UC football maintains high expectations as spring training begins

CLIFTON – While Friday was a pivotal day for the University of Cincinnati men’s basketball team when Athletics Director John Cunningham announced the school would review allegations made against the program, Saturday showed that the grass at Nippert Stadium was only is greener a stone’s throw away.

Back on the lawn with a faded UC logo, soccer head coach Luke Fickell gallops through the Bearcats spring training session in khaki shorts and a short-sleeved hoodie, whistling instructions as his club begins defending a conference championship and top-10 national rankings.

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Fickell jokes about not making Zoom calls anymore and is just glad there is a sense of normalcy while practicing.

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell and quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) lead the Bearcats onto the pitch prior to the first quarter of the NCAA American Athletic Conference soccer game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the East Carolina Pirates on Friday, November, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati .  13, 2020. The Bearcats led 35-10 at halftime.

“We have a feeling that things are gradually moving backwards. Our boys have the feeling – it’s exciting,” said the fifth-year coach. “They like socialization as much as the rest of us, and to be out here and just to see people, they really feel a little better. It’s been a long year.”

Fickell is also grateful for having a group of seasoned leaders in 2020 who helped the team navigate a cut season that resulted in a 9-1 record, an AAC title, and a Peach Bowl berth.

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“If you had a group that was young last year and had all of the things we had to go through, it was going to be really difficult,” said Fickell. “We were very fortunate to have some people back who have been here for a while. These types of people are always valuable, but in a year like last year, you can’t take a price for what they did for us. ”

While a bevy of returning veterans helped make 2020 so special for the Bearcats, it’s the same formula for this fall that should produce similar results. UC will return several starters this season, including a defense that was ranked in the top 10.

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New defensive coordinator Mike Tressel inherits a unit of playmakers in the backfield from Junior Ahmad Gardner and the first-team All-AAC selection, Coby Bryant, who is returning for his final year of aptitude.

“I had to think about it a lot. I prayed about it, I talked to my family, and it was a decision I made that I thought was best for myself,” said Bryant when he returned. “It was important to me because, above all, I wanted to be a better leader. I felt like we weren’t done after the game in Georgia.”

Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Coby Bryant (7) intercepts a pass from a school record home win on 19 in the fourth quarter of the NCAA American Athletic Conference soccer game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the East Carolina Pirates at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Friday, November 13, 2020 a 55-17 win on Senior Night.

Tressel’s new group will be the strongest in the trenches. The depth of UC’s line of defense should create upfront nightmares for opposing criminal offenses.

Senior defensive end Myjai Sanders had lost 10.5 tackles and seven sacks a season ago. Its presence is felt in practice through its radiant energy.

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“We talk about leadership makes everyone better; he (Sanders) makes coaches better,” said Fickell. “You can’t help but be excited about what you’re doing because you have people who have this kind of engine and energy. It’s really contagious, but it’s not just contagious to all players, it’s contagious to them Coach and myself. “

The returnees include Malik Vann, Curtis Brooks, Marcus Brown and Jabari Taylor, a quartet that combined 73 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2020. The interior was also bolstered by the Walnut Hills product, Jowon Briggs (6) -foot-1,310-pound Virginia transfer.

“Yes, it’s hard to go up against one of the best defenses in the country,” said UC senior quarterback Desmond Ridder of the training session. “It makes everyone better – makes the O-line better, makes the back better, the narrow ends better. Iron sharpens iron, we say here; the best against the best, that’s how we want it.”

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The irons are sharpened when it comes to who is protecting Ridder this season. There are three open seats in the front, with the second Jake Renfro in the middle and the older Vincent McConnell on the right. Junior Dylan O’Quinn slips right and there is a competition between Junior James Tunstall and sophomore John Williams to see who will protect Ridders blindside.

Receiver Jayshon Jackson stepped onto the transfer portal, but Ridder likes his pass-catching options with wideouts Tyler Scott and Michael Young Jr. moving around the house.

Cincinnati Bearcats recipient Michael Young Jr. (8) completes a catch as Georgia Bulldogs defenseman Tyson Campbell (3) completes a catch in the second quarter during the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl on Friday January 1 2021, defended at Mercedes-.  Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Getting him (Scott) the ball as fast as possible and just letting it go and doing what he does is what we’re going to work on this year,” said Ridder. “Mike, he played outside last year and he’s inside now. He has to adapt to a few things. That will be a big problem in matchups for defending other teams.”

At the end of March, Fickell is developing in every position. This time around, however, compared to previous seasons, UC has a clear goal on their backs. Fickell doesn’t want to hear about early college football polls, he just wants to remind his team to keep raising the bar as expectations continue to rise.

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“With the tide going up all ships, the first people I wanted to feel were myself and the coaching team,” said Fickell of an earlier message. “When the coaches feel it and I feel it, it will naturally trickle down on the others. That happens to people like Desmond Ridder and Coby, they’ll come back because they want more. That’s the pressure I think they are exercise in the right places.

“I hope I don’t have to worry about the polls, but I know it’s a team that feels different. It’s a team that, as we’ve spoken to Expectations, understands that it’s not just about it it’s about winning the game, it’s about doing it. ” the things you have to do to get you to these games. “

Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder, 9, is thrilled with emotion after winning the American Athletic Conference soccer game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, December 19, 2020.  The Cincinnati Bearcats won 27-24.

These Proof-It games are high on the UC’s agenda, with Road Affairs versus Indiana and Notre Dame before the AAC game against Temple kicks off on October 8th.

“It’s March now so it’s a long way to go, but those days will come quickly,” said Ridder. “This year we know we will get the best for everyone in every game. It doesn’t matter who we play and we look forward to this challenge.”

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