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.

Air Force football sanctioned for recruiting violations

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Air Force football program received two years of probation from the NCAA and had its squad size reduced by 10 for four years as part of its sanctions for recruiting violations.

The penalties were announced Thursday after Air Force and four individuals reached an agreement with NCAA enforcement staff on recruiting violations. A fifth individual in the case has contested their role and will be heard by the committee on infractions.

The sanctions also include a fine and a reduction of 46 total official visits for the football program in the 2022-23 and `23-24 academic years. In addition, there’s a prohibition on unofficial visits in football from Sept. 1 through Oct. 12, 2022, and a reduced number of evaluation days this fall.

Air Force has around 115 players on its varsity roster, plus a JV team that all count as NCAA athletes and its roster size.

“The (committee) appreciates the parties’ efforts in working collaboratively together to reach agreement on the violations, levels, classifications, and significant and meaningful penalties,” Gary Miller, the chief hearing officer for the panel and president at Akron, said in a statement. “The panel also recognizes that Air Force has gone above and beyond in its overall approach to this case.”

In a joint statement, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark and director of athletics Nathan Pine said: “The U.S. Air Force Academy is pleased that our case has progressed to the point of the NCAA accepting our negotiated resolution. We will continue working with the NCAA on this ongoing self-reported case from the COVID dead period, as it’s our responsibility to ensure integrity of the institution, athletics department, cadet-athletes and staff.”

The Falcons are off to a 3-1 start and host Navy on Saturday to begin the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition. The trophy is presented to the service academy with the best record in the round-robin format.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”