When studying the 2020 Cincinnati Bearcats defense, it’s abundantly clear how fundamentally sound and well-coached the unit is. Each player embraces the concept of being “one-eleventh” of the scheme, which makes it a challenge for opposing offenses to move the football and score points. Despite being tasked with defending high-powered offenses like Memphis, SMU and Houston so far this season, Cincinnati is limiting its opponents to just 11.7 points per game and 302 total yards per game. The Bearcats held all three of the aforementioned offensive juggernauts well under their season averages for scoring and yards.
Despite not playing in a Power 5 conference, Cincinnati is loaded with defensive talent that rivals nearly any team in the country. Head coach Luke Fickell has led the Bearcats to consecutive 11-win seasons and could force the issue when it comes to welcoming a team from the AAC into the College Football Playoff. Despite the program’s recent success, Cincinnati has taken another step forward which coincides with welcoming back safety James Wiggins.
Wiggins starred for the Bearcats in 2018, hauling in four interceptions en route to second-team All-AAC honors in his first season as a full-time starter. Three of those picks were of the walk-off variety, securing victories for Cincinnati. NFL teams covet defensive backs that can take away the football and Wiggins made a habit of doing just that in the most clutch moments as a redshirt sophomore.
Expected to take another step forward in 2019, Wiggins’ season was over before it started after he suffered an ACL tear in practice just two days prior to the season opener against UCLA. ACL tears can take a year or more to recover from but Wiggins rehabbed from the injury in just five months. While that type of timetable can never be the expectation, if anyone could make it happen, Wiggins would be the guy.
Earning a spot on Bruce Feldman’s 2020 college football freaks list, Wiggins is a rare physical specimen. According to Feldman, The 5-11½, 205-pounder has run an electronic 4.44 and vertical jumped 35 inches, and he has retained all of that athleticism after his knee injury. Wiggins, whose body fat has been measured at just 4.2%, squats 725 and has benched 225 for 18 reps.
Unfortunately, Wiggins suffered a setback over the winter after hurting his knee by tripping down a flight of stairs in a rush to class. The good news is that his ACL was not injured but he did tear his meniscus. Wiggins underwent surgery and a nine-week recovery.
With his injuries in the rearview mirror, Wiggins started the 2020 season back at his safety position in the Bearcats’ defense, eager to recapture the sizzle about his potential at the next level. Like seemingly every Cincinnati defender, Wiggins is playing at a high level.
While the splash plays that defined his 2018 campaign have yet to make an appearance, it’s a sign of respect from his opponents that he isn’t getting challenged as much in coverage. However, the same football intelligence, athleticism, and physicality are on full display in 2020.
With only one safety currently ranked among the top 50 in the TDN 2021 NFL Draft Prospect Rankings, the class is in need of risers and Wiggins has the opportunity to shake up the rankings with a strong finish to the season just like Cincinnati does in the college football playoff rankings.
You can read his full scouting report here, but an excerpt is below.
PROS: Smart in coverage with a clear understanding of his role in zone drops and what the leverage of the defense is designed to do. Does well to leverage routes, keep things in front of him and cap reads for the quarterback. Has easy movement skills with fluid mobility in all directions. Smooth pedal, transitions, and change of direction skills.
CONS: Suffered a right arm injury against Houston in Week 10 of 2020 and his timetable to return is uncertain. Is generally where he is supposed to be in coverage, but there are times he can be a tick late in how he responds and there are missed opportunities to drive on routes.