By Brian Fox
By Brian Fox
Originally from Indianapolis, Assistant Coach Brian Mason is settling into Cincinnati nicely. He’s so comfortable, in fact, he’s declared the Queen City to be tops among cities he’s lived. Based on his many promotions to new opportunities along the professional coaching road, that’s high praise.
Mason attended Denison University before beginning his coaching career at Bluffton University, his first stop. That was followed by stops at Butler University, Kent State (where he met Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman), Purdue, and Ohio State. An eye for young talent, Luke Fickell wisely invited Coach Mason to join him at the University of Cincinnati.
He spent last season as the Director of Recruitment, presiding over the most prestigious and highly ranked class of recruits to set foot on UC’s campus. The 2018 signing class was ranked 46th by Rivals and 247. Recently promoted, Mason begins this season as the newly-minted Special Teams Coach.
Discussing the overall transition from year one to year two under Coach Fickell’s leadership, he identified one key change for fans to look for — an open playbook on both sides of the ball. Because players are now accustomed to (a) the high expectations culture (read: “every player must give year-round effort”), and (b) the basic schemes on offense and defense, coaches can layer in more complexity and creativity.
Preparing for UCLA and this season, Mason said the three key inflection points for this team’s success were…
1) Unit Strength — Fickell and Co. want to see more cohesive position units. The coaches want to see the players sacrificing for each other on and off the field. While it might sound like a mere talking point, I think a lot of a team’s success rises and falls on the culture directed by the coaches and executed by the players.
2) Relentless Effort — As familiarity with the offensive and defensive schemes grows, the expectation is that everyone will play faster. And relentlessly.
3) Development Metrics — The coaches are measuring how guys develop as football players by evaluating progress against metrics and benchmarks. Coaches are tracking these metrics both on the field and in the weight room.
The special teams unit Mason takes over is young. Punter James Smith enters the season as the most well-known commodity among specialists. Smith started as a true freshman last season, transitioning to UC (and the States) after having been a professional rugby player in Australia before the 2017 season. The kicking game is rounded out by Ryan Jones, who was recently awarded a scholarship, and freshman Cole Smith from nearby Middletown. Jones will kick the ball off, and Smith will kick field goals.
Special teams are frequently overlooked, but I’m convinced it’ll play a big role in how this 2018 Bearcats team competes. The 2017 squad struggled to put points on the board, so winning the field position battle will be critical.
By Brian Fox
Junior wide receiver Rashad Medaris wears #17 on his jersey. He is the younger brother of Anthony McClung, who played receiver at UC from 2010 to 2014. McClung also went on to play in the NFL and CFL. Fun fact – he and Zach Collaros played together in Canada for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. McClung also wore #17 his first year in Clifton.
Much like McClung, Medaris is a small, compact speedster. At 5’ 11” and 182 lbs., Rashad can fly. He played football, basketball, baseball, and track and field in highs school.
Rashad grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. He attended one semester at Western Illinois before capitalizing on the mass exodus of UC wide receivers after 2015. Who can forget that group, including six seniors, Shaq Washington (Head Coach of Maple Heights), Chris Moore (still in NFL), Mekale McKay (still in NFL), Johnny Holton (still in NFL), Alex Chism (played in NFL), and Max Morrison. This will in all likelihood go down as the best group of Cincinnati wide receivers in history.
“It just felt right to come here,” according to Medaris. His whole family was already familiar with the campus and driving to games at Nippert Stadium.
Due to the transfer rule, Medaris sat out in 2016. In 2017, he played in the first five games on special teams and at wideout before suffering a season-ending lateral meniscus tear during the UCF game, requiring surgery and rehabilitation. Rashad is now 100% recovered and ready to play again.
This year we can expect him to pick up right where he left off, slated as a starting wide receiver. As Rashad indicated during our interview, Coach Fick wants everyone to play multiple positions, so he will continue his role on special teams.
Rashad is a Sports Administration major. He will earn his degree next fall during his final year of eligibility. He also told us his brother is back home in Indiana, soon to be a firefighter. Rashad comes from a close family and his whole family comes to Clifton on game days – just an hour and 45-minute drive away.
Medaris is excited to play in the UCLA game and go to California for the first time.
He describes himself as a very chill person. In his free time, you can catch him playing first-person shooter video games like Call of Duty and Fortnite on PS4. He also loves eating at Qdoba.
By Andy Smith
We are less than a week away from kicking off game one of the University of Cincinnati 2018 football season, and we could not be more excited! Let’s take a glimpse at some of the storylines, road trips, position battles, predictions, and general thoughts we have heading into the next football season.
Season Prediction: In year one under Coach Fickell the Cats went 4-8 and missed a bowl game. I think we can all honestly expect at least a 6-6 season with a trip back to a bowl game in 2018. The season does lead to a possible ceiling of up to 9-3. However, I simply do not see us escaping UCLA, Navy, and UCF. South Florida will also be a tough game. However, having those warm-weather softies come to Clifton in November and losing all-world Quinton Flowers definitely makes this matchup winnable. Butch Jones led the Bearcats from 4-8 to 10-3 in year two. Why can’t UC make the same improvement leaning on the best recruiting class in Bearcats history?
By Andy Smith
Redshirt sophomore defensive end Michael Pitts looks to replace Bryan Wright’s role as a defensive end this season. Last year, the athletic Wright was bright spot in a statistically frustrating UC defense.
#11 Bryan Wright is now transitioning to the middle linebacker position. The 6’ 4” 240 lb. freak of an athlete played quarterback in high school, and now gets to be the play caller on the other side of the ball. For the Bearcats to have success stopping opposing offenses, #43 Michael Pitts will need to fill Wright’s shoes on the D-line. This will also be year two under defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme, which should provide the consistently needed for improvement.
Mr. Pitts was ranked a three-star recruit out of high school. He has the size to play the edge and can run a ridiculous 4.6 40-yard dash. He has put on weight and muscle, having now spent two seasons in the program. Pitts is currently listed at 6’ 4” ad 255 lbs.
He will be used as a defensive end, hybrid linebacker, and play the Jack position. In the technical link of a 3-4 defensive scheme, the Jack is a hybrid of defensive end and linebacker. It gives big linebackers or small defensive ends a position. The Jack is pass rush specialist, but like a linebacker, is expected to defend against the pass in zone and man situations, as well.
Both Wright and Pitts have similar size, weight, and speed. On paper the two players are indeed interchangeable. The question becomes the intangibles and the in-game play the coaches simply cannot teach. Wright is a special player, capable of making interceptions, dropping in zone coverage, and wreaking havoc in the backfield. He now gets to contribute a larger role in the linebacker core. Michael Pitts has shown a lot of promise through Camp Higher Ground. Fingers crossed, this transitions to Saturdays.
A handful of players on this year’s team are from Georgia other than Pitts, including the all-important senior defensive tackle #96 Cortez Broughton. Doesn’t it feel as though Cortez has been a permanent fixture in Clifton? It will be very sad to see the energetic 6’ 2” 290 lb. mountain of a man leave after this season.
Pitts is “so happy to be back on campus” after 21 days of Camp Higher Ground. On Friday the team had a mock game to prepare for the trip to UCLA. The team has also been watching film from Chip Kelly’s days at Oregon, as well as his time throughout the NFL in San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Michael is a criminal justice major. Classes are going well and he is excited to work hard and ball out this year. You can catch him at the Chic-Fil-A on campus or the Pieology at U-Square when he’s hungry. He also loves to play Fortnite.
Pitts has never been to California so he is thrilled to play in the Rose Bowl at UCLA next week.
By Andy Smith
Hailing from Quebec, Canada, the French-speaking and athletic, Bruno Labelle, is now a redshirt sophomore. A huge fan of both Rob Gronkowski and UC’s very own Travis Kelce, Bruno proudly rocks the #87.
In 2016, Labelle redshirted. He was also named UC’s Co-Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. In 2017, he played in all 12 games, mainly on special teams, but Bruno contributed on offense, as well. This year, Bruno expects to continue playing special teams and earning more of an offensive role at tight end. His combination of size at 6’ 4” and 250 lbs. and speed should certainly help this year’s team, including blocking on runs plays and pass catching.
The tight end unit, including Bruno, Leonard Taylor, Mike Oakes, Dylan O’Quinn, Josh Whyle, Wilson Huber, and projected starter, Josiah Deguara, all decided to shave their heads during camp. Although Labelle is a team player, and this was in fact his own idea, he is certainly not a fan of his new hair style. “Hopefully, it grows back quickly,” he says.
Bruno expects to graduate in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in Communications. He then plans to enroll and earn his MBA before his scholarship and eligibility ends. Fluent in English, he continues to keep up his French when talking to his family and girlfriend.
Off the field, Bruno enjoys playing Fortnite, golfing, cooking, drinking coffee, and listening to country music. His favorite artists include Zac Brown Band and AC/DC.
His favorite meal to cook is salmon with white rice. I think we need to arrange a Chopped-style competition to see if he’s a superior chef to running back #3 Michael Warren.
By Andy Smith
It’s 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, he has already gone for a run and finished a lift lifting session for the day. Now he’s ensuring the team is up and eating a healthy breakfast. Glancing around the cafeteria to double-check certain players are eating proper portions to gain or, in some cases, even lose weight.
Is Bryan Wright drinking his protein shake? Did the freshman receivers finish their plates or just go for the waffles loaded up with syrup and whipped cream on top? Just a few of the million steps thoughts and questions answered every single day of Brady Collins’ life – and he loves every minute of it.
Over the past few years we have noticed an explosion of strength training programs and facility upgrades across division 1 college football. What used to be just one facet of a college program is now considered to be just as – or even more – important than the X’s and O’s. Some say the strength coach is the most important piece of the puzzle behind the head coach.
The free market economy seems to agree. Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle will rake in $725,000 this year. Nick Saban considers Scott Cochran to be his righthand man. Scott earned $535,000 last year. Indeed, a whopping 80 D1 strength coaches earn six-figure salaries. With some offensive and defensive coordinator salaries crossing the million-dollar mark, this should come as no surprise, and trust me, every dollar is justified.
Let’s be clear – Mr. Collins’ role is absolutely vital to the success of the Bearcats football program. College football isn’t so much about “the X’s and O’s” as it is “the Jimmies and the Joes.” And who eats, sleeps, and breathes with the players? Who trains the players 280 days a year? Who is responsible for bulking up those talented, yet scrawny, freshman? Who helped Bryan Wright drop 30 pounds to transition to his middle linebacker position this year? Why the man behind the muscle, that’s who.
Collins played four years of D3 football at Otterbein College, graduating in 2009. For those who don’t know, student athletes at this level do not receive scholarships. In Brady’s words, “you are playing for the love of the game.” Armed with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, he knew at that time what he wanted to do.
He took an unpaid internship position with the Ohio State University. Then, he earned an internship with the University of Kentucky. He helped the Cincinnati Bengals program, during these early years. He eventually earned a graduate assistant position with UK in 2010. He did not earn a salary until he was around 26, having to work at Finish Line selling shoes to pay the bills and put food on the table.
“Intern. Volunteer. Do whatever it takes.” Words to live by. He lived in a small one-bedroom apartment, paying $400 in rent to make ends meet. Focused on the future, Collins then worked at Mississippi State before getting the call to head to the Ohio State University.
Brady spent time with Randall Cobb (AKA “Batman”) while at UK and also Dak Prescott while at Mississippi State – two of the most charismatic, energetic football players around.
While at OSU in 2015, Collins formed a close relationship with “Coach Fick,” as he calls him. When Luke Fickell began to form his staff after being hired at UC, Brady Collins was a no-brainer.
Although there is no typical path to become a D1 strength coach, Collins considers his long, winding path to be the most common in the profession. Be prepared to move around the country with a day’s notice. Be prepared to work your butt off. Be prepare to do whatever it takes.
Known for his “juice” concept and “attention training,” Brady instills a new-found energy in the weight room and on the field. Loud music every day. Themed workouts. Switch it up. Daily challenges. Encourage. Encourage. Encourage.
When he’s not training the football team in the Monster fFctory, Collins enjoys spending time with his wife and their daughter. You might even find him at his favorite restaurant, Tony’s, scarfing down a steak.
By Andy Smith
Senior defensive back #2 Tyrell Gilbert has been around the block at UC, this being his final dose of Camp Higher Ground.
Described as “a bitter sweet feeling,” there is no experience like being at CHG for two weeks “and getting to gel with your brothers.” Gilbert talked to us about the advantages of having no distractions and just being able to focus on football and improving as players in West Harrison, Indiana. He will miss the college experience at Camp and having the opportunity to feel each other and get better day-by-day.
Gilbert was very proud to track down Cornerbacks Coach Mike Mickens and drag him into the cold tub after the final day of Camp on Wednesday afternoon.
Listed at 6’ and 190 lbs., Gilbert played in all 12 games last year, starting eight games as an outside linebacker. He finished 2017 with 32 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, two pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
A three-star recruit and dual-threat quarterback out of high school, Tyrell was ranked the 51st safety recruit in the country. Playing at Princeton High School, he decided to stay home and play his college ball at Nippert Stadium. Gilbert has worn #2 since he was seven years old and he will continue to rock this number on his jersey during his final year in Clifton.
Gilbert has a three-year old daughter who he spends as much time as possible with when he isn’t on the football field. Tyrell loves to go fishing, catch bass and catfish, and relax. He used to fish with Korey Cunningham a.k.a. Big Country before Korey left UC to play for the Arizona Cardinals. His favorite fishing hole is about an hour away from campus, known as Catfish Paradise.
Last – but not least – his favorite meal is his mom’s homemade lasagna and garlic bread. I’m sure she will not be disappointed hearing that!
By Andy Smith
Sophomore cornerback Coby Bryant hails from famous Glennville High School in Cleveland, Ohio. A three-star recruit out of high school, Coby was one of the top corners in Ohio.
During his childhood, Bryant developed a close relationship with the Ginn family. He considers Ted Ginn as a brother. The two frequently talk and Ginn continues to mentor Coby on and off the field. Quite fitting, Bryant wears #7 across his chest.
Coby’s older brother, Christian, played defensive back at Ohio State University under Luke Fickell and now plays in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns. Coach Fickell developed a relationship with Coby over the years, and luckily for Bearcat fans, the relationship led Coby down to Clifton.
Coby is very mature and business-like for just a sophomore. He interviewed very well and you could just tell he has goals he will check off very soon. Some of those goals include becoming an All-American corner and helping the Cats win as many games as possible. Cornerbacks Coach Mike Mickens is thoroughly impressed by Bryant’s progress over the offseason and into Camp.
Watch out for #7 roving around in the secondary this year. Coach Mickens still holds the all-time interception record at UC. However, an athletically gifted student of the game like Coby could come for that record very soon.
Off the field, Bryant enjoys drawing. His go-to meal around campus is Raising Canes, and we cannot argue with him there.
The hard work is paying off. I am sure both of his brothers are proud.
By Andy Smith
Mike Mickens was born and raised in the suburb of Huber Heights, just outside of Dayton, Ohio. The 31-year-old is an absolute legend among University of Cincinnati Bearcats fans.
Recruited by Mark Dantonio in 2005, Mickens dawned a #21 and an “S” on his chest for all four years at UC. He received All-American honors not once, but twice. The best cornerback in Bearcats history, Mickens still holds the interception record (14) and the interception return yard record (296). He was a strong component in leading the Bearcats to their first ever BCS Bowl his senior season, when the Cats took the field in the 2009 Orange Bowl.
Mickens remembers the brotherhood of those UC teams. The 2008 season was a fun year to play under coach Brian Kelly. “Many, many memories,” Mickens said, that will stick with him the rest of his life. His favorite memory is beating 7th-ranked Rutgers his sophomore year. Seeing oranges get thrown on the field to close out the 2008 regular season at Nippert Stadium is also up there.
He tore up his left knee his senior year, resulting in an unfortunate, nagging injury that would stick with him the remainder of his professional career. Considered a possible first round talent, Mickens was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He also played briefly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Calgary Stampeders, before retiring from football in 2010.
A tremendously positive and influential individual, a knee injury could not keep Mickens off the football field. Coaching was a natural transition for the UC legend.
In 2011, Mike became a defensive assistant at UC. He also earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. In 2012, he held the same position for Indiana State University. In 2013, he coached the cornerbacks at Idaho before taking the same position at Bowling Green State University in 2014.
Then, in 2018, Mickens came back home to coach the cornerbacks for the Bearcats in Clifton. In his words, “a dream come true.” Cincinnati – the place that helped put Mike Mickens on the map. Only fitting he should return to help guide a new batch of defensive backs to hopefully break all of the records Mike set, just 10 years earlier.
A talented, young bunch, including freshman Arquon Bush, sophomore Coby Bryant, and junior grad transfer Cameron Jefferies. The sky is the limit for Mickens – just the way he likes it.
Camp Higher Ground hasn’t changed much since Mickens graced the field as a player. A new building and new turf on the practice field, but the overall feel of Camp remains the same. A two-week grind designed to advance the players as much as possible before the season begins.
When Mike isn’t coaching the corners at UC, you might find him scarfing down some seafood for dinner at Pappadeaux in Springdale. A true Cincinnatian, he loves a three way with two cheese conies (with mustard and onion, of course) from Skyline. Mickens also enjoys to golf and bowl in his free-time. On a good day, he can bowl a 180, a formidable score from a competitive man.
Watch out for #21’s familiar face coaching from the sideline this year at Nippert.
By Andy Smith