'How can we be better?': Inside Cincinnati's quest for an encore after historic season

by Ricardo Gutierrez - Last season, Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff -- then saw a record exodus to the NFL draft. With a move to the Big 12 looming, how does coach Luke Fickell keep the Bearcats moving forward?

How Cincinnati Bearcats football is looking to build on its historic season Luke Fickell is focused on the future at Cincinnati following a history-making 2021 campaign and an offseason of change for the Bearcats. Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire 7:00 AM ET Pete ThamelESPN CINCINNATI -- When the Keurig coffee maker behind Luke Fickell's desk finally sputtered out too many grinds this winter, he asked for a replacement. When a shiny Nespresso machine eventually appeared in its place, the upgrade immediately offended Fickell's sensibilities. Was it too fancy? Did folks around the Bearcats football program just expect bougie things? Could shiny new toys lead to complacency in the wake of a season that ended in a historic College Football Playoff bid? "I almost threw the thing out," Fickell said recently in his office with a laugh. In the wake of back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, that improbable meeting with Alabama in the CFP semifinals and a Group of 5-record nine players drafted, Fickell spent the spring making sure the program didn't lose the mindset that helped make it the first G5 team to make the playoff. There will be significant change as Fickell enters his sixth season at Cincinnati. He has never coached a game without quarterback Desmond Ridder on the roster. Defensive linchpin Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner became the program's highest-drafted player (No. 4 to the New York Jets), and five new assistant coaches have joined the staff. And the Bearcats will get an immediate litmus test for their readiness post-playoff, as they travel to Arkansas for opening week to play in a rollicking venue where Texas lost 40-21 last season. With so much change coming -- new quarterback, new league in 2023 and a $70 million practice facility preparing to be built -- Fickell's challenge this spring remained a simple one. "We're not the same," he said. "But how can we be better?" Following the 2020 season, when Cincinnati squandered a late lead and fell to Georgia in the final seconds of the Peach Bowl, Luke Fickell "couldn't bear to" watch the film. He waited all the way until the start of spring ball, only when practicality forced his viewing. The game film from the 27-6 loss to Alabama was different, and Fickell flipped it on immediately and watched it obsessively. "And this one burned and hurt so much 'cause I was curious if we really got hammered," he said. "Just 'cause you don't really know until you watch." His final analysis came down to Cincinnati's performance not being as languid as the final score indicated. Alabama ramrodded Cincinnati on the game's first series, running the ball 10 straight times before Bryce Young capped the drive with a touchdown pass. Editor's Picks Inside the remaking of Oklahoma football 15d Pete Thamel Bill Connelly's mega offseason previews: AAC, Part II 1y Bill Connelly 2 Related Brian Robinson Jr . finished with 204 rushing yards, and Fickell second-guessed himself on a few defensive decisions. He bemoaned the Bearcats not being able to make any plays offensively and not playing "clean" defensively. "We could have played better. I'm not saying we would've won, but there's little things that I think we did a little bit of uncharacteristic on defense in the first two series, maybe the stage got us a little bit and then we settled in and played pretty well," Fickell said. "But it wasn't what I always fear -- you just got manhandled and out-physicaled. And I didn't feel like that was the case." Other than poring through the film, Fickell hasn't spent much time dwelling on Cincinnati's historic season. In the midst of one of the country's most significant roster overhauls and with the Big 12 looming in 2023, he has moved ahead. The only pinch of sentimentality came in February when Fickell's wife, Amy, organized a trip to Cancun for the entire football staff and their families. She said 46 people traveled to a resort on the Fickells' tab. It was a time to appreciate the history Cincinnati made and thank everyone for their work. Fickell is so unflinching in looking forward that he theorizes that Amy Fickell might have organized the trip, in part, to force him to appreciate the accomplishments. "It was more to say, 'Hey, thank you, we appreciate you, let's try to enjoy and maybe reflect,'" Luke Fickell said. "We aren't doing this if we're just having a normal year, so I think the whole gist of it was, my wife did it for everybody, but I think she might've been doing it for me, too. People say, 'You took the staff.' I say, 'No.' I would never even think about taking myself, or even my wife probably. That's why we work well together." Cincinnati will need to rebuild a roster that lost a Group of 5-record nine players to the NFL draft, led by cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner. Al Powers/ESPN Images It's not surprising that a coach who admits he doesn't consider taking his wife on vacation would be highly motivated to craft a new team identity after a historic season. Fickell has long maintained the wrestler mindset of relentlessly tackling what's in front of him. And the Bearcats staff sees him using that myopia to push the program forward. "It's gonna be a testimony to Fick and the program that we built, that you can graduate that many highly talented guys, draft-pick-type guys, and still be able to bounce back the next year and not have a fall-off," said UC offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli. "I think that's what kinda keeps him up at night." Fickell pointed to this spring as a time when the identity of the program would be inevitably evolving. It starts at the quarterback position, where there's an ongoing battle between former blue-chip recruit Evan Prater , a dual-threat redshirt sophomore, and Eastern Michigan transfer Ben Bryant , a fifth-year senior who is more of a pocket passer. The identity will inherently be tied to which quarterback wins the job. But the strength of Cincinnati's offense might lie at tight end, where both senior Josh Whyle and graduate student Leonard Taylor are NFL prospects and proven players. (Sophomore tight end Chamon Metayer is one of the program's most promising young players, too.) "The guys who went to the NFL left behind their legacy, the standard that needed to be set," Whyle said. "For me, Leonard Taylor, Wilson Huber , it's just living up to that and bringing all the young guys along with us. When I got here, we were coming off a 4-8 season. The work, it's gotta be the same. It can never change." Huber, a redshirt senior linebacker, will team with senior linebacker Ty Van Fossen (70 tackles) to be leaders on a defense that lost six players to the draft. Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel stressed that Fickell's philosophy revolves around positioning playmakers to disrupt the game. That should create more opportunities for Deshawn Pace , a junior linebacker who had 9.5 tackles for loss and four interceptions and might be the program's best NFL prospect. "I think Deshawn Pace is a game-changer, so we need to put him in position to change games," Tressel said, "and whether that means blitzing him more or whether that means put him in position in terms of scheming pass coverages where he can jump some routes ... But you have to allow your playmakers to change the game." Without Gardner and Coby Bryant at cornerback and star rush end Myjai Sanders , the Bearcats' defense will have a distinct identity shift. And the general program overhaul will require younger players to uphold the standard. Strength coach Brady Collins, Fickell's trusted wingman for his entire Cincinnati tenure, says the challenge will be finding "people to enforce" the standard the outgoing class set. It's also a challenge to a program that has recruited well enough that it has 19 commitments and the No. 9 class for 2023 and developed talent as well as any place in the country. The depths of that will best tested this season, which is driving Fickell. "I think you can sense it's a burning desire," Collins said. "I think he's motivated by people outside of here that may say, 'Ah, look how much they lost -- they're not going to be as good.'" As the roster changes, so is everything around the program. The new on-campus facility should position Cincinnati to be competitive immediately in the Big 12. There are other program changes, including a nutritionist, as athletic director John Cunningham said that the school has been "feeding our student-athletes but not fueling our student-athletes." Cunningham noted that the past two years have featured the "biggest moment in school history topped by the next biggest moment." With the change in trajectory from the success, change in leagues and the inherent chaos of these times in college sports, that's left the Bearcats grateful for Fickell to lead them to a new league and new identity. Cunningham called delivering Fickell a new contract that pays him $5 million annually "the No. 1 thing I wanted to get done" this offseason. And that has kept the Bearcats on track to build back to the crescendo that Fickell built them up to during his first five years. The coffee maker might be splashy these days, but Fickell is still providing the caffeine jolt moving forward. "I think he's one of the best coaches in the country, and he's the absolute best fit for the University of Cincinnati," Cunningham said. "So for him to want to be here and turn down other opportunities and really invest in this place, that's the other reason I love the Big 12, because it meant that we could do everything that he wants to do with this program."