Welcome to Game Week! It’s been a long summer, but we’ve made it. And now we’re here to inform you about all things related to this week’s UCLA Bruins football game as the Bruins prepare to begin their 100th season.
Let’s start off our previews of the Cincinnati Bearcats with a look at the coaching staff and the special teams.
Luke Fickell has 18 years of experience in college football under his belt. He is in his second year as head coach of the Bearcats and third season as a head coach overall. Prior to Cincinnati, he had spent almost his entire coaching career with Ohio State (save two years as the Akron defensive line coach) and I’d say the most famous job he had at “THE Ohio State” was taking over on an interim basis in 2011 after Jim Tressel resigned. The Buckeyes went 6-7 under Fickell, who was replaced the following year by current head coach Urban Meyer. When Meyer took over, Fickell returned to his previous job as the defensive coordinator of the Buckeyes.
Fickell is a defensive-minded guy. He has coached linebackers, special teams and has also served as a defensive coordinator. He is also an excellent recruiter, which showed when he was named the American Football Coaches Association assistant coach of the year in 2010 and a “top recruiter” in 2012 by both Rivals and ESPN.
Fickell has experience in the biggest arenas of college football, including the BCS national title game. While he may only be in his second year with the Bearcats, I wouldn’t take this guy for granted. Cincinnati will see success under Fickell, if he can recruit as he has in the past and if he can keep making progress.
But progress is the key. Cincinnati went 4-8 in Fickell’s first year and the Bearcats are used to doing better than that. They’ve been coached by the likes of Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, and most recently, Tommy Tuberville, who resigned after going 4-8 in 2016. It’s time now for the Bearcats to make a comeback.
According to an interview with Cincinnati.com, Fickell believes his troubles last season had less to to with mechanics and more to do with relationships. He said:
You see what you’ve got when tough times hit. That’s where I was disappointed last year. Not having a good enough relationship (or) the trust, love and respect not only for me, the whole group. We didn’t have those guys that stuck together. That’s what I was most disappointed in. That’s what got us last year. The relationships. Guy makes a mistake (in the secondary) gives up a touchdown, we’re pointing fingers as opposed to knowing how hard the situation is, realizing that and moving on. Unless you’re that much more talented than the other guys, you can’t do it with that selfish nature.
Fickell had it tough last year. The team had trouble believing in him and didn’t necessarily trust this new guy that didn’t have catchy one liners or go out visiting with students to gain support. He just throws himself into the job and proves himself on the field. Ultimately, Fickell spent the offseason breaking up cliques and purposely put the team in tough situations to make them bond. He truly believes that in building better relationships, he is building a better team.
Mike Denbrock was hired in January 2017 as the Bearcats’ offensive coordinator and tight ends coach. He has experience as both an offensive and defensive coordinator, and has coached nearly every position on the offensive side of the ball. He came to the Bearcats from Notre Dame where he actually had two coaching stints. His first stint was under Tyrone Willingham from 2002-2004 when he coached offensive tackles and tight ends. His second stint lasted from 2010 until 2016 when he coached tight ends and receivers while also serving as passing game coordinator, offensive coordinator and and associate head coach under Brian Kelly. During his tenure, the Irish went to six bowl games, including the 2012 BCS National Championship game. He and Kelly go all the way back to the 80’s at Grand Valley State, where Denbrock served as a graduate assistant for two years after graduating in 198, and worked with the offensive tackles and tight ends. Kelly was a graduate assistant at Grand Valley State in 1987.
Denbrock also has ties to the Pac 12. He worked at Stanford in 2001 coaching tackles and tight ends, but left when Willingham took over at Notre Dame. Denbrock also coached Washington’s offensive line from 2005-2008 before moving to Indiana State. When Brian Kelly was hired as the head coach for the Fighting Irish, Denbrock joined him until he was hired by Fickell in Cincinnati.
Marcus Freeman began his career with the Bearcats at the same time as Fickell after spending four years at Purdue. His connection to Fickell goes back to Ohio State where he graduated in 2008 and served as a graduate assistant in 2010. At Purdue, he coached linebackers his entire time there while also serving as the Boilermakers co-defensive coordinator in 2015. Before Purdue, he coached linebackers at Kent State and led his squad to multiple conference honors. In an inteview with BearcatsTV, he said he was coached hard by Fickell, looks to him as a mentor, and cites Fickell as “the reason he got into this profession”. Freeman says they are an attacking defense and play hard and fast.
The Bearcats struggled in 2017 with their special teams unit, ranking 121st nationally by Football Outsiders and 106th by ESPN. These ranking systems took into account field goal efficiency, kickoff return efficiency and kickoff efficiency, punt return efficiency, punt efficiency, and net starting field position for offensive and defensive possessions. Fickell takes on a good portion of the responsibility with special teams, even though they have special teams coordinator Brian Mason.
Cincinnati used to have it good when it came to placekicking. Andrew Gantz set a school single-season record with 112 kicking points in 2015, but spent the next two seasons with nagging injuries. The Bearcats have had trouble finding a consistent and solid replacement for Gantz. Gantz has since moved onto Northern Illinois and, at this point, junior Ryan Jones and true freshman Cole Smith are fighting it out for the starting job. Jones finished 2017 as the primary kicker, going 6-for-10 on field goals and 13-for-15 on PAT kicks. Jones was a perfect 6 for 6 under 39 yards, but his troubles came at longer ranges. He was 0 for 4 on attempts of 39 yards or more. Jones or Smith could potentially fill in for punting duties as well if needed.
Cincinnati has one bright spot on special teams in sophomore James Smith. He is on the 2018 Ray Guy Award Watch List and was also the Bearcats’ only first-team All-AAC selection last year. Smith punted 64 times for a 42-yard average in 2017, as the Bearcats led the AAC in net punting and ranked 15th nationally with a net average of 41 yards per punt.
On kickoff returns, sophomore running back Michael Warren II was the Bearcats’ number one kickoff returner in 2017, with 19 returns for a 23.1 yard average. Cincinnati has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011. Others who could be in the mix returning kickoffs include sophomore wide receiver Thomas Geddis, sophomore safety James Wiggins, and senior wide receiver Kahlil Lewis.
Devin Gray was the primary punt returner in 2017, but will need to be replaced since he is currently trying to earn a roster spot in the NFL. Lewis, senior cornerback Tyrell Gilbert, and sophomore Javan Hawes are possibilities at this position. The Bearcats have not returned a punt for a touchdown since 2009.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Bruins have got them beat in both the coaching and special teams categories. Our kickers and returners outmatch their guys even if the punters on each team are relatively close. Considering how much time we’ve heard UCLA has spent on special teams during Fall Camp, I give the Bruins the edge here. I trust Chip Kelly and his staff will outcoach Luke Fickell and his staff. I think we can look forward to a win on Saturday.