The defense is being cast as the reason the Cincinnati Bearcats could fall short of expectations in 2010. It hears the critics loud and clear.
WEST HARRISON, Ind. -- No environment is safe. When walking around campus, they hear it. When eating lunch, they hear it. Linebacker JK Schaffer says even when relaxing with his friends on other UC sports teams, he hears it.
Will this defense be the downfall of the Bearcats season?
"I am so tired of it," defensive tackle Derek Wolfe said. "It's every day."
In the home stretch of last season, the Bearcats didn't complete a perfect regular season because of their defense, rather in spite of it. UC allowed an average of 39.4 points a game during the final five games of the year, including the 51-point barrage at the hands of Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators in New Orleans.
And only five starters return from that unit.
So, as much optimism as can be derived for 2010 from the returning contingent of players on offense like Zach Collaros, Armon Binns, DJ Woods, Isaiah Pead, Ben Guidugli and Travis Kelce, an equal amount of pessimism exists around a defense currently without a senior starter.
The national pundits reacted accordingly. Despite back-to-back Big East championships and two seasons of rising from unranked to BCS, the Bearcats were slotted by some as low as the mid-40s and by nearly all outside the Top 25.
As Wolfe sat on the front row of a bleacher at Nippert Stadium and expressed frustration over his unit's critics, he stopped and pointed to the pad of paper in my hand.
"I want you to write this down," he said.
And when a 300-pound all Big East defensive tackle tells you write something down, you do it.
"It's not the fact of proving the people who don't think we are going to do well wrong," he said. "The people who expect us to do well, that is who we want to do well for."
The Bearcats defense has been called out - nationally, locally and even inside its own athletic fraternity.
"When I get random people coming up to me making fun of our defense, that bothers me," Schaffer said. "Other than that, I don't really care because I like being the one that has to go out and prove something because I feel like once you stop trying to prove people wrong that is when you fall short."
The possible pitfalls are many. It starts with depth - or the lackthereof.
The known quantities within the team's new 4-3 defense are Walter Stewart ranging between linebacker and defensive end, Schaffer likely moving to from outside to middle linebacker and Drew Frye and Dominique Battle heading up the secondary. Beyond those, the back end of the defense isfilled with a contingent of players who served assisting roles last season, but none who took on the responsibility they will this year.
More than any other spot, however, a concern over depth exists on the defensive line. As long as Wolfe and John Hughes are on the field plugging up the middle, coach Butch Jones feels confident. Beyond those two lives a laundry list of question marks.
"It's a major concern right now," Jones said. "(Hughes and Wolfe) are great players, they are going to have to be ironmen. We are searching for defensive lineman to step up and play."
Freshman Roney Lozano has been thrown into the fire and will be playing a significant role come Sept. 4 at Fresno State. As young players with wide eyes go, he won't be alone.
Without a senior, this group relies on a core of underclassmen to play the role of leader. Normally, a team's leadership falls to those experiencing the convergence of maturity and urgency in their final college season. Only, when there aren't any seniors in that mold, somebody must assume the roles of enforcer and example, teacher and therapist.
Juniors Wolfe and Schaffer assumed the role of leaders of this team.
"It is a role we have to embrace and make the most of because we really have no other choice," Schaffer said. "Plus, that is the way we wanted it to be if we did have the choice."
An interesting development occurred in the absence of the senior leader. Many younger players turned inward with the team in need of an authoritative presence.
"Not having a senior run the whole thing is kind of helping us come together more," Wolfe said, admitting sophomore DB Reuben Johnson - giving up 120 pounds - jumps in his face every day. "It takes certain people at a certain time to step up and say something. Whether it be me slacking or John Hughes, if we are slacking I expect one of these linebackers or DBs to come get after us."
Emerging leaders and progressing underclassmen sure sound swell in August, but mean very little if they aren't parlayed into results come September. At the end of the day, that's where this defense will be judged. The gap between pundits predictions and players proving them wrong lies somewhere between the hash marks on third-and-5 in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma.
Just know this: as the season draws closer, this defense hears loud and clear those stamping the scarlet letter of failure on its chest. It could care less. The team cares about shutting down opponents in order to reward all those who believed.
In doing so, the critics will be silenced in the process.
"We are doing it for the city of Cincinnati, for our families, for ourselves," Wolfe said. "It feels like everyone is against us. They are not ranking us high, giving us no respect. Just like any other year. We are out here to prove something; we are playing for each other."
We shall see what happens, but for now, those convincing words are worth writing down.