Insider’s View: How Cincinnati Will Replace Massive Talent Loss from 2021 Team

Q&A with a Cincinnati insider

Arkansas vs Cincinnati
photo credit: Twitter / Arkansas Athletics

The Arkansas football season begins Saturday with a highly anticipated showdown between the No. 19 Razorbacks and No. 23 Cincinnati.

It will be the first time Arkansas’ season opener is a top-25 matchup since 1980, when it was No. 6 in the preseason AP Poll and traveled to No. 10 Texas to start the year. The Razorbacks are hoping for a better outcome this time, as they lost to the Longhorns 23-17 in that game.

To get a better feel for this year’s Arkansas vs Cincinnati season opener, Best of Arkansas Sports reached out to someone who is around Cincinnati on a regular basis. Keith Jenkins covers the Bearcats for The Cincinnati Enquirer and will be in Fayetteville for the game.

He was kind enough to give us some time this week to preview the matchup and fill us in on how Cincinnati has gone about replacing so much talent lost from last year’s team that became the first Group of Five team to reach the College Football Playoff. Our full conversation can be watched and read in full below.

State of Cincinnati Football

BoAS: Before we dive into the specifics of this game, I was wondering if you could give us kind of a snapshot of where this Cincinnati program is, because you not only cover the school, but you’re also from Cincinnati and went to the school. How are people feeling about the Bearcats?

Jenkins: It’s funny, man. The University of Cincinnati has been, historically, a basketball school. I mean, Oscar Robertson (who filleted the Razorbacks in the NCAA Tournament), Kenyon Martin, Nick Van Exel, others, national championships, Final Fours. This is the first time in a long time where football isn’t so much on the back burner any more. There’s a lot of attention in and around this program and it’s just a credit to Luke Fickell and what his staff and his players have been able to do. It’s rocking right now.

The excitement in and around the program is at an all-time high and the expectations are at an all-time high. They’ve continuously grown each year under Luke Fickell and obviously last year they got all the way to the College Football Playoffs. I think the expectation is that they continue to to climb, that they continue to be that top-10 program that they’re looking to build, that Luke Fickell has been talking about pretty much throughout his tenure here.

So this first game of the season, against a good Arkansas team, a team that’s trending in the right direction, a team that’s trending upward that has a lot of talent, a dynamic quarterback in KJ (Jefferson). I mean, this is a supreme test, on the road in front of 76,000 screaming fans, national television. This is a test to see just how far Cincinnati as come and if they’re in position to truly reload. They lost nine draft picks from the 2022 draft. There were nine guys drafted, there was 11 total guys from last year’s team in NFL training camps. Not only were those guys talented, but they were the leaders of this team. So can these new guys, still very talented guys, can they step up and assume those leadership roles? I think we’ll find out a lot, not just about Cincinnati, but about both teams, after this game on Saturday.

Cincinnati Football’s Offense

BoAS: You mentioned those guys who went in the draft. One of them, of course was Desmond Ridder, the incredibly talented quarterback. Cincinnati has had a battle this preseason between Ben Bryant and Evan Prater. What’s your take on that battle?

Jenkins: Both guys have gotten first-team reps. They’ve kind of split those reps throughout spring and fall camps. They’re two very different quarterbacks. Ben Bryant is the traditional pocket passer. He’s a little more accurate, has the stronger arm, a little more consistent there with throwing the ball. Whereas Evan, he’s a phenomenal athlete. There’s just not a whole lot that he can’t do. He’s great with his legs. He’s truly that dual-threat. He’s not quite there with his arm yet. There’s still a lot of development that needs to happen there — not that he’s a bad passer by any stretch, but as far as the growth and development throwing the fall, I’d say that Ben is further along. He’s the senior, Evan is the sophomore.

The interesting part about Ben is, yeah, he’s an Eastern Michigan transfer — he started at Eastern Michigan last year — but he was at Cincinnati before that. He had to compete with Desmond Ridder for that starting job. When Desmond Ridder won it and became a two-time conference Offensive Player of the Year and Peach Bowl and all of that stuff, they told Ben, ‘Look man, you’re no going to play here.’ So they helped him get to Eastern Michigan and started there last season and he’s back.

I’m guessing — I don’t know who the starter is going to be, but I do watch practice and you kind of get a feel of where the team is trending. If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably going to be Ben Bryant, but it could easily be Evan. We’ll see how the thing shakes out. I think for the first time in a long time, Luke Fickell, he doesn’t have Desmond Ridder back there and he has this bargaining chip, or this competitive edge, where he can keep something a secret. I don’t think he wants to reveal. He wants to make sure that… Depending on which quarterback is out there, Cincinnati’s offense changes drastically because of the two guys’ skillsets. So if he doesn’t release a name, it’ll drive Sam Pittman crazy because he’s got to prepare for either guy and either offense.

But just because of Ben’s age, because he’s been there as far as having led a program before and been a starting quarterback, and as far as his progression goes and his development and his maturity physically — as a passer, as thrower of the football — I would give Ben the edge and I would guess he’ll probably be the starter on Saturday.

BoAS: This is going to be a theme throughout this conversation, but Cincinnati also needs to replace its leading rusher and leading receiver from a year ago. Who are the playmakers Arkansas should be aware of this weekend?

Jenkins: They’re having to replace Jerome Ford — who’s now with the Browns — their running back, the Alabama transfer who found a home at Cincinnati and really seized that opportunity. They truly do have four running backs back there. It says “or” all the way down the depth chart because you really could put any of those guys out there and feel confident that they’ll move the chains. One of those guys is Corey Kiner. Arkansas fans may know that name. He’s an LSU transfer, a hometown kid. A couple of seasons ago, it came down to either Cincinnati or LSU and he decided to go to LSU. Now he’s back home at Cincinnati. I think he’ll be one of those guys that will get some carries on Saturday.

And then you’ve got a guy like Nick Mardner. You know the name Alex Pierce, he was drafted by the Colts, he’s now there. He was there, he was Desmond Ridder’s No. 1 target last season and the year before that. Nick Mardner should take over that role, as far as that deep out wide guy. He’s 6-6, 215, Hawaii transfer. Just a big body who can go up and get it. He’ll be a big target in the red zone.

And then familiar guys, as far as Cincinnati is concerned, Tre Tucker and Tyler Scott. Those are both smaller receivers, but really quick twitchy guys, guys that can really stretch the field and get down there. And they’ve got two guys at tight end who are on the John Mackey Award watch list in Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor. Both of those guys are seniors and you may even see a lot of 12-personnel from Cincinnati, having both tight ends on the field at the same time.

So they’ve got a lot of weapons. I know they’re replacing a lot — Alec Pierce, Jerome Ford — but I think offensively, there’s not a whole lot of concern there because they’ve reloaded. Offensive line is still all there. But as far as the defense, that’s where the questions go and I’ll let you lead that one.

Cincinnati Football’s Defense

BoAS: That’s exactly where I was getting ready to go. Last year’s defense was so good and they had the fourth overall pick in Sauce Gardner. He was one of six defensive players drafted. How has Cincinnati gone about replacing those guys? Developed players waiting in the wings, a bunch of freshmen or did they hit the portal really hard?

Jenkins: A little bit of all that, to be honest with you. They have a freshman, JQ Hardaway, he won’t be the starter, but if there was another Sauce, he’s that. I know that’s lofty praise and high expectations, but as far as where Sauce was at the end of his career here at Cincinnati physically, that’s where JQ Hardaway is. He’s a dynamic playmaker at the cornerback spot. Really tall, lanky like Sauce. So he’s a guy, he won’t start, but he’ll probably contribute. He’ll be in the boundary, but you may even see him in that nickel spot.

The two corners this season will be Arquon Bush and Ja’quan Sheppard. Ja’quan Sheppard was Sauce’s roommate. He’ll take Sauce’s place over there in the boundary. Then on the field side will be Arquon Bush. Arquon is a senior — both of them are seniors — but Arquon was the nickel back last season. So while you had Sauce on one side and then you had actually the Jim Thorpe Award winner — which a lot of people kind of forget — the nation’s best corner was on the other side in Coby Bryant, who’s now with the Seahawks. But they have two seniors who are stepping up into those cornerback spots. Two guys that have been waiting for their opportunities to really be the guy on that side of the ball and they finally got it.

At safety, Brian Cook was another guy — he was another all-conference safety, he’s now with the Chiefs, vying for a starting job there. So now you have Ja’von Hicks, the next in line of the great safeties out here at Cincinnati: Darrick Forrest, who’s now with the Commanders, James Wiggins, who had some time with the Cardinals. But Ja’von Hicks will be the next guy there at safety. And they’ve got a sophomore who will be starting for the first time this season in Bryan Threats. So we’ve got some new faces replacing three all-time great, some new faces back there next to Ja’von Hicks and Arquon Bush, but still, experienced, athletic, really solid football players. A credit to Luke Fickell and his staff and their recruiting and their development.

New linebackers — Darrian Beavers, unfortunately he tore an ACL, but he’s now with the Giants; (Joel) Dublanko, who was with the Seahawks in their camp — they’re having to find linebackers. They got good guys, but it’s just a matter of, look, the talent is there. It’s there all throughout the field, but will the leadership be there? These guys will be in new leadership roles and prominent roles as far as their voice on that team. Are they willing to step up into those spots and take on the challenge in keeping the standard high that Desmond Ridder and those guys set? That’s going to be the challenge for this team. I don’t think it’ll be so much, ‘Are they still as talented?’ I just think with losing so much leadership, are those guys willing and ready to take on those roles? That’s what we’re going to find out in Fayetteville and beyond.

Arkansas vs Cincinnati

BoAS: The only two games the Bearcats have lost the last two years were against SEC teams, granted they were against Georgia and Alabama. Arkansas isn’t at that level, but is there still talk about what they can do to get over the hump and beat an SEC team?

Jenkins: We’ve asked that question. Cincinnati went 22-2 over the last two seasons and, like you mentioned, those two losses: Georgia in the Peach Bowl and of course Alabama in the playoff. They don’t feed into Power Five, Group of Five, SEC, ACC, Big Ten — none of that matters to them. They like to approach it as, ‘Hey, they’re playing football just like us. They put their pads on just like us.’ So they’re not feeding into that storyline of, ‘Man, it’s another freaking SEC team. Can we beat them?’

I think what they’re looking at it as is, ‘This is another opportunity for us to take that step.’ Like I said, they want to be a top-10 program. Not a top-10 team — they’ve done that, they did that last year. They want to be regarded as a perennial top-10 program. Every year, you’re mentioning them with the Ohio States and the Alabamas and the Georgias. They’re on that shortlist of 10 teams that are up there every single year — that’s where they want to be. This is another step in that direction. If they can go out there and play well and win in a hostile environment against a quality team… Look, SEC or not, Arkansas is a great team. They’re on the rise. They have a lot of great talent. They’re big. I love their quarterback. He is just phenomenal. If he has a solid year, I think Arkansas can have a special year. I think they’re that gifted. I love their coach. I think he’s a great coach. I think he’s got a great mindset and I think its players respond well to him, Sam Pittman — a former Cincinnati assistant.

But yeah, Cincinnati is not looking at it as, ‘Crap, man, we’ve got another SEC opponent.’ It’s another opportunity for them to take that step. And look, national television, top-25 matchup, if they can go out there and play well and snatch a win in Fayetteville, just imagine the steps that they’ll be able to take as far as getting to that plateau, especially as they’re heading into the Big 12.

BoAS: You don’t necessarily have to give a score prediction or anything like that, but I’m curious how feel this game is going to play out. I think the spread is 6.5 points. Could you give us a key or two and how you think the game is going to go?

Jenkins: I think it’ll be close. I think the difference will be two things. (First), the quarterback play. Both guys, Ben Bryant, Evan Prater, whoever starters, they’re both unproven. Yeah, Ben Bryant started at Eastern Michigan last year and played fairly well, but… I’ll say Toledo because I played at Toledo. Arkansas is not Toledo. This isn’t the MAC. This is a different step up in competition. So can Ben step up to the challenge in front of a hostile, 76,000(-fan) environment, national television, SEC, all of this stuff? Can he answer the bell? If it’s Evan, he’s a sophomore with zero starts in his career. Zero. He spent last season learning behind Desmond Ridder. Not a bad guy to learn from, but he has yet to really be truly tested at this level. Can they get good quarterback play? Can they get a guy who’s going to take whatever Arkansas gives them, hold on to the football, don’t make bad decisions, don’t give the Hogs any easy possessions? That’s going to be key.

Then the other key is KJ Jefferson. I mean, that guy, look, he’s great and he will run you over. That’s what I love about his game. I know Arkansas fans, it probably drives them crazy because you want him to slide or get out of bounds, but he’s a guy that’s a dynamic playmaker that can put the ball in the air or just take off. Can Cincinnati contain him? Can they limit his big plays? We don’t want to see him making 40-, 50-, 60-yard gains. You don’t even want to see him make 8-yard gains because he’s still moving the chains that way. So limit his explosive plays.

And again, the leaders have to show up. I think this will be a close game well into the third quarter and maybe even to the fourth quarter either way. I think the leadership has to show up. Not just four Cincinnati, but Arkansas as well. When you’re in a close game, sometimes the better team doesn’t win because the other team was just more composed. So who’s going to keep their composure and make sure they’re playing sound football in the waning minutes of that game? I think that’s going to be key.

I don’t know who’s going to win. I honestly think it’s a toss-up, to be honest with you. I haven’t really thought much about it, but yeah, I think the leadership has to show and that composure and the key guys have to be the key guys. This is a marquee matchup, a top-25 matchup, national television. The guys that Arkansas anticipates being the guys this season, the guys that Cincinnati is hoping will be the guys, this is the game. This is the game those guys need to step up and I think that’ll be key.

Watch our full conversation here:


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