How the Bearcats' defense will look under new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel
Defense is something the University of Cincinnati football team does exceptionally well.
Cincinnati finished in the top 15 nationally in five categories last season, including tied for third in both interceptions (16) and pass efficiency defense. The Bearcats have been the top team in the American in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense in recent history.
When Cincinnati kicks off its 2021 season against in-state rival Miami University on Sept. 4 at Nippert Stadium, it will mark the start of Luke Fickell's fifth season at the helm of the Bearcats program. It also will be Fickell's first season at Cincinnati without defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
Freeman left Fickell and the Bearcats in January to take over the defense at Notre Dame. (Cincinnati is scheduled to play the Fighting Irish on Oct. 2 in South Bend.) Freeman had been the orchestrator of the Bearcats' defense since Fickell took over at Cincinnati in December 2016. That job now belongs to Mike Tressel.
"All those things make it a little bit uneasy," Fickell said. "I think sometimes it's a different challenge. I'm going to still do some things and challenge Mike in some different ways to keep him out of his comfort zone of just doing what he's always done. It's put me in a little bit of an uncomfortable situation. You're just used to that routine when you're coming out to a game. ... In Year 5, the comfort is a great thing, but the discomfort can help us grow too."
A longtime Michigan State assistant, Tressel, who, like Freeman, also coaches the linebackers, comes from the same football tree as Fickell and Freeman. Jim Tressel is at that tree's root.
Mike Tressel is the nephew of the Youngstown State University president and former Ohio State football coach. Fickell, who was a standout defensive lineman for the Buckeyes, roamed the sidelines as an assistant at Ohio State under Jim Tressel along with the younger Tressel when the Buckeyes won the national championship in 2002. Fickell later helped recruit Freeman to Ohio State where Freeman became a two-time All-Big Ten linebacker under Jim Tressel.
Mike Tressel joined then-Ohio State defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati as the linebackers and special teams coach when Dantonio was hired as the Bearcats' head coach in December 2003. Tressel then followed Dantonio to Michigan State three seasons later.
After 14 seasons with the Spartans, Tressel is back and is all settled in with the Bearcats.
Well, kind of.
"I'm not a settle in type of guy," Tressel told The Enquirer. "I mean, I was at one place for 14 years, so it's not about moving. It's just about I'm always on the move, go, go, go. go. So am I really settled in? No, and I don't know if I'll ever be. I'll be moving, I'll be spending 24 hours a day in the football office. But it's great to be back. There's no doubt about it."
With Tressel back in the red and black, there's still a burning question that needs to be answered: How far does the apple fall from the tree? Or in other words: How closely will Tressel's defense resemble the one built by Freeman?
"There better be a few differences, because obviously we've been pretty good and people have been studying us," Tressel said. "But you also, especially with a bunch of extra fifth-year and sixth-year seniors coming back, you better take advantage of what they know and what they're really good at. So we're going to make sure we keep doing what the guys know and love and believe and what they're good at. But we're going to make sure that if all you do is look at last year, you're not going to know what's coming."
The Bearcats return 16 starters from last season's squad, including a handful of seniors who elected to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Those graduate players on the defense include defensive lineman Curtis Brooks, 2020 second-team All-AAC linebacker Darrian Beavers, 2020 second-team All-AAC defensive tackle Marcus Brown and 2020 first-team All-AAC cornerback Coby Bryant.
Tressel said having those guys back for another season is invaluable.
"It helped me for sure, but it also just helps the future of the program," he said. "When the young guys get to see those guys really prepare like pros, really practice like pros, I think that will be huge for the future. The key right now is that they come in and enjoy this year just like they have every other year. Don't put pressure on yourself. Just do what you do and we'll be that much better because of the work you put in."
Perhaps the most notable of the gradate defensive returnees is Joel Dublanko. At middle linebacker, Dublanko will yet again be the quarterback of the Cincinnati defense.
Dublanko, a four-year letter-winner who recorded five or more tackles in seven of 10 games last season, said transitioning from Freeman to Tressel as the team's defensive coordinator has been an adjustment but not necessarily a difficult one.
"He came in here and we've mostly kept all the terminology the same," Dublanko told The Enquirer. "Sometimes you hear him call something different and we're like, 'What do you mean by that?' And he's like, 'Oh, no, that's what I used to call it.' It happens. But we know football. It's all the same thing."
Tressel worked within a 4-4 base defense (four down linemen and four linebackers) during most of his 14-year tenure at Michigan State. That tenure included Tressel serving as the Spartans' linebackers and special teams coach, defensive coordinator and leading the safeties.
Though Tressel's defense differs from the mostly 3-3-5 defense (three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs) Cincinnati ran a lot under Freeman, Tressel said he will play to the strengths and the talents of the players on the roster.
Tressel has run a lot of 3-3-5 during the spring and summer practices and scrimmages.
"I think in all great endeavors, everyone is learning from each other," he said. "All the soldiers are learning from the officers and the officers are learning from the soldiers. You try to play to everybody's strengths, and that's one of my biggest tasks: To try to make sure that we do put everybody in position to do what they're best at."
As the leader of the defense, Dublanko has spent ample time with Tressel since the 47-year-old coach was hired in January. Dublanko said his goal is to learn from Tressel's experiences and figure out the coach's expectations for not just the entire defense but specifically himself.
"I'm a guy that's in the office a lot, so I'm up there, spending time with him, talking football with him," Dublanko said. "I mean, the guy's so smart. I've learned situational football so much more and just kind of universal football that you can put on the tape anywhere and the same things hold up.
"I enjoy talking to him and how he sees the game. I think it's going to help us take that next step as a defense. Not just knowing your job but knowing how can the offense attack it and how can we take advantage of that."
Not only did Tressel inherit the No. 1 defense in the AAC, he also inherited probably the conference's two best defenders in senior defensive end Myjai Sanders and junior cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner.
Gardner, who was named an Associated Press preseason first-team All-American, hasn't allowed a single touchdown over his first two seasons at Cincinnati. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Detroit native has been targeted nearly 100 times over his career and has six interceptions, including two returned for a touchdown.
Sanders led the Bearcats with 10.5 tackles for a loss and 7.0 sacks last season en route to earning first-team All-AAC honors.
Both Gardner and Sanders are on the watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Football Writers Association of America's National Defensive Player of the Year) and the Chuck Bednarik Award (Maxwell Football Club's College Defensive Player of the Year).
Gardner (and Bryant) is also on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the top defensive back in college football.
"What really jumps out at you is the way they practice," Tressel said of Gardner and Sanders. "I had the opportunity to watch them on game film and on TV every chance I get because of my relationships that were here and you can tell that they're ball players. But when you see them do it all the time, how you do anything is how you do everything, and that's when it jumped out."
Though Cincinnati has a new defensive coordinator, and there will be some defensive tweaks here and there, many of the names are the same, and the Bearcats' mission, whether under Freeman or Tressel, remains: Be dominant.
"It's what the Blackcats do," Dublanko said. "It's our Blackcat brand. Just the way we play football. As long as we keep that the same, we're going to be right where we want to be."