Friday, we wrote about Cincinnati’s imposing DL
Much like Houston, Cincinnati’s defense goes through the linebackers. Dana Holgorsen said this week that both teams have “linebackers that are old that run the show.”
When defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman left Cincinnati for Notre Dame in January, Luke Fickell hired Mike Tressel as his new defensive coordinator. Like Freeman, Tressel is an elite linebacker coach. Tressel had been at Michigan State as linebacker coach for 13 years and also served as Sparty’s DC from 2015-2019. When Mel Tucker was hired in 2020, he reassigned Tressel to coach safeties. When the Bearcat DC job opened, Fickell brought him in as DC and LB coach. Freeman was named Notre Dame head coach this week.
Tressel has two excellent linebackers in MIKE LB Joel Dublanko #41 and WILL Darrian Beavers #0. Dublanko is in his sixth year and is a sure-fire tackler – in the last seven games, he has 67 tackles with just one miss (98.5% success rate).
In the play below, Dublanko #41 is the QB spy in an end-of-half situation. UC runs a version of Tampa 2 and the MIKE’s job in that scheme is to get to the line of scrimmage and react to the play.
Dublanko doing that here but with specific responsibility to the QB. He shows blitz but never engages with a lineman.
This play is a WIN blitz with weakside linebacker Darrian Beavers #0 coming from normal depth. The tackles and ends stunt to their outside gaps and the nose guard goes to the field-side A-gap, leaving a straight shot for #0 to the Notre Dame QB Jack Coan.
Gardner #1 has initial responsibility for the TE since he’s the only receiver to the defense’s right side. Once the TE crosses, he’s passed off and Gardner can sit back and play centerfield. He gets the easiest INT of his career thanks to the blitz.
Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is the definition of a shutdown corner. An All-American, three-time All-AAC corner, and the 2021 AAC Defensive Player of the Year, Gardner has never allowed a touchdown pass.
He’s been in coverage for over 1050 plays in his career and has just allowed 56 catches (5.3%). That’s a helluva stat. In the last five games, he’s played almost exclusively on the right (weak) side. He shuts down the entire half of the field by himself. But it’s not like the other half of the field is wide open.
Between UC’s corners, Gardner #1 and fifth-year player Coby Bryant #7, they’ve been in coverage for 2,776 pass snaps and allowed just 10 touchdowns (0.036% success rate).
Here’s a play from the Notre Dame game when he was playing the left side. Gardner’s footwork and hips mirror the receiver’s on this two-yard slant. Here, #1 stays with him until reading the receiver’s eyes, at which point he accelerates to get between the #4 and the ball.
Gardner’s play is textbook pass breakup: he extends his play-side arm with his palm facing the quarterback. He also has his downfield arm on the WR’s shoulder ready to make the tackle should he catch it. He flips his hips as the WR starts the slant and again as he steps inside.
Going step-for-step with a receiver like that usually forces the QB to look elsewhere especially against an elite CB. It was a mistake from the QB Coan to throw it at #1.
Sauce does the same thing here against ECU from the other side of the field. It’s a six-yard drag route and #1 falls a half-step behind. So when he extends his palm to break it up, he makes more of a slapping motion to ensure he prevents the receiver from catching it.
East Carolina surprisingly went right at Gardner – the Pirates threw at him eight times and completed four. Both were season highs but don’t expect UH to follow the ECU lead: UH has thrown at Sauce just four times in the last two years. Dana Holgorsen has gone after the other corner Coby Bryant #7 more – UH has targeted him nine times (five catches) with a TD in the last two seasons.
The touchdown came in 2019 when Jeremy Singleton got behind Bryant, who was sleeping on UH quarterback Bryson Smith. Smith placed it perfectly … or threw it up wildly, depending on your interpretation.
Lagniappe: The touchdown came on the strangest drive at UH in years: three different guys played QB on that six-play drive (Clayton Tune was shaken up on the first play, Logan Holgorsen came in for 3 snaps, and Bryson Smith finished it). Singleton’s TD grab was the first of a five-reception streak of 50 (TD), 45, 58 (TD), -1, and 37 yards over three games.
Singleton has stepped up and made big plays sporadically in his career and he’s really come on in the last five weeks, with three games of five receptions. Since that SMU game, he’s caught six passes of 20 or more yards. The Cougars need him to make those plays Saturday.
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