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UC notebook: Opposing offenses playing Keep Away from Cincinnati edge rusher Myjai Sanders

Keith Jenkins
Cincinnati Enquirer

Myjai Sanders was an absolute wrecking ball against opposing offenses last season. The University of Cincinnati senior defensive end led the Bearcats in both sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (10.5) en route to earning first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors.

Sanders was also named a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, which has been presented to the College Defensive Player of the Year since 1995.

Cincinnati Bearcats defensive end Myjai Sanders (21) celebrates a sack in the fourth quarter during the American Athletic Conference championship football game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won, 27-24.

Sanders was expected to have another wildly productive campaign this season, earning preseason second-team All-America honors from USA Today and being one of only two returning 2020 semifinalists (Notre Dame junior safety Kyle Hamilton) on the watch list for this season's Bednarik Award.

But through the No. 8-ranked (Associated Press/Coaches) Bearcats' first two games, opposing offenses have used extra blockers and quick passes to neutralize Cincinnati's pass rush, including Sanders.

The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Jacksonville, Florida, native has zero sacks and no tackles for loss.

Murray State Racers quarterback Preston Rice (5) runs form Cincinnati Bearcats defensive lineman Myjai Sanders (21) in the second half of the NCAA football game between Cincinnati Bearcats and Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

"Maybe that has to do with some of the coverage, maybe that has to do with some of the pressure, maybe that has to do with some of the guys," UC coach Luke Fickell said. "There's a stat for everything, and I think right now the ball is coming out faster against us than anybody else. ... You just gotta recognize it and then be able to adapt and adjust, because it can be frustrating because we all are looking at stats and like stats."

As a team, the "Blackcats" have just three sacks, but Fickell said he isn't concerned.

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"I think we've affected the quarterback well," he said. "For several years, and I got it from my buddy Vrabel (Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, a former teammate of Fickell's at Ohio State), and I don't know if it was from Bill Belichick or not, but sometimes he would say that sacks are the most overrated stat in football. That's hard for some to say because they get paid really well to make those sacks and things like that. But I think when done the right way, the ability to close the pocket, the ability to tip balls, the ability to put pressure on the (quarterback), those things are every bit as effective sometimes as sacks."

Cincinnati Bearcats defensive lineman Myjai Sanders (21) reacts to a stop in the second half of the NCAA football game between Cincinnati Bearcats and Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

Offensive players playing defense?

Tyler Scott has been the Bearcats' breakout star through the first two games.

The sophomore wide receiver, who was one of the standout performers during camp at Higher Ground, has a team-high 155 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season. His five catches tie fellow sophomore wideout Jadon Thompson for the team lead.

Scott's 81-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Desmond Ridder in the season-opener was the longest pass play for Cincinnati since 2016.

Cincinnati Bearcats wide receiver Tyler Scott (21) celebrates after catches a pass from Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) for a touchdown in the first half of the NCAA football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Miami Redhawks on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

After hauling in just three catches for 20 yards and recording a 20-yard rush as a freshman last season, the secret is now out on the 5-foot-11, 177-pound speedster from Norton, Ohio (near Akron).

"Yes, the cat's out of the bag," said Fickell of Scott, who played running back for most of his football career before lining up at receiver for the Bearcats. "Tyler will be playing some defense. It's been in my history to see that done and work really well. You might see it this week, maybe next. Yes, the cat will be out of the bag at some point in time. We're just figuring out when and how we're going to use him, whether it's just the red zone or if we give him a bigger package."

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Fickell was joking (probably). But Scott's speed and versatility have made him a dangerous weapon and an alluring piece for position coaches on both sides of the ball. 

Maybe Fickell will consider playing junior running back Jerome Ford on defense too. After all, Ford played some defensive end in high school and has plenty of experience rushing the quarterback.

"I'm not there just yet," Fickell said. "We're only going to take one at a time, and right now, it's just Tyler. We'll see as we continue to move forward."