A 4-8 finish led to Tommy Tuberville resigning as Cincinnati’s head coach and the Bearcats hiring Luke Fickell as his replacement. Fickell worked under Jim Tressel and then Urban Meyer at Ohio State and is looking to re-energize a program that claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference championship just three seasons ago. Getting back to that point this season will be a tall order for Fickell with just 10 starters returning and question marks on both sides of the ball, but Cincinnati should be an intriguing team to keep an eye on.
Previewing Cincinatti Football’s Offense for 2017
New head coach Luke Fickell also brings an entirely new staff, including former Notre Dame associate head coach Mike Denbrock as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Offense usually was not a problem under former head coach Tommy Tuberville. Then came an awful 2016, when UC often could not score to save its life. Problems included a revolving door at quarterback, an anemic rushing attack and a passing game that averaged 100-plus fewer yards per game than in 2015.
Senior running back Mike Boone joins two returning starters on the offensive line. After rushing for 749 yards and nine touchdowns in 2015, Boone ran for only 388 yards and two TDs last year as he battled a foot injury.
At quarterback, Gunner Kiel is gone after playing sparingly as a senior. That leaves junior Hayden Moore and sophomore Ross Trail, who both started multiple games last year. Moore finished 2016 as the starter and has the most experience. Ohio State transfer Torrance Gibson, a former five-star recruit and high school QB who was moved to wide receiver at OSU, is expected to take a redshirt season.
At wide receiver, top returnees are Devin Gray and Kahlil Lewis. Gray led UC last year with 58 catches and 860 yards receiving. Lewis had 48 catches for 605 yards. Gray and Lewis tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches.
Expect UC to throw more to its tight ends and running backs. The offense is a power spread, and the tempo was much faster during spring practice.
Previewing Cincinatti Football’s Defense for 2017
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New defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State standout linebacker, joins UC after four years as a Purdue assistant. Freeman played under Fickell at OSU between 2004-08, when Fickell was the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach. Freeman inherits a defense that often has struggled in recent years.
Returning starters include junior tackle Cortez Broughton, a second-team All-AAC pick last season. Junior Marquise Copeland did not start last year but led Bearcats defensive linemen in tackles with 59.
Senior Jaylyin Minor has turned heads in the offseason and figures to start at middle linebacker, with sophomore Perry Young at one outside spot. Junior Tyrell Gilbert will be slotted in the hybrid post, covering slot receivers and providing run support.
A big loss is middle linebacker Bryce Jenkinson, who started as a true freshman in 2015. Jenkinson had season-ending knee surgery after two games last year and will not be able to return for the 2017 season.
Returning veterans in the secondary include cornerbacks Linden Stephens, Grant Coleman and Alex Thomas and safety Carter Jacobs.
Previewing Cincinnati Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicker Andrew Gantz returns after missing most of 2016 with a leg injury. How important is Gantz? In 2015 he set a UC season record for kicking points, with 112. Sam Geraci was to enter his fourth year as punter, but he left the program to pursue an opportunity as a graduate transfer. James Smith, a native of Australia, is expected to step in for Geraci.
Tuberville lost the fans last year and resigned shortly after the season ended with a 29–22 record at UC. Enter the 43-year-old Fickell, a fireball of energy in his first full-time college head coaching job. “We don’t talk about goals,” Fickell says. “For us, they’re long term. We want to be the best and be the class of the league, the most fundamentally sound team in America. I haven’t sat down and said how many wins or what is a successful season. I don’t want to sell ourselves short, or oversell us.”