The Cincinnati Bearcats took to Nippert Stadium for their first football practice of the spring. This was the Bearcats' first chance to get a live look at some of the newest transfers and recruits.
The Bearcats were accompanied by their running back of last year, Jerome Ford. Ford was in Indianapolis as recent as Friday for the NFL Combine, as he looks to make himself known ahead of the NFL Draft.
Ford, amongst many others, headline the biggest draft class in Bearcat history. While this is great for the program's prestige, it causes a massive turnaround on the current roster at many of Cincinnati’s key positions.
Ford’s replacement will come from one of his backups of 2021. Charles McClelland is still with the team, and Ryan Montgomery was returning punts in practice, which could be a sign of him sharing kickoffs with Tre Tucker. Ethan Wright was practicing with the defensive backs (DB). DB is one of the most significant positions of turnaround for the Bearcats, and with Wright playing some in high school, it looks like Cincinnati will try him there for some time.
There are only two returning starters in the secondary. One is safety Deshawn Pace, who played a dynamic role as a linebacker in 2021. Pace, as well as tight end Josh Whyle, were at practice but did not participate. Whyle had a boot on, and Pace had a knee brace. Both were dressed and took part in position meetings but did not do drills.
The other returning DB is cornerback Arquon Bush. Bush, who was lining up with Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant last year, remains the only cornerback (CB) from the starters. With that, Bush hopes to be a leader for the young DBs Cincinnati has brought in, just as former Bearcats like James Wiggins, Derrick Forrest, Gardner and Bryant were for him.
“All of them are great leaders and great guys, and I want to transfer that over to myself and become a better leader for them,” Bush said.
Bush also said he is learning a lot from new cornerback coach Kerry Coombs. Coombs, a former Cincinnati coach and Ohio State defensive coordinator as recently as last season, made his return to Cincinnati this past February.
“Coach Coombs is a great guy, great corner coach, I love all of the techniques he’s teaching us, and I feel that I’ll be able to pull a lot of things from him to compete this season at the next level,” Bush said.
Bush played much of last season in the Nickel but said that he’d play wherever coaches need him to, as he’s comfortable both as an inside corner or outside corner.
And the coaches will have the luxury of that option when the season starts. This season, Cincinnati brought in a handful of cornerbacks to try and replace Gardner and Bryant, and they are huge. Recruit J.Q. Hardaway is a 200-pound, 6’3” cornerback out of Alabama, and he looks to make an impact in just his first season.
His size allows him to man up with the bigger receivers while still matching their speed. Hardaway will prove to be a crucial part of Cincinnati’s defensive future.
Transfer wide receiver, Nick Mardner, made his first appearance for the Bearcats, coming from the University of Hawaii to take the spot of Alec Pierce, who recently gained major attention at the NFL Combine. Mardner, a 190-pound, 6’6” junior, has one of the longest Bearcat wingspans ever. His 2021 in Hawaii included 46 receptions for 913 yards and five touchdowns, averaging nearly 20 yards a catch. With his build, there’s no question he’s a threat in the long game.
The real question is who will be throwing Mardner the ball. Ben Bryant returned to the Bearcats after starting last year with the Eastern Michigan Eagles. Bryant has come into this spring looking like the leader Cincinnati needs to replace Desmond Ridder, but his path to a starting role isn’t clear-cut.
Evan Prater, who sat behind Ridder last season, still poses a considerable threat to Bryant’s starting hopes. There are questions about Prater’s arm, but his elusiveness and threat to run make him a candidate to take the starting spot at quarterback.
Luke Fickell and the Bearcats have a long road before their opener against Arkansas. The turnaround will be one of the biggest in program history, and the questions that follow it will be just as massive. But with the move to Big 12 conference looming, and the expectations following their historic 2021, they look to keep their foot on the gas; and never take it off.