Isaiah Pead. Zach Collaros. Anthony McClung. Kenbrell Thompkins. Nick Temple. Derek Wolfe. These were some of the players who wore the red and black last time the Cincinnati Bearcats opened a season against Austin Peay. The year was 2011 and the Bearcats were in the second year of the Butch Jones era. They would blast the Governors, 72-10 then post a 10-3 record en route to Big East Conference co-championship.
A lot has changed since then, but not everything. When UC and AP clashed in 2011, the Bearcats were coming off a disappointing 4-8 season, just as they are this fall.
However, it would be folly to suggest the program is exactly where it was six years ago. Not only is the Big East, Jones and all the players mentioned above gone, so is Jones’ replacement, Tommy Tuberville. After diminishing returns and bad job advice throughout his tenure, Tuberville resigned last winter.
Enter a savior. (We hope). His name is Luke Fickell and tonight he will stalk the sidelines as head coach of the Bearcats for the first time. It won’t be the former Ohio State defensive coordinator’s first time as a head coach, as he oversaw the Buckeyes in 2011, serving as a bridge between Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. OSU went 6-7 in Fickell’s lone season in command. That type of record would be a welcome sign of improvement for his opening campaign with UC.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before looking ahead at all, its time to focus on the here and now. The Austin Peay Governors at 7 p.m. at Nippert Stadium.
We know who will start and where, but other than that tonight will serve as our first taste of the Mike Denbrock offense. The new offensive coordinator will no doubt utilize the weapons at his disposal and the best of the bunch are running back Mike Boone and wide receivers Kahlil Lewis and Devin Gray.
Boone will likely get a lot of work tonight as the Bearcats will be out in front against an Austin Peay team that lost all 11 games it played in 2016, while letting up 506.6 yards per game. Last year, the senior rusher only averaged 3.7 yards per carry while finishing with a career-low in yards from scrimmage (637) and touchdowns (two). He tops the depth chart now and is poised for a big year, especially with no clear choice around for the No. 2 option. It will be interesting to see how Boone is used, especially in the passing game, as Fickell vowed to build a strategy built on speed.
That up-tempo style should favor Lewis and Gray, who put forth solid years on the edges last year despite methodical pace, inconsistent quarterback play and uninspired play calling. In his first season, Gray, a JUCO transfer, led the team in receptions (58) and receiving yards (860), while catching five touchdown throws. Lewis had as many scores and wound up with 605 yards and 48 total receptions. Finding the third and fourth passing options will be something to watch for. Expect the tight ends to get involved, which means Tyler Cogswell and Josiah Deguara will have more to do.
Progression from Hayden Moore will be necessary if the offense is going to hit the ground running and improve on last year’s unit, which ranked 104th in the country in offensive S&P+. The junior signal caller ended 2016 on a high note against Tulsa (371 yards, three touchdowns) and will look to build himself up from the serviceable option he’s been.
Fickell brought in Denbrock to handle the offense, but the new head coach should be more hands on with the defense. With a staff that features defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, you can expect a lot of emphasis on the front seven. There are some pros and cons to that.
The pros reside on the defensive line, where Kevin Mouhon, Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland are the stars of a deep well of talent. Mouhon led the team in tackles for loss last season (9.5) and is poised for a big year. Broughton was a second-team All-American Athletic Conference player in 2016 while Copeland is the top returning tackler (59).
On the flip side of the coin, the Bearcats don’t have tons at linebacker. Perry Young and Tyrell Gilbert (who returned an interception for a touchdown in last year’s opener) have both been transformed into backers, but more in a hybrid sense. Jaylyin Minor will man the middle and is the most experienced player at the position.
The secondary is a mixed bag in terms of potential. Linden Stephens is a fine cornerback and Malik Clements looks like he could be an excellent safety. Carter Jacobs isn’t too bad as the other safety, while Grant Coleman will be tasked with stepping in for Alex Thomas, who was suspended indefinitely earlier this summer. Thomas had four interceptions last season, but Stephens was the better overall defender, posting a team-high seven passes defended, 36 tackles and two picks of his own. Clements had 36 tackles and now UC needs to show improved coverage ability. Depth options for this group include Davin Pierce, Sheldon Doss and Marquis Smith.
This will be a good chance for Fickell and Freeman to see who has made steps forward during the summer, as Austin Peay shouldn’t create too many problems on offense, averaging just 367.5 yards of total offense last season. The Governors split their production between the ground and pass, but they called more plays for the run game. Broughton and Copeland should help shut that down.
Three Numbers That Matter
- 21 - That was the margin of victory for the Bearcats in their season opener against Tennessee-Martin in 2016. The Skyhawks were a better team than the Governors, but it was still a bad omen when UC had more trouble than they should have with a non-D1 program.
- 4 - Devin Gray tallied four games with at least 97 yards when Hayden Moore played quarterback.
- 5.8 - Mike Boone’s career yards per carry average dropped a full yard after last season’s struggles. His marks in the previous seasons were 6.4 and 7.2, respectively.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Mike Boone, RB
Really everyone on the field will be interesting to watch since its the first game of the season under a new coaching regime. However, its important Boone returns to form. He should cut through the Governors easily or else the offense will stall out in the coming weeks.
Austin Peay - Gunnar Scholato, LB
There are only a few impact defenders on the roster, but Scholato is the best of the bunch. The 6’3”, 234-pound redshirt junior led the Governors with 124 tackles (next best player had 65) and he also recorded two interceptions.
Fickell and the Bearcats can’t erase last year in one game but they will try. UC may keep some things to themselves as they look forward on the schedule, but with a less than stellar opponent in front of them and a home crowd behind, the Bearcats should be aggressive and roll to a victory. Final score: Cincinnati 45 Austin Peay 13