Offense may not have been the first priority for Luke Fickell when he took over as head coach for the Cincinnati Bearcats a little more than two years ago, but that doesn’t mean improvements weren’t made in his second season at the helm. Thanks to adjustments made by his coaching staff, particularly offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, and some breakout seasons from a number of players, Fickell was able to put forth an offensive product that rivaled more than a few in the American Athletic Conference.
The Bearcats were firmly in the second tier among AAC offenses, as Memphis, UCF and Houston all averaged more than 500 yards per game. Falling short of that didn’t hurt the Bearcats, who ranked fourth in the league, even if it was at a distant 458.5 yards per contest. With an attack that was predicated on running the ball frequently and calling option runs and throws for their redshirt freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder, the Bearcats were clearly improved. They finished the season right near the middle of the country in offensive S&P+ (29.7, which ranked 59th) and that was more than enough to earn wins when paired with their incredible defense.
Now that we’ve gone over the broad strokes, let’s take one last look at the 2018 offense on a position-by-position basis.
The Good: Hello. Welcome to the Desmond Ridder breakout year. By now you probably know all about how he took over as the starter just a few minutes into the season opener, led the Bearcats to victory and never let go of the starting job. You probably also know that he showed incredible poise despite his lack of experience, throwing for 2,445 yards and 20 touchdowns on 62.4 percent passing. Ridder’s talent wasn’t just measured by those numbers, however, as he also was rather careful with his throws (five interceptions), but not without taking deep shots and chances across the middle of the field (8.4 yards per adjusted attempt).
Ridder was also the perfect guy to run many of the read option running schemes the Bearcats installed. He was decisive when keeping the ball and knew the right time to hand it off to his running back when the space was there. Working primarily out of the shotgun on such plays, Ridder showed advanced skill in reading defenses, figuring out what the best play was and executing it. It also helps that teams couldn’t just collapse on the running back since Ridder rushed for 583 yards and five touchdowns on his own.
In other, non-Ridder news, senior Hayden Moore may have lost his starting job, but he was the quarterback on the field when the Bearcats won the Military Bowl against Virginia Tech.
The Bad: The reason Moore was on the field in that game wasn’t great, however, as Ridder was injured in the first quarter. The malady shouldn’t make a big impact on next season, but it nearly cost the Bearcats a bowl win. Luckily, Moore did just enough to produce a win.
Unfortunately, the rest of Moore’s season was largely forgettable, as he was benched following a rough start to the UCLA game and even when he was asked to save the season, he still went just 11-of-25 for 120 yards and an interception through the air.
Moore wasn’t the only UC signal caller with some blemishes. Even though Ridder rarely threw interceptions, he still had a tendency to put the ball on the ground, as he fumbled the ball 10 times, losing seven of those.
Final Grade: B+
The Good: After last season, everyone expected that a sophomore running back was going to dominate the UC offense in 2018. Most people didn’t expect it to be Michael Warren, however. That didn’t matter after Warren took firm hold of the starting job and never let go. He was the definition of a lead running back, piling up huge totals in carries, yards and touchdowns. It all started with his heroic performance against UCLA and ended when he once again donned a cape to power the Bearcats to their bowl victory. On his way to becoming the first UC running back since George Winn to surpass 1,000 yards, Warren racked up 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns on 244 carries.
The Bearcats didn’t need much depth at the position, but they were still lucky enough to have plenty. Freshmen back Charles McClelland (485 yards, 7.7 yards per carry) was a home run hitter who should make opposing defenses tremble. Meanwhile, fellow freshman Tavion Thomas (496 yards, 5.6 yards per carry) could be the No. 1 back on any team in the country, but for now will settle in as a fantastic option when Warren needs a rest.
The Bad: The only real negative is no fault of anyone. This was supposed to be Gerrid Doaks’ breakout year, but the sophomore running back did not play a single snap as he dealt with a lingering injury from the year before. The Bearcats will have some decisions to make this summer when crafting the depth chart because they are loaded at this position.
Final Grade: A
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The Good: Josiah Deguara started the season strong and Kahlil Lewis finished it that way. If only they could have both been at that level all season. Deguara was still the best tight end the Bearcats have had since Travis Kelce in 2012, or at least the most productive. He caught 38 passes for 468 yards and five touchdowns for the entire year. However, 247 of those yards and three of those scores came in the first five games. Even with that in mind, Deguara seems to be benefiting from a system more willing to incorporate the tight end, something we’ve expected ever since Denbrock became the offensive coordinator.
Then there’s Lewis, who began the season struggling to find open spaces in the field only to finish the year as the team’s leader in receptions (56), receiving yards (782) and touchdown catches (nine). Two of those marks were career-highs for Lewis, who made the UC offense that much more dynamic with his ability to absolutely erupt for huge games. Just ask SMU and East Carolina.
Aside from their top two targets, the Bearcats got some positive work from guys like Rashad Medaris (26 receptions, 472 yards, 18.2 yards per receptions) and Jayshon Jackson (23 receptions, 278 yards, 12.3 yards per reception). Both players will be even more critical pieces to the puzzle now that Lewis is moving on.
The Good: Aside from slow starts to the season from Lewis and most of the other wideouts on the roster, the Bearcats were let down a bit by Thomas Geddis. The junior wideout emerged as a viable No. 2 option to Lewis in 2017 when he was third on the depth chart, but that didn’t translate this season. He caught only 20 passes for 228 yards while averaging a full two yards less per reception than the year before. Geddis will now have to compete to be Lewis’ replacement rather than just being the clear choice.
Final Grade: B-
The Good: Senior left tackle Dino Boyd had an exceptional year after coming to UC as a graduate transfer from Rhode Island. He earned first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors in helping the unit not only push forth the run game, but keep would-be tacklers out of the backfield. The Bearcats allowed the second-fewest tackles for loss in the conference (64), even if they did give up a few too many sacks (25). Boyd was not the only lineman to earn some recognition. Senior center Garrett Campbell was named to the second-team despite missing five games.
The Bad: UC was one of the most penalized teams in the country and the offensive line played a big part in that. As an example, in the Bearcats’ loss to UCF, they were called for nine penalties and the offensive line accounted for five of them. Also, the 25 sacks they allowed were a marked increase from 17 the year before.
Final Grade: A-
The final product certainly looked different than what was expected. In the summer, Hayden Moore was supposed to be the starting quarterback and Gerrid Doaks was meant to be the dynamic running back at his side. A few things changed, but the Bearcats still managed to produce. They were the No. 4 rushing offense in the AAC and among the top 15 teams in the country in that metric. Execution was consistently strong and they knew when to buckle down and make a play, ranking second in their conference in third down conversion rate (48.7 percent). They were not as prevalent in red zone offense, at least in terms of conference ranking, but only three other teams in the AAC scored more red zone touchdowns.
The 2018 season was a success from top to bottom for the Bearcats and that includes the offense. The future is even brighter, what with Ridder’s potential and a backfield filled with elite talent. For now, however, they can take a moment to appreciate what they’ve already accomplished.
Final Grade: B+