Football and the spring are not often put together. The spring usually does a nostalgic dance with baseball that lasts into the summer months. However, for one special day during the beginning of the warm part of the year, college football comes back in a time honored tradition known as the Spring Game.
Tonight, the Cincinnati Bearcats will hold their first under new head coach Luke Fickell at Nippert Stadium, marking another milestone in the lead up to Fickell’s first season leading UC and the recovery from the Tommy Tuberville era.
If you’ll be heading down to Nippert to catch the action (7 p.m. start time), there are some specific things you’ll want to pay attention to other than just seeing how Fickell works the sideline.
What do the offense and defense look like?
We’ll start on a macro level. There are a look of new coaches beside just Fickell, who said in his introductory press conference he wants the Bearcats to be fast and aggressive on both sides of the ball. With Mike Denbrock taking over as offensive coordinator and Marcus Freeman taking the defensive coordinator job, there will be new schemes and plays unveiled tonight. Will Denbrock’s offense completely replicate what he did at Notre Dame or will it be a new take on the power spread offense that Fickell has asserted he wants UC to utilize?
On the defensive side, Freeman is also the linebackers coach, so it will be interesting to see where the point of attack on defense comes from and what packages are thrown out there, especially as the Bearcats attempt to create more pressure on the backfield. Plus, remember that Fickell is a former defensive coordinator so the most drastic changes may be coming from this part of the roster.
The QB Battle
Fickell indicated earlier this week that Hayden Moore has a slight lead in the QB competition. However, Moore, Ross Trail and even Jake Sopko will get a chance to run the new offensive scheme and make a major impression tonight. Trail was the star of last year’s spring game, but still didn’t win the starting job and didn’t play all that well when he was given a chance in the regular season. So that doesn’t mean that whoever dominates tonight is the front runner to start, but it will certainly give an indication of which way Fickell may lean going into the summer.
Last year, Moore was the starter out of camp and threw for 1,744 yards and 11 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions, while completing 57.3 percent of his pass attempts. Trail made a few starts and completed 65.7 percent of his passes, but he was intercepted six times and had just one touchdown pass. He projects as a better dual-threat QB, which makes more sense in the power spread, but Moore is the leader right now, even its just in name only.
How does Mike Boone look?
Expectations were high for Boone last fall as the running back was supposed to be the lightning to Tion Green’s thunder. However, he struggled to get into space, where he works best, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry and finishing with 388 total rushing yards and 637 yards from scrimmage. Although his receiving numbers ticked upward, Boone’s ability out of the backfield greatly diminished, as he did come close to the 7.2 yards per carry and nine rushing scores he had in 2015. Green is now gone, so finding other backs to spell Boone will be another thing to look for, but the primary question marks here are can Boone be a lead back and can he be more 2015 than 2016? That will go a long way in improving UC’s sorry offense from last season.
Who will be the No. 3 receiver?
Perhaps the best part of the offense that Denbrock will have at his disposal is the top two receiving threats. Devin Gray and Kahlil Lewis both had breakout seasons in 2016, especially Gray, who led the team in receptions (58), receiving yards (860) and tied for the most touchdowns with Lewis. Now that Nate Cole has graduated, there is room for another receiver or two to step up and be an alternative option for whoever is playing under center. Joker Phillips was brought in to coach the group and he has a lot of players to work with.
Avery Johnson made a few impressive catches last season and Jerron Rollins, Thomas Geddis and Tshumbi Johnson all showed big play ability. Any one of them could get a long look for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. Its also likely that more than one of those four will be given a prominent role in the new offense.
Who is going to fill in for Eric Wilson?
This is really a two part question. The first part is who is going to step up as the leader of the defense? The second is how is the linebacking corps going to change now that Wilson is gone?
Let’s tackle (see what I did there?) the first one. The leadership vacuum is particularly vast because safety Zach Edwards is gone as well. However, Wilson was easily the most important player on the defense, accumulating an American Athletic Conference high 129 tackles.
Its possible that Bryce Jenkinson , who will return after missing most of last year with an injury, can be the next guy up, but don’t be surprised if Jaylyin Minor is a vocal and productive part of the defense in the spring and going forward.
Editor’s note: Bryce Jenkinson is still listed on the official roster at GoBearcats.com but was not on the spring game roster.
As for the second question, Jenkinson and Minor should both be starters, but the group behind them is a little thin. Seeing what guys like Ty Sponseller, Matthew Draper and Tyquan Statham have will be interesting.
Is Andrew Gantz back?
On a surface level the answer to this question is yes. Gantz missed all of last season a year after being one of the best kickers in the AAC. He connected on 21-of-27 field goal attempts and 49-of-50 extra points in 2015. Josh Pasley did a decent job replacing him last year, connecting on 11-of-17 field goals and 17-of-20 extra points. Pasley is back this season as well, so perhaps there will be a little competition at kicker that will be worth keeping an eye on.
Of course all of this just scratches the surface of what new and interesting things there will be going on tonight, but this should give you a blueprint of what to expect and what to hone in on.