CINCINNATI- Five days away from the season opener against No. 19/23 Arkansas, Cincinnati’s No. 22/23 head football coach Luc Fickel held its first gameweek press conference of the 2022 season on Tuesday.
Fickell spoke for more than 22 minutes about his sixth UC squad, including naming the captains, discussing the two-deep depth chart and the atmosphere he expects in Fayetteville, Ark., Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
The game will air on ESPN with Rod Gilmore, Dave Flemming and Tiffany Blackmon on the call.
Here are five takeaways from the Week 1 press conference to prepare fans for Game 1 as UC look to win their 12th game in a row.
Leaders like Desmond Cavalier, Coby Bryant and Joel Dublanko are gone. Fickell announced Tuesday who some of the new leaders will be at his press conference.
For those who follow the UC program closely, these five names should come as no surprise. All five players are senior executives, including two who returned for the sixth year. All five are expected to start – and some for the first time in their careers.
The 2022 Cincinnati football captains are:
“Having a lot of new faces, these guys have been here, they just haven’t been the recognizable faces,” Fickell said. “It’s been a long time coming, I know our guys have been incredibly excited; 24 training against each other is so tough, as you come in the last few days [before the game] it’s hard to stay focused. I’m excited for them, I’m excited for us, it’s going to be a great experience all around.”
Senior cornerback Ja’quan Sheppard earned the starting cornerback position and the unenviable task of replacing Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner on Saturday against the Razorbacks. Gardner was No. 4 in the 2022 NFL Draft and the first player to win consensus All-America honors last season.
Sheppard is a senior from Zephyrhills, Florida who has bided his time as a substitute and has played 26 games. He had a great camp and gained the trust of the staff.
“He believed and he trusted us,” Fickell said. “He did a really good job all through camp. He was probably the only guy at the back outside Ja’von Hicks who played a lot of the ball in all those positions where you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re going to roll these guys and we’re going to give them chances.’ He’s been the most consistent he’s been in that place the whole time, and he’s never given up on it.”
Hicks and senior cornerback Bush of Arquontwo of eight Bearcats on Reese’s Senior Bowl watch list, join fifth-year senior nickel Taj district and second security Bryon’s Threats by completing the expected starting DB corpse.
Cincinnati’s first unofficial two-deep depth chart released to the media features nine OUs at the starting positions, including four slashes at running back. That’s not uncommon for the first week, as Fickell noted that college football is one of the only sports that doesn’t have joint practices, preseason games, or exhibition games.
The running back position is a good deal to have as the Bearcats look to replace the Cleveland Browns’ current rookie production Jerome Ford, a 2021 All-AAC first-team winner after rushing for 1,319 yards and 19 touchdowns. With the four contenders, it’s the story of two pairs. Fifth grade return Charles McClelland remained healthy after two season-ending knee injuries in 2019 and 2020, and Ryan Montgomery is back for its fourth season. Myles Montgomery boasted star camp after making a redshirt last fall, and a former top-notch recruit Corey Kiner is back in Queen City after seeing plenty of playing time at LSU as a true freshman.
Fickell said he expects all four RBs to play in Week 1, but Ryan Montgomery is supposed to start.
“That’s the hardest position to assess and really try to say who our guy is going to be, because you’re not living, you’re not doing some of these things, and you need a lot more of these guys in these opportunities and in the first game in particular… I’ve always said, in this position, in particular, you have to have a one and a two and you have to know who you’re going up.”
There are three more “or”s each on the offensive and defensive sides, covering left guard, tight end, quarterback, weakside linebacker, dollar, and nickel.
The dollar position in particular includes two of Cincinnati’s best defensive players in junior Deshawn Pace and senior Ty Van Fossen. The two parted ways last year with Pace recording a team-high 94 tackles and four interceptions. Van Fossen totaled 70 saves.
4. THE GAME WILL PROBABLY BE PHYSICAL, DECIDED AHEAD
Cincinnati is one of eight teams nationally to have fired all five starters from its offensive line, including 94 starts combined to rank eighth. The three defensive linemen include Jabari Taylor, Jowon Briggs and Malik Vann. Vann has 21 TFLs and nine sacks in his four years at hometown school, including 3.5 sacks last fall despite injury, which Briggs and Taylor gave a major boost to in his place. .
Arkansas returns 99 career starts on the offensive line, including preseason All-American center Ricky Stromberg. The Razorbacks led the SEC in rushing last season, rushing for more than 220 yards per game last fall. Arkansas also had a Top 50 defense.
Fickell, a 50-game nose tackle starter in college, said he and Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman, a former offensive line coach, didn’t share much personal history, but recognized that the two share a lot of roots and passion regarding the trenches.
“I imagine they pride themselves on things like (the physique),” Fickell said. “We’re proud of things like that. In the first week, you’re always trying to figure out who exactly you are, and I think it’s going to be like that. It’s going to be a tough, nasty game, and just like the environment is going to be. We’ve prepared for that, that’s what we expect. If anything should change, then obviously you have to adapt and adjust, but if something does, we have a pretty good idea of the type of physical game it’s going to be.”
Not only did 2021 bring back the sweet sounds of fandom again: The Bearcats were set for their first two road games of the year, winning 38-27 at Indiana and 24-13 at No. 9 Notre Dame. The first featured the Hoosiers’ largest crowd for a non-conference home game since 1987. UC ended its dream season with 76,313 fans inside Arlington’s AT&T Stadium for the CFP semifinal.
Fickell, however, acknowledged that he thought the atmosphere may have affected the Bearcats at the start of the Cotton Bowl.
Still, he made sure to drill into his team this offseason to be ready for the crowds and rowdy Arkansas fans this Saturday. He expects his team to rise to the challenge.
“We can release music and we want it to be loud, but the reality is you want to have good practice, so there’s a balance,” Fickell said. “We started last week talking about the environment, talking about the atmosphere, making sure we’re aware of what it’s going to be like. [in Fayetteville]. It is difficult to prepare. There are a lot of other things you have to prepare for as well, and sometimes the mood is set in high school.”
But not this week.
// BEARCATS ARE READY TO RECHARGE
Led by Fickell, the reigning national consensus coach of the year, and 12 returning starters, the Bearcats are the two-time defending AAC champions and are coming off a 13-1 season that resulted in a trip to the 2021 College Football Playoffs. With a 44-7 record since the start of 2018, Cincinnati’s 86% winning percentage ranks among the top 5 winning percentages in the nation for the past four years.
As season tickets go on sale for the first time in school history, fans can still buy single tickets for as low as $25. Fans can also join the waiting list for 2023 subscriptions.
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// ABOUT CINCINNATI ATHLETICS
The University of Cincinnati Department of Athletics competes at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics with a vision to achieve Next Level Success for the 18 university teams and more than 500 student-athletes. The Bearcats have a proud athletic history, winning eight national championships and 117 conference titles. Cincinnati’s men’s basketball team is among the top 15 winningest programs of all time, while the football team became the first American Athletic Conference program to make the college football playoffs in 2021 Olympic gold medalist, volleyball player Jordan Thompson, NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson and Major League Baseball legend Sandy Koufax are among the personalities who have competed as the Bearcats.
UC student-athletes collectively posted an overall average of 3,369 in the spring of 2021 with 77% honor roll earning spots, while six student-athletes received CoSIDA Academic All-America honors.
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