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Bullseye: Cincinnati Bearcats

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Luke Fickell’s program was ahead of schedule last season with an 11-2 record. Do they have the tools to duplicate that success with a more difficult schedule in 2019?

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Cincinnati vs Virginia Tech Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

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Playing their second of three straight home games in the month of November, the late-season gauntlet continues for USF when welcoming longtime conference rival Cincinnati to Raymond James Stadium.

Ahead of schedule in year three of the Luke Fickell era, the Bearcats enter the 2019 season with the potential to end up as conference/New Year’s Six contenders should they hold their own in a difficult slate.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Narrative

After a 4-8 mark in Fickell’s first season at the helm in 2017, many expected the Bearcats to simply make incremental steps forward and fight for bowl eligibility in 2018.

Instead, they pulled off an incredible turnaround, finishing the year with an 11-2 record and jumping from 95th to 50th in S&P+. UC started the year by taking down UCLA in Pasadena and proceeded to rattle off five more victories before suffering a come-from-behind loss to Temple in overtime.

With their only other blemish coming at the hands of UCF on national television later that year, the Bearcats won four of their last five games in the regular season en route to edging Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Armed with several vital playmakers returning, including a top-50 recruiting class from 2018 set to get more run on the field, momentum fuels the program entering the 2019 season.

Personnel

Taking over for Hayden Moore in the aformentioned UCLA game, Desmond Ridder took control and firmly planted himself as the Bearcats starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. Throwing for 2,445 yards and 20 touchdowns with a 62.4 completion percentage last season while also rushing for an additional 583 yards and five scores on the ground, the freshman signal-caller took home 2018 AAC Rookie of the Year honors.

As Bill Connelly pointed out in his Cincinnati preview, what made Ridder’s freshman campaign even more impressive was his ability to get his team out of third-and-long jams by ranking 16th in passing downs marginal efficiency and 11th in blitz downs success rate. Now a sophomore, the Louisville native will be tasked with both exceeding last year’s production and keeping the Bearcats offense on schedule.

Of course, it helps when your quarterback doesn’t have to shoulder the load and Ridder will have an entire stable of running backs to hand the ball off to. The leader of that group, of course, is 5’11”, 223 pound Michael Warren II, who introduced himself to USF fans by rushing for 151 yards and three touchdowns in last season’s 35-23 win over the Bulls at Nippert Stadium.

Aptly nicknamed “The Truck”, Warren finished his sophomore campaign with over 1,300 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground and 25(!) receptions in the passing game. Sharing the running back with Warren is Gerrid Doaks, who returns from injury and the sophomore tandem of Charles McClelland and Tavion Thomas, who combined for nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Ridder’s top passing target in Kahlil Lewis is gone at WR but the trio of Rashad Medaris, Jayshon Jackson and Thomas Geddis have returned to pick up the slack. Each caught at least 20 passes for over 200 yards last season.

An interesting wrinkle to the Cincy’s passing game this season will be the introduction of tight-end ‘K’ position, named for Bearcat alum and Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce. As UC Athletic beat writer Justin Williams points out, the ‘K’ is split out in the slot where they can present themselves as either a receiving target or utilize their strength in downfield blocking. Expect a lot of 21 and 22 personnel from the ‘Cats this year as upperclassmen Josiah Deguara and Bruno Labelle return as the two primary tight end options.

Cincy will have to deal with a bit of turnover on the offensive line with all-conference blockers Dino Boyd and Garrett Cambell graduating as well as left guard Kyle Trout. Heading into the offseason, the coaching staff positive that they’d have Michigan transfer James Hudson in the mix. However, his waiver request was denied by the NCAA and that turned into a public fight between Fickell/Hudson’s mother and UM head coach Jim Harbaugh. #FreeJamesHudson

In the meantime, seniors right tackle Chris Ferguson and right guard Morgan James as the battle tested veterans of the line.

Switching over to a defense that finished 36th in S&P+ last season, a lot of production has to be replaced for a front that produced 32 sacks. Gone are all-conference defensive tackles Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland, who combined for 101 tackles, 25 TFLs and 10.5 sacks, as well as all-conference defensive end Kimoni Fitz.

Reshirt junior Michael Pitts, who blocked a kick against USF last year, will step up as the only returning starter at JACK. Ethan Tucky, Malik Vann and Myjai Sanders are expected to rotate at both end positions while the team is still trying to iron out who will fill the massive gaps at defensive tackle

Upperclassmen depth will be a boon for the linebackers as First-Team All-AAC defender Perry Young (weakside), Bryan Wright (middle) and Jarell Wright Sniper (Sniper) will lock down the middle of the field for the Cincinnati defense.

Making a name for himself this offseason at the boundary corner position has been junior Coby Bryant and he’ll play opposite of senior Cam Jefferies, who recorded 34 tackles, two fumble recoveries and an interception in nine starts a year ago.

All-conference safety James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest both made 12 starts last fall and reprise their roles in 2019. Our friends at Down the Drive cited Wiggins as the most important player on the defensive side of the ball this year. Alabama transfer Kyriq McDonald is had his eligibility granted and poses to be a factor in the Bearcat secondary this season.

Should teams stall the Cincinnati offense, they’ll have to deal with the leg of 2018 Ray Guy finalist/2019 hopeful James Smith, who consistently flipped the field by netting 44.3 yards per punt last year.

Outlook

Cincinnati as a program has been on an upward trajectory under Fickell and given the leap they made last year with a young roster, some (including us) believe that the 2019 Bearcats have the pieces in places to make a serious run at the AAC championship.

But the path there won’t be easy as their schedule becomes significantly more difficult.

Opening at home against what should be an improved UCLA, UC will head to No. 5 Ohio State in Week 5. After rounding out the non-con slate with their annual rivalry against Miami-OH and Marshall, the Bearcats will be immediately tested in conference play with UCF and Houston right off the bat.

That gets followed up with a stretch of Tulsa, ECU and UConn before their trip down to Tampa on Nov. 16. Depending on how the early stretch goes, Cincinnati can either come barreling into Raymond James with momentum on their side after several quality victories orrrr be exhausted after enduring a grueling stretch. Buckle in.

Trigger warning, Zach Collaros highlights incoming

But to balance things out, I’ll leave this here...