By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
There's no Antwan Peek to anchor the defensive line, no Blue Adams to lead the secondary, but what the University of Cincinnati defense has as it prepares to defend its share of last year's Conference USA championship are linebackers, a whole bunch of speedy, hard-hitting linebackers.
"This is the most talented group we've had in a while," said UC coach Rick Minter, "particularly in athleticism and the ability to make plays."
The Bearcats, who were scheduled to break camp at the Higher Ground Retreat Center in Indiana Saturday and return to campus, earned a piece of their first C-USA championship last year behind the arm of quarterback Gino Guidugli, a powerful running back in DeMarco McCleskey and a fleet of capable receivers.
But the defense carried its share of the load, too. After a slow start, it rallied to finish third in the league in total defense, surrendering an average of 339 yards a game. UC was 21st nationally in total defense, 17th against the pass.
"We were competing with each other, just challenging each other as the year went on," junior linebacker Jamar Enzor said. "I think we could be better this year. We've got a lot more competition right now. We've got more depth."
Nowhere on the roster is there more depth than at linebacker, where Minter believes he has six players he can use almost interchangeably.
Enzor, a 6-foot-1, 222-pound junior from Havana, Fla., starts in the middle after finishing third on the team in tackles last year in a reserve role. Tyjuan Hagler, a 6-2, 222-pound senior from Kankakee, Ill., is a returning starter at outside linebacker. He had 18 tackles for losses last season, including three sacks. Jason Russell, a 6-2, 210-pound senior from Pittsburgh, starts at the other outside linebacker slot. Juniors Jermaine Wilson and Jamey Murphy, and sophomore Michael Brown all will see significant minutes.
"We pride ourselves on defense," Wilson said, "especially as a linebacker corp. . . . There's no reason for us not to have the best defense in the conference."
The Bearcats aren't very big, but they are fast, and in today's game, with so many spread offenses and the emphasis on passing, if he had to pick one over the other, Minter would choose speed.
"We don't have ultimate size on defense," Minter said. "(Tackles) Lonnie Simmons and Mike Wright are big. Other than that, we don't have a lot of girth. But I think we can run."
The Bearcats need help up front in the form of a pass rush, particularly from ends Trent Cole and Andre Frazier, both of whom have had solid preseason camps.
But it's no secret that this UC defense will go as far as the linebacker corps can take it.
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