The UC football Bearcats are set to have another historic season in 2021. The Bearcats haven’t lost a game in Historic Nippert Stadium in three seasons. In those three seasons they’ve gone 11-2, 11-3, and 9-1. The Bearcats spent the 2020 season on the cusp of the CFP but ended up on the outside looking in. The 2021 season has the potential for the Bearcats to yet again fight for national success but there are questions that need to be addressed. What follows are the biggest questions that face the Bearcats going into camp at Higher Ground and maybe into the season.
Punter – James Smith was a Ray Guy finalist and his absence at punter and overall personality will be a big loss for the Bearcats. Insert true freshman Mason Fletcher. The 6’7′ Fletcher, like Smith, is an Australian native and a product of the same kicking academy and coaches. Can the freshman Mason Fletcher fill the shoes and flip the field for the Bearcats?
The O-line – Both of Cincinnati’s starting tackles in 2020 made the All-AAC team and helped anchor the line. Both of those players are now gone with standout James Hudson lost to the Cleveland Browns. Hudson was a crucial part to the offense last season. Would the Bearcats have won the Peach Bowl had he not been ejected? I’m inclined to say absolutely yes but I guess we’ll never know. The way I see it there are three men vying for those two starting spots. John Williams, Dylan O’Quinn and James Tunstall. Tunstall is a transfer from Stony Brook, the other two have developed within the program. Cincinnati’s offensive line is not going to completely fall apart but losing a pair of all-conference performers won’t be easy to overcome. How can the Bearcats keep Ridder safe and the holes open for the RBs? What magic does offensive line coach, and my spirit animal, Ron Crook have up his sleeve? The staff has all of camp and even the first two weeks of the season to figure this out but its vital.
RB1 – The Bearcats have plenty of depth at the running back position. Jerome Ford, Charles McClelland, Ryan Montgomery, and Ethan Wright will all see some action but who will be the go to guy? All bets are on Jerome Ford to take the job. Ford was impressive last season, averaging 6.6 yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns. If Ford in RB1, will the next guy up be as successful as he was last season?
This unit should be top 5 in the country. Last year the Bearcats held opponents to 16.8 points per game and surrendered only 3.13 rushing yards per game. They have a ton of experience at each level of the defense, still I think there are three questions that will need to be addressed to make sure they’re as good as we think they’ll be.
The first one is, who replaces Elijah Ponder on the D-line? Ponder was a beast at the tackle spot and will now be playing on Sundays with Tampa Bay. He as a a two-time All-American Athletic Conference honoree (2019, 2020). He recorded 64 career stops, 12.5 for a loss with 4.5 sacks, forced two fumbles and 13 QB hurries. Look no further than the ECU game last season to see how important he was. Ponder went down with an injury which in turn let ECU’s freshman running back Keaton Mitchell rush for 124 yards and a touchdown, only after Ponder left the game. Ponder was huge in stopping the run. Will the Bearcats look to Virginia transfer Jowon Briggs to fill the gap or someone already on the depth chart such as Jabari Taylor or Curtis Brooks?
The second question for the defense is for the new DC, Mike Tressel. He’ll have to fill the large shoes left by Marcus Freeman. Tressel, who previously coached at UC from 2004-06 as special teams coordinator/linebackers coach, returns after spending 14 seasons at Michigan State where he was most recently the linebackers coach from 2007-2019. Fickell and Tressel were both on staff at OSU for the 2002-2003 seasons, the 2002 season being a National Championship year. Can Tressel bring the same energy and connection to his players as Freeman did to meet some incredibly high expectations for 2021?
Finally, the safeties – Two all-conference players, one being an All-American, must be replaced at safety. James Wiggins (AZ Cardinals) and Darrick Forrest (Washington) moved on to the NFL. Senior Bryan Cook from Mt. Healthy HS transferred to UC from Howard and sat out last season because of it, although you might remember him from laying some wood in the Peach Bowl. At Howard, Cook played in 21 games from 2017-18. He totaled 93 tackles (77 solo) and also had 17 passes defended, five INTs with one returned for a 41-yard TD. Senior Ja’von Hicks from Colerain HS should continue where he left off when he started for the injured Wiggins when needed. Still, how deep are the Bearcats at safety. Besides, replacing two NFL draft picks is not easy to do.