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Hot Reads: Bob Diaco’s Year at Cincinnati

January 16, 2017

It is probably inaccurate to say that Bob Diaco’s story of a young defensive coach on the rise begins with him taking the Cincinnati defensive-coordinator position in 2009, but, in my estimation, it is where the story starts to get really interesting.

Brian Kelly’s second year as the Bearcats’ head coach was 2008. After going 10-3 in year one, Cincinnati was picked to finish middle-of-the-pack in the Big East. But behind the nation’s 26th-ranked passing offense, 19th-ranked rushing defense and 31st-ranked overall defense, the Bearcats went 11-2 and were favored over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl (which the Hokies won). What do you do after a season like that?

Let your defensive coordinator go, obviously.

OK, so maybe that’s not expected move, but it’s the one Kelly made. He cut Joe Tresey loose in February of 2009, saying he and Tresey differed “philosophically on where we want to go defensively in the future.” The future of UC’s defense, was Bob Diaco.

Diaco had been promoted to DC at Virginia the previous season, but he was still mostly an unknown when Kelly brought him to Cincinnati. But — in shades of what appears to have happened at Nebraska, minus the solid defensive numbers — Kelly wanted a 3-4. Diaco was charged with helming that transition.

One slight issue: The Bearcats had just one returning starter on defense in 2009. That was enough for people to pick the defending Big East champs middle-of-the-pack again. But, with one of the nation’s best passing offenses, Diaco’s 3-4 defense was good enough that first year. It was a top-30 defense over the first two months of the season before dropping off in November, when the Bearcats beat UConn 47-45, West Virginia 24-21, Illinois 49-36 and Pittsburgh (which would finish 15th in the AP poll) 45-44. Those aren’t point totals that will make a defensive coordinator proud, but they were all wins as Cincinnati finished the regular season 12-0 and No. 3 in the BCS rankings.

That set up a Sugar Bowl matchup with Florida, which Kelly didn’t coach as Notre Dame hired him away prior to the bowl game. Diaco did coach against the Gators in that game, a 51-24 Florida win, then joined Kelly in South Bend where Diaco would coach three straight top-20 defenses (based on FEI and S&P+), earn the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2012 and help the Irish to the national title game that same year.

I’ll have more on some of those Notre Dame defenses later on the site, but if you just glanced at Diaco’s defensive numbers and saw 2009 as sort of a “meh” year — 61st in rush defense, 78th against the pass, 67th overall — it’s worth considering that any defense at all given the circumstances felt like progress.

And, for the first two months in 2009, Cincinnati’s defense wasn’t just good enough, it was actually pretty good.

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