Updating the defensive backfield

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About his point in the spring football, I start making bad decisions. Stretching for stories, drawing conclusions from practice performances and, undoubtedly worse than any of those, quoting the Barenaked Ladies: "It's all been done." (Shaking head and cursing self) 


We've touched on most of the position groups, talked to players stepping into leadership positions, introduced ourselves to freshman allowed to talk for the first time and found analysis of all the newcomers.


Around the circles us media types huddle in at the corner of the Nippert Stadium turf, there's always a solution for lulls such as the end of spring practice story death zone: An interview with Kerry Coombs.


The man's a quote machine and always a pleasure to talk to. Plus, there's quite a smorgasbord of competition throughout his defensive backfield right now. The primary name Bearcats fans are interested in has been JuCo transfer Malcolm Murray. Finding help at safety immediately became a top priority after struggling mightily there last season. A hope exists Murray can step in and immediately become part of the solution. An injury to Wes Richardson pushed him to the top of the depth chart and loading up on reps in a hurry.


Initial reviews weren't glowing.


"Our biggest concern, we put him right in with the 1s," Coombs said. "Wes was hurt and we said, 'Let's find out,' and that was overwhelming. Trying to learn our defense, sitting in the staff room and he is not playing as fast as what we saw on film, that's not his fault. You never are going to play fast if you don't know what you are doing."


Coombs and company opted to move Murray back with the second team and allow him to focus more on learning the system. As spring ball progressed, so did Murray. Some of the speed and playmaking coaches bought into from his junior college tape started to peak through.


"He's getting better every day," Coombs said. "That is mostly coaching. The more comfortable we can make him back there, the better we are going to be. He is going to play a lot of ball for us. I really like him as a kid, he's a good learner."


--- Reuben Johnson has been slowed by a knee injury that's hampered him since the beginning of last season. He had it scoped prior to the 2010 season and cleaned back out after. Butch Jones said he's been moved more exclusively to the nickel spot to ease some of the pressure on his knee.


He's expected to play a significant amount of nickel while growing into the corner role in the Fall. Johnson's physicality in the slot on bump coverages and ability to recover makes him a nice fit inside when called upon.


For Johnson, he's all about changing the conversation inside the huddle for the coming year and placing his own easygoing touch the defense's personality. .


"Just being loud with the guys, being vocal, leadership," Johnson said. "We are here to have fun, we let the outside be the outside, we only can control what we can do. We are going to be much better, being more physical, we know the defense, we are loving football right now, playing for fun."


--- Numerous players and coaches alike spoke to the emergence of Camerron Cheatham as a cover corner. Cheatham showed glimpses of brilliance last year - the win-clinching breakup against Louisville chief among those - but struggled like many of the young players on the UC defense.


So much of the redshirt junior's development relies on learning the position. Cheatham's starting to grasp the more advanced strategies of the position.


"He's playing really well," Coombs said. "The other thing people don't always understand is that Cam was a running back in high school and never played a snap of defense. It's not something just because you are a good athlete or a fast kid you can just go do it. It's been a process, getting him better and better and he took his lumps last year. He didn't like it. God bless him for not liking it. So, he's really taken some ownership, not just of his position but of the group. Really good offseason, really good spring, I think his summer is really going to propel him into a good season next fall."


Cheatham, like many young players forced into action on defense last season, probably wasn't ready for the assignment. Just because they gained experience and survived doesn't assure the defense will benefit, according to Coombs.


"Because we are a year older doesn't make us better," he said. "We have to make sure we are working every day to make the experience of last year pay off for us last year."


--- Drew Frey has been Mr. Consistency for the Bearcats (and impossible to believe he's only a RS junior). The thought process on him, along with JK Schaffer at MLB, is you know what you are going to get.


Coombs believes we may not know what UC will get from Frey this year. He anticipates him taking some significant steps forward.


"We have really improved his open-field tackling and man-to-man coverage," Coombs said. "Which are two areas he has never really had to do a lot of or focus a lot on. Every day we are watching his cutups and talking about how to play things and get his chest on people."


--- Coombs sweats optimism and intensity, but he reverted to a simple fact when talking about the state of the defense this year in comparison to last.


"For me, I have been here five years and only twice run the same system in the spring that we ran in the fall," he said. "For the kids, this is the first time for any kid on this team. Just to be able to walk in and call a duck a duck makes a huge difference for our players and for me."


Coombs, the lone holdover from the Brian Kelly era, adjusted to a new staff taking over his home. Finding chemistry not only on the field, but in putting together gameplans endured growing pains. Not as much anymore.


"I've got a good feel for what it is (co-defensive coordinator Tim) Banks expects for our defense as a whole," Coombs said. "It's not as easy as it looks. When you put strangers in a room together and they have to put things together and communicate to players who are used to doing something different, that is all challenging. I think that just being in the same system. You look at teams that are consistently good across the country, they have continuity in their staff. We have that as well."

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