CINCINNATI - Dan Giordano shakes his head even thinking about last year. The starting defensive end estimates the number of snaps he played per game around 80. Pinning down an exact number evades him, perhaps because the memories are a bit of a blur.
"Last year, dude, that was crazy," he said.Somewhere between the oppressive heat in Fresno, Calif., and five inches of snow at Nippert Stadium against Pittsburgh, Giordano, Derek Wolfe and John Hughes experienced somewhere north of 3,000 physical, one-on-one battles of strength and agility.
Whether Oklahoma's lightning-fast spread or Pitt's grinding ground pound, the defensive line rarely changed.
In an area where wins and losses are earned and lost on a weekly basis, the difference can only be a matter of inches in leverage. Or one play used to catch wind.
How many of those contributed to a defense lingering at the bottom of the Big East in most every defensive category in 2010? Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. Measuring pad level and effort are too intangible to place a number on.
But ask any one of those players or any one of the coaches evaluating them and they'll tell you - the effect was very real."In the offseason we realized last year we had guys play too much," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "The advantage we have is this year we thought there were more people ready to play."
Thus far in 2011, the difference has been immeasurable. Where Wolfe was playing sometimes 90 snaps in a game, estimates have him averaging around 40. The same number applies to Giordano and Hughes. Walter Stewart, the new addition on the end, doesn't rush much more than that, either.
Stripling calls DT Jordan Stepp, Hughes and Wolfe "the three amigos" as Stepp essentially developed into a third starter in the rotation at defensive tackle. DE Brandon Mills has become a budding pass-rush specialist off the edge and junior DE Monte Taylor owns half a sack.
UC never gave an inch in the trenches against N.C. State, at the end of the day the Wolfpack had negative yards rushing and QB Mike Glennon went down six times.
"We are noticing the effort and leverage," Stripling said. "Obviously, every player in America when he gets tired he gets high, so they are able to play lower and harder at the end of the game versus the last two years."
Less equals more. The numbers bare that out for Wolfe. All of last season he managed to capture the quarterback three times, but owns four sacks already this year. That's tied for third in the country and leads the Big East.
He earned that position, but an assist goes to his teammates.
"I can't tell you, there is nothing better than feeling fresh," Wolfe said. "Being able to take first and second off and come in on third down, that is a real payoff."
Butch Jones and Stripling run the rotation partially by feel and partially by a set idea of how many snaps they want each player to endure. On the bigger plays of the game, the starting unit of Wolfe, Giordano, Stewart and Hughes will be on the field, depending on the situation.
The development of depth up front allows the Bearcats to create mismatches in certain down and distance or play a hot hand.
"We have different packages for different personnel," Giordano said. "I try to go in the first plays when we expect run because I am a bigger body. All of us have different features."
All of those features were neutralized against Tennessee. UC only touched QB Tyler Bray three times in 41 attempts and allowed a 100-yard rusher. No matter how fresh any linemen was, they couldn't reach the quarterback. Yet, over the past two weeks, UC has collected 11 sacks and allowed less than two yards per rush.
The competition took a step down. True. Yet, Stripling saw the group play better. He saw a maturation following the game. He saw a wake-up call.
"Right now, we still have a chip on our shoulder after going in there and getting embarrassed," Giordano said. "I want to say we were more hungry. It's a challenge, that is when there is better competition. That gave us a taste of, well, you better get going. I think we needed that and that was a turning point in our season."
The turning point in continuing the same effort and level of play throughout the final two-thirds of the year may have came in the offseason, though. To this point, the deeper rotation has paid dividends in performance, but once the calendar flips to November those reps will mean even more.
"The physicality will continue to increase," Jones said. "It makes a big difference. It is a cumulative effect throughout the course of a season."
A season Giordano knows hasn't been anywhere near as crazy.
"You are not out there with heavy legs," he said. "I feel great when I am out there, actually."