 2013. While most of the major pieces from that team are coming back this year, there are a few positions where the Bearcats will be refreshing their rotation in 2014. Chief among them is defensive tackle, which loses the top four from last year's rotation, there are no shortage of candidates to take reps in 2014, but that's not really what the Bearcats need this year.
It is probably a gross simplification to say that if the Bearcats can get production from the defensive tackle spot that everything will fall into place for a defense that should be pretty good. But if you want to build a case for the Bearcats being a top 25 defense they have to at least match last year's production. The numbers aren't insurmountable. Jordan Stepp, Marquise Aiken, Mitch Meador and Adam Dempsey combined for 110 tackles, 21.5 for loss with 11 sacks and 7 hurries. Thats solid production from the spot, but its a level of production that can be replicated this year. At least in theory.
The bellwether for this group will be Brandon Mitchell, and how he plays will go a long way in determining if this defense can come close to reaching its ceiling. Brandon has been in the program for four years now, it is time for him to become a contributor which he really hasn't been to this point. He played in eight games last year, and posted five tackles with a tackle for loss.
He is capable of much more than that. Mitchell isn't just one of the biggest guys on the team, he is also one of the strongest and he has devastating short area quickness for his size. What he hasn't shown yet is that he can command a double team play in play out. To be fair he hasn't shown that because the Bearcats have yet to play a game.
What is reassuring is that in the offseason Mitchell was pretty much immediately elevated to the number one spot on the depth chart, and that he has taken to that role with aplomb. He almost immediately became the leader of his position group. He is the proverbial pied piper of the defensive line, which is a great thing in that meeting room. But its also a good thing for the defense as a whole. The departure of Greg Blair leaves an audible void in leadership. Mitchell has a big personality and that should help to take over some of that role.
The only question if if Mitchell can finally put it all together on the field. The safe assumption would be that he does this year. He was great in the spring and great in camp. His play has been a big reason why the Bearcats defensive tackles have exceeded expectations so far. But until he does it when the lights come on we can't really know for sure.