Ladies and gentlemen, the 2019 University of Cincinnati Bearcats football season is FINALLY upon us. Just typing this sentence gives me goosebumps and a grin from ear to ear. Not only is college football upon us, but the fighting Luke Fickell’s open the season against the UCLA Bruins on primetime ESPN Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. in historic Nippert Stadium. Close to 40,000 ecstatic fans are expected to pack the stands. Fans will enjoy an array of new tailgating and concession stand options. And if you can’t make it in person, you can always enjoy Pat McAfee root on UC over the ESPN broadcast.
Let’s dive right in. What can we expect to see Chip Kelly do after that 2018 beatdown in the Rose Bowl when we all saw Desmond Ridder’s coming out party? Many experts project a 6-6 season for the Bruins.
The Bruins are led by sophomore QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The quick-twitch, dual-threat quarterback stands at 6’ 2” and weighs 195 pounds. He played at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas – the same place the now Miami (FL) backup QB Tate Martell played. DTR had all the coaching and pampering of any high caliber 4-star high school recruit. He was the #2 ranked dual-threat QB in his class. Deservedly so, Chip Kelly will mold DTR into a complete star by next year. It’s no wonder why he wears a #1 on his chest.
UCLA’s first year under Chip Kelly was rough. It began – as you might recall – with a butt-whooping by our Bearcats. DTR threw for 1,300 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 4 picks in his freshman campaign. While a freshman, he just did not live up to the potential expected by Bruins fans.
He played in 8 games and only rushed for 68 yards on the season. Expect that to change big time this year. Dorian will be a threat through the air and on the ground this year. He will rush for 100+ yards more often than not this year. He will also get his completion percentage up over the 50% hump this year with the easy throws Kelly’s system generates off of play action. I expect DTR to make big strides and be a problem for defenses with a second year of Kelly’s tutelage.
Edge – Cincinnati. We cannot wait for year #2 of Desmond Ridder. As just a freshman, Ridder threw for nearly 2,500 yards and 20 TDs with just 5 picks. He gradually took over and eventually commanded the offense, leading the Cats to an 11-2 record and a huge bowl win over Virginia Tech. Dez grew 2 inches and put on at least 20 pounds of solid muscle in the offseason, capping this year with his first tattoo (an outline of his home state of Kentucky on his bicep). Dez 2.0 will be even better, as long as he does not “try to do too much by himself.” Do not expect a sophomore slump from #9.
The Running Backs
Chip Kelly has NINE running backs to choose from this year. Joshua Kelley leads the pack. He returns after a season involving 1,297 yards, 6 games over the 100-mark, and 12 TDs. Kelley carved up USC for 289 yards. At 6’ and 220 pounds, the senior #27 is a very talented back. He is also a hustler. Joshua was not recruited out of high school – he played two seasons at UC Davis before heading over to UCLA.
But make no mistake about it, Chip will cycle through multiple running back options, given the frenetic pace of his offense. There will always be a fresh set of legs in the backfield.
Edge – Cincinnati. Imagine being an offensive coordinator with Mike Warren, a fully healthy Gerrid Doaks, Charles McClelland, and Tavion Thomas at your disposal. Are you kidding me, Mike Denbrock!? Enough said.
The go-to receiver for the Bruins will be senior #14 Theo Howard who returns from a 677-yard performance, including going 51 of 51 when targeted. This dude did not drop a single ball. At 6’ and 181 pounds, Howard is a threat. A 4-star recruit, Theo was the #7 ranked wideout in his class. As Chip disclosed in his video interview this week, Theo has wrist injury and is wearing a brace. He certainly will not be 100% Thursday night.
The Bruins will also have other talented and speedy youngsters on the depth chart.
Edge – Cincinnati. I would have projected this as a wash with a healthy Theo. However, this recently disclosed injury tilts this battle in favor of UC. The Bearcats wideout group returns 82 catches, 1,150 yards, and 6 TDs of production from last year, including 10 of their 11 pass catchers (just losing Lewis to the NFL). UC returns Rashad Medaris, Thomas Gheddis, Jayshon Jackson, Alec Pierce, and Trent Cloud. Four-star standout Blue Smith is also eligible, but as talented as Blue is, he’s missing a lot of reps and still needs to build chemistry with Dez. This is without question a talented group with lots of potential, but I’d like to see how things shake out. The stable of running back talent will be the primary focus in the 2019 UC offense. This should also free up some big “chunk plays” downfield for these guys.
The Tight Ends
The tight end spot is a big question for UCLA. Kelly’s offenses do not highlight the tight end anyway so let’s move on.
Edge – Cincinnati. Not a hard one here. The Bearcats return what Mike Denbrock calls maybe one of “the most talented group of tight ends he has ever coached.” The Bearcats will return “no-star” Josiah Deguara, a healthy Josh Whyle, Bruno Labelle, and Leonard Taylor. Deguara has a chance to have a huge senior season. As a BSR team favorite, he is also a potential NFL draft pick.
The Offensive Line
Both UCLA and UC have issues on the offensive line. Quite frankly, this is just a guessing game and will be a fun aspect to watch Thursday night. I am looking forward to watching 6’ 9” 330 pound Lorenz Metz play as a freshman for the Bearcats. The brand new O-line is the biggest question for UC’s offense heading into 2019.
Edge – It’s a Wash.
That brings us to the biggest question for UCLA – defense. The 2018 pass rush and secondary were downright awful. Overall, the Bruins were the 88th defense last year. The top DB will once again be junior Darnay Holmes, the former 5-star recruit. However, he is still recovering from an undisclosed camp injury. Fifteen of the 18 defensive backs are underclassmen. Junior Quentin Lake is the only experienced safety. The middle of the field should be wide open against UCLA in 2019.
Edge – Cincinnati. A huge part of the Bearcats’ success last season was a much-improved defense under Marcus Freeman. This includes returning defensive backs Coby Bryant, Cam Jefferies, and Arquon Bush. Mike Mickens’ group has talent. I expect Mr. Bryant to really step up this year. Oh, and don’t forget the freak James Wiggins lurking in the secondary. The junior safety had 4 interceptions last year and came up huge time and time again. Who can ever forget how the Ohio and SMU games ended?
Due to the lack of pass rush last year, the middle level of the UCLA defense gave up a ton of yards, but gained lots of experience. UCLA has 23 backers on the roster and nearly half of them are freshman. And of those, most are walk-ons. The UCLA experts have differing projections of the starting linebacker unit so we are not even going to try to guess.
Edge – Cincinnati. Year #2 of Bryan Wright playing middle linebacker. Perry Young is healthy. Jarell White is back. Add to that two graduate transfers with experience in Darrian Beavers (UConn) and Tinashe Bere (Duke). This comparison is not even close.
The Defensive Line
Significant questions still exist throughout the Bruins D-line, as well. The 15 sacks last season were tied for 118th out of 129 Division-I programs, and only 5 of those came from the D-line. UCLA ranked 122nd in “stuff rate” (the percentage of non-sack carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) and almost dead last in “sack rate” (the percentage of pass attempts resulting in sacks).
Junior Osa Odighizuwa is the leading pass rusher for UCLA. The rest of the line will be composed of freshman and sophomores. UCLA switches between 3-4, 4-3 and 5-2 defensive formations. Defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro has major work cut out of himself. Without a lot of returning talent, UCLA will have to out-scheme just about every opponent on their schedule to make any defensive progress this season. As Daily Bruin reports, “With no new additions, don’t expect the Bruins to become world-breakers on the defensive line.”
Edge – It’s a Wash. The 2018 UC defense started with a very seasoned and talented D-line and the three biggest pieces now have legitimate shots to make NFL rosters for the regular season – Cortez Broughton, Marquise Copeland and Kimoni Fitz. This will hurt in 2019. The talented, but at times, unpredictable, Michael Pitts is the leading returning starter. Malik Vann should have his time to shine. Jabari Taylor should be fun to watch. Will Kevin Mouhon be healthy? Just a lot of unanswered questions here. This definitely will not be as simple as “reloading” after the key losses from 2018.
Prediction: Cats 35, Bruins 24 – Bearcats Win!
So…… what is our prediction? Our Bearcats hold the edge at nearly every level of offense and defense. We also have a magical punter in James Smith to flip the field. But do not underestimate UCLA’s speed and all the stars connected to their players’ recruiting profiles. This should be a very competitive game. Chip Kelly will have an improved, more cohesive squad in his second year.
However, given the home field advantage, we expect UC to win 35-24. Kelly will come up with some creative ways to get the ball in the endzone, but Fickell’s squad top to bottom is too fundamentally sound for the rag-tag Bruins. Ridder & Co. will be too much for a shaky Bruins defense at Nippert at night in primetime on ESPN. Much like Luke Fickell would beat the pleats off of Jim Harbaugh’s khakis in a cage match, our Bearcats will walk out victorious to start 1-0 before marching up to Columbus in week 2. Take that, PAC-12!
By Andy Smith