To get some inside information on the Cincinnati football team, the Daily Bruin’s Sam Connon reached out to The News Record – Cincinnati’s school newspaper – and asked a few questions about the Bearcats before their upcoming game against UCLA this Saturday.
All of the responses below come from Matt Huffmon, the Sports editor at The News Record.
Daily Bruin: Cincinnati lost only one player to the NFL Draft last year, and they haven’t had someone go in the first two days since Travis Kelce in 2013. Who will be the Bearcats’ player to make a big leap this year, how will they make an impact against UCLA, and what kind of pro-level talent is there on this team?
Matt Huffmon: As far as pro talent, I think we’ll make a big leap this year. I say wide receiver Kahlil Lewis. He’s going to be a senior this year, he was first team all-conference last year. He kinda hit that bright spot right in the middle of the season, but it was one of those where he knew he wasn’t going to go into the draft. So I think he could have a really big impact. And then Perry Young, who’s going to be a junior middle linebacker for us this year. He got a lot of reps at middle linebacker because of injuries in front of him. So I think him and Kahlil Lewis will have a lot of impact. As far as UCLA, I know UCLA’s got a pretty good offense, so I don’t know how great our linebackers are going to be, but I think Kahlil Lewis could have a lot of impact on the ball this time.
DB: Luke Fickell went 4-8 in his first season as head coach, making it back-to-back 4-8 seasons for Cincinnati. What can he do to change the narrative this year, and is there any major additions he has made to help get back to winning football?
MH: A lot of people are considering this recruiting class coming in Fickell’s first. We hired him not this past winter, but the winter of 2016-17. He didn’t really have much time as far as recruiting because we literally hired him the week before Christmas. I think this year he’ll have a big impact. Tommy Tuberville, our previous coach, did not do a very good job at all of recruiting Ohio talent. Fickell really made it a priority to go after kids from the Columbus area, (Cleveland, Ohio) and Cincinnati. He brought in a couple of the bigger names that will get a lot of reps this year from the freshman class – Tavion Thomas, who’s a running back from Dayton. He actually decommitted from Oklahoma to come to Cincinnati, so he was one of those who was kind of a surprise. Then Leonard Taylor, who’s a tight end, is also from the Dayton area. As far as changing the narrative, he’s definitely sticking with Midwest kids. He’s got a lot of kids from Indiana and Illinois. People are fine with getting kids from Florida and everything, but kids who grew up watching Cincinnati football, or even someone like Ohio State, kind of understand the area. You understand what it means to play in the state of Ohio as far as college football. At the end of the day, it’s a big deal – whether it’s Ohio State, whether it’s Cincinnati, Toledo is getting pretty good. Changing the narrative, I’d say he’s going after more local talent, which should help a lot in the long run.
DB: Fickell went to Cincinnati after being Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, while Chip Kelly had high-powered offenses at Oregon. From what you know about Kelly’s fast-paced scheme, what do you think Fickell can do to slow down UCLA on the offensive side of the ball?
MH: I think a lot it will rely on the speed of our defensive line, which has been a struggle the last couple years. Our defensive backs take over games, while the defensive line is struggling to get a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. As far as Chip Kelly, there’s obviously a lot of NFL experience there. I think Fickell’s going to have to adjust to him not being afraid to throw the long ball and come up with a really good play. Fickell really focuses on offense, so it’s going to come down to how he works with our defensive coordinators.
DB: One of UCLA’s main issues last year was stopping the run – ending the season ranked 129 out of 130 in rushing defense. With senior LB Josh Woods out for the year, does Cincinnati have the personnel to take advantage of this, or are the Bearcats going to favor the air attack?
MH: Our passing game was more of a strong suit last year. How much our offensive coordinator and Fickell trust our quarterback – he’s a senior who has been in that situation. He’s been in big game situations, like Michigan last year on the road, so I think it’s really going to come down to how well our coaches trust the long ball. As far as attacking the linebackers, we have Gerrid Doaks, who’s our starting running back, he’s more of a shifty runner. He’s not going to run someone over so, it’s going to come down to how well our coaches trust the quarterback.
DB: What do you think will be the X-factor in this game, and what’s your prediction for the outcome?
MH: I think it’s going to come down to a lot of offense. I think that both teams are going to put up a lot of points; probably 20, 30, 40 range. I would say UCLA is definitely going to pull it out just because Cincinnati is such a young team and our offense does not have as much firepower, at the end of the day, as someone like UCLA. That’s the roadblock we ran into last year with Michigan on the road during week two. We hung in with them enough in the first half but then it came down to who had more firepower in the second half. As far as the final score, 35-21 UCLA, something in there.