While the UCLA Bruins are preparing for Thursday’s game against the Cincinnati Bearcats, Bruins Nation is here to prepare you for watching this week’s season opener. This morning, we begin that by taking a look at the coaching staff and special teams for Cincinnati.
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell enters his third season at Cincinnati with a program on the rise. Last year, Fickell oversaw a massive improvement from his first season when the Bearcats improved from 4-8 to 11-2. It was such a difference that Ben Bolch of the LA Times asked Chip Kelly last week just how hard it is to make that kind of turnaround. As I wrote the other day, Bolch may or may not have been looking to draw a parallel between the Bearcats’ turnaround in Fickell’s second season to what Kelly is trying to do with the Bruins in his second season in Westwood.
Well, there is at least one other parallel between Fickell’s turnaround in Cincinnati and Kelly’s attempt to turnaround the Bruins. That parallel is relative stability on the coaching staffs.
After two seasons, Fickell still has the same offensive and defensive coordinators he had in his first year with the Bearcats. In Fickell’s case, he only replaced one assistant on each side of the ball. Offensively, former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips has been replaced as wide receivers coach by Mike Brown while defensive line coach Steve Stipling has been replaced by Steve Wilt on the other side of the ball.
Mike Denbrock returns for another season as the Bearcats’ offensive coordinator while Marcus Freeman is back for his third year as the Cincinnati defensive coordinator. Brian Mason also returns as the team’s special teams coordinator.
So, almost all of the coaches who led the Bearcats to their 11-2 season are back for 2019.
That pretty much means that the Bearcats will be well-prepared for Thursday’s season opener.
In last year’s season opener, the Cincinnati coaching staff outcoached Chip Kelly and his staff. But the Bruins’ coaching staff was in its first year and the team wasn’t quite comfortable yet with UCLA’s schemes and what the coaching staff was asking them to do. Will a year of experience and familiarity give the Bruins’ coaching staff an edge over Fickell and his guys? Quite possibly.
The Bearcats struggled last season when it came to field goals. Then-freshman Cole Smith was the only kicker head coach Luke Fickell used despite the fact that Smith was only five for twelve on field goal attempts. So, while Smith is back for his sophomore season, Fickell has brought in Sam Crosa, a graduate transfer from Western Illinois.
Crosa also struggled a little last year. He made just 10 of 14 field goal attempts and his maximum range appears to have been 44 yards since that was his season long which he accomplished a few times. In 2017, Crosa did manage to make one from 45 yards out. Considering that that is his career high, I wouldn’t expect him to be successful from much further out than that.
Look for Ryan Jones to handle kickoffs for the Bearcats.
Australian James Smith is back for another season as the Cincinnati punter. Last season, he punted eight times against the Bruins, which was his most punts in any game all season. Hopefully, the UCLA defense can keep him even busier on Thursday.
On kick returns, Cincinnati has listed a pair of freshmen Tre Tucker and Ryan Montgomery as probable kick returners along with junior safety James Wiggins. Montgomery and junior Aulden Knight will handle the punt return duties.
Graduate student Zach Wood returns for another year as the long snapper for the Bearcats while James Smith will serve as the team’s holder.
Overall, special teams is an area where the Bruins could have an advantage if UCLA’s special teams have improved over where they were last season. Hopefully, the game doesn’t come down to that because that would mean that the game is too close for comfort.