Key players gone, but Cincy’s Fickell says ‘run is not over’

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
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CINCINNATI – Coach Luke Fickell has suggested a book about Cincinnati’s upcoming football season could be titled “Life Without Desmond Ridder.”

While finding a replacement for the record-setting four-year starter at quarterback may be at the front of the coach’s mind this spring, the title of that tome should probably be amended to also lament the loss of a stud running back, a pair of All-American defensive backs and all seven captains from last year’s College Football Playoff team.

The stars aligned for “Coach Fick” last year as the star-studded Bearcats produced the best season in school history and cracked the CFP, the first team from a second-tier conference to do so. They didn’t lose a game until they ran into Alabama in the national semifinal.

Now, with a contract extension worth $5 million a year through 2028 and Cincinnati’s move to the Big 12 in the next couple of years, Fickell has to show he can sustain national success.

Fickell is entering his sixth season as Bearcats coach. He said spring practice this time is as critical as any during his tenure.

“Obviously, things are going to be different, but the expectations aren’t going to be different,” he said. “How you go about them may be different. If you think we’re going to be exactly the same offense without Desmond Ridder, you’d be crazy, but we are going to expect the same results.”

“The expectation doesn’t change, the train continues to move forward. It’s not slowing down, it’s not stopping,” he said. “The run is not over.”

Speaking of quarterbacks, the likely replacement for Ridder seems to be sophomore Evan Prater, a former Ohio Mr. Football and one of Cincinnati’s highest-rated prep recruits ever. Prater played in seven games backing up Ridder last season.

Then comes Ben Bryant, who spent three seasons at UC backing up Ridder, transferred and started for Eastern Michigan last year and now is back at Cincinnati as a grad student to compete for the starting job. Bryant led Eastern Michigan to a 7-6 record and a bowl game last season while throwing for 3,121 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Fickell said.

“We’ve got to put them in positions and situations where they can do what it is that they do well, then that’s where we’ll have to adapt and adjust,” he said.

Alabama transfer Jerome Ford emerged as the No. 1 running back for the Bearcats last season, rushing for 1,242 yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 6.2 yards per carry.

Ryan Montgomery, Charles McClelland, Ethan Wright and Myles Montgomery will compete to be the next No. 1.

The Bearcats have four new assistants on staff, and besides new offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli, the one shouldering the biggest responsibility might be Kerry Coombs, hired to coach cornerbacks and coordinate special teams.

The 60-year-old Coombs was demoted and then fired as defensive coordinator at Ohio State after a dismal season for that unit. Now at Cincinnati, he’s got to identify and motivate replacements for Coby Bryant and Sauce Gardner – the best cornerback tandem in college football last season.

At least Coombs didn’t walk into totally strange territory. He coached at Colerain High School in Cincinnati, then spent two years on the UC staff before being hired by Urban Meyer at Ohio State. He and Fickell were colleagues on Meyer’s staff.

“A lot of things look the same,” said Coombs, known for his energy and ability to connect with players. “There are facility upgrades, don’t get me wrong, but the tone and tenor that Luke has brought is special. It’s exciting to be a part of that. You feel that. So, it’s very similar and very different all at the same time.”

Spring practice continues until April 14, with the annual spring game set for April 9.

Minnesota football players’ discrimination lawsuit dismissed

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by nine former University of Minnesota football players who were accused of sexual assault in 2016 in a case that roiled the school’s football program.

The lawsuit against the school claimed that the players faced emotional distress and financial damage after being falsely accused of being sex offenders. The players, who were identified in the lawsuit as John Does, sought unspecified damages for willful and malicious discrimination.

A woman alleged up to a dozen football players raped her or watched and cheered at an off-campus party in 2016. None of the players were ever charged.

The university found that 10 football players committed sexual misconduct. Five of them were expelled or suspended for violating student conduct codes, and the others were cleared on appeal.

In their lawsuit, the players alleged that the woman initiated the sexual encounters with players and an underage recruit.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank dismissed the lawsuit last week, saying the former players did not prove any of their claims, including allegations of bias by university investigators or pressure from Athletic Director Mark Coyle and former President Eric Kaler, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

David Madgett, an attorney for the players, said Tuesday that they are considering an appeal but have to determine if it makes sense financially and in terms of letting the former players get on with their lives. He said it was disappointing that the outcome was determined by the judge’s version of events and not decided by a jury.

“It’s disappointing to see disputes decided in this way,” Madgett said. “That’s the way things are decided more and more these days. … It’s disappointing you don’t get your day in court.”

When the allegations became public in 2016, players threatened to boycott the team’s trip to the Holiday Bowl. But after a graphic report of the investigation was released, the players agreed to play in the game.

University of Minnesota spokesman Jake Ricker said the school appreciated the judge’s decision affirming the actions taken in the case. He said the university would continue its work focusing on sexual misconduct awareness, prevention and response.

Frank dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, but an appeals court reinstated part of it in 2021 and returned it to Frank.

The players, all of whom are Black, also initially claimed racial discrimination, but that claim was previously dismissed.

The only remaining claim alleged Title IX gender discrimination. The former players noted that they never faced criminal charges, but Frank’s ruling said that “is certainly not evidence of a judicial adjudication or that plaintiffs ‘were proven innocent.'”

The men also claimed that an investigator for the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action used “manipulative tactics” with them in interviews and that their accuser helped draft the report. The players also alleged that “prior failed investigations motivated” the the school to punish them.

Frank said all the claims were unsupported by the evidence and “no reasonable jury could find that the University disciplined plaintiffs on the basis of sex.”

Michigan State player who swung helmet gets probation

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A Michigan State football player who swung his helmet at a Michigan player in a stadium tunnel expressed regret Tuesday and said he’s “just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue” on the field.

Khary Crump, a defensive back, was sentenced to probation. He was one of seven Michigan State players charged in a skirmish that followed a loss at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 29.

Crump was the only Spartan facing a felony, but that charge was dismissed in an agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanors. His record will be scrubbed clean if he stays out of trouble while on probation.

“Unfortunately, an exchange of words (took place), I felt attacked and unfortunately I did what I did,” Crump said of the tunnel altercation involving Michigan’s Gemon Green. “I’m not proud of that. I’m looking forward to moving forward.”

Crump was suspended by coach Mel Tucker. In addition, the Big Ten has suspended him for eight games in 2023.

“I had difficulties trying to stomach my actions … on that fateful day, but it happened. I can’t take it back,” Crump told MLive.com after the court hearing. “Honestly, I’m just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue in the future — on the football field, of course.”

At least four other players charged with misdemeanors Will Likely have their cases dismissed in exchange for community service and other conditions. The cases against two others are pending.