Mike Williams entered last Saturday's game as one of the top receivers in the Big East and one of the biggest threats UC had faced this season. He, UC redshirt freshman safety Drew Frey said, was going to test the Bearcats secondary, perhaps like no other receiver the team had encountered this year.
Before facing UC, Williams was fifth in the nation with 118.7 receiving yards per game and tied for seventh with 7.5 catches per contest. He was good, and though the Bearcats secondary is still pretty darn young - including Frey, sophomore Dominique Battle, senior Aaron Webster and Brad Jones (though a senior, he didn't have a wealth of game experience entering the season) - they made Williams (four catches, 34 yards) a non-factor during the Bearcats 28-7 victory.
"He was definitely a threat in our eyes," said Frey, who picked up his second interception of the year with an end zone grab of a Greg Paulus pass. "Whenever you have an athlete of that caliber, you want to make sure to pay attention to where he is on the field. He's a great competitor and it showed that our secondary, to hinder what he's normally used to producing, is a success in our eyes."
That was the biggest question for a UC defense that had quite a few of them entering the season.
With the loss of Brandon Underwood, Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith, the coaching staff had to replace them with a gang of talented, yet mostly unproven defensive backs. Then, with a few injuries early in the season, the Bearcats - for the first five games of the year - didn't start the same four players in the secondary two weeks in a row.
Now, though, UC is in a groove.
"We had an injury here, we had an injury there and that was part of it," defensive backs Kerry Coombs said. "We were piecing things together and moving guys in and out. The experience level and us finding a comfort level in what they were able to do fitting into this package was always a big part of the package.
"We went through that time period a little unsettled. Since we've come in and said, 'These are the four guys, and they're going to play these four spots,' it's gotten better. That's the difference in the consistency of play."
One important factor that has helped the secondary's consistency is facing the Bearcats receiving corps every day in practice. Having to defend players like Mardy Gilyard, D.J. Woods, Armon Binns and Marcus Barnett on a daily basis takes its toll on the defensive backs. It also makes them better players.
"The biggest thing is we see great receivers every day in practice," Coombs said. "They'll beat you. That's a great lesson for us. If you're not going up against the quality of players every day in this offense, you aren't going to develop at the same level. It's frustrating to us getting beat on a play, but at the same time, these guys do it to everybody. That makes us better, because the pressure is on us every day in practice, which makes Saturdays more comfortable."
Battle is still young and improving, while Frey - who Brian Kelly has touted for the past two seasons but had suffered through two redshirt seasons - had one of the best games of his career. But perhaps the biggest surprise has been Jones, who had accumulated 36 tackles and three interceptions during his past 24 games. This year, he's recorded 29 tackles, including 2 ½ for a loss.
"Brad Jones is the one guy we didn't know about," Kelly said. "He didn't play very much. But he's been solid for us and he's given us a confidence that we know what we're going to get from Brad every week."
While the secondary still can't be compared to last year's defensive backs unit, Coombs is proud of his charges nonetheless.
"They're clearly not, at this point, the same talent level we had last year," Coombs said. "But at the same time, they're actually playing better. That's a rewarding thing."
--And speaking of Kerry Coombs - how about that segue? - he's going to be at the new LaRosa's in Colerain with myself, Lonnie Wheeler and John Baskin discussing and then signing copies of Bearcats Rising and Cincinnati Schoolboy Legends on Thursday at 7 p.m.. Come check it out. You know it's going to fit this Barney Stinson description to a T.