KOCH: Fitz Embracing Culture Change
April 11, 2017

By Bill Koch

CINCINNATI - The first time he heard first-year University of Cincinnati head football coach Luke Fickell address the team, junior defensive end Kimoni Fitz knew that playing on the defensive line at UC was about to become a lot more enjoyable.

“At the first meeting, Coach Fickell said he’s changing the culture,” Fitz said. “It’s all about effort and attitude every single play.”

But that wasn’t all. Fitz would soon discover that the constraints the defensive line operated under last year during the Tommy Tuberville coaching regime were about to be lifted.

“Last year was a lot more passive, a lot more like letting the backers in and trying to save the D-line,” Fitz said, “but now I feel like this is a D-line led team and an O-line led team. We’ve got to make a difference up front and we’ve got to get to the quarterback and make plays in the backfield. It definitely was frustrating a lot last year, watching everybody eat while we couldn’t eat. This year is a whole lot better.”

When a team goes 4-8, as the Bearcats did last year, it’s not hard to find a statistic to help explain what went wrong. One of the shortcomings in 2016 was a defensive unit that produced only 19 sacks, third lowest in the American Athletic Conference. Only Connecticut and East Carolina got to the quarterback less frequently.



But Fickell, the former defensive coordinator at Ohio State, is quick to point out that sacks are not the only measure of how well a team is pressuring the quarterback.

“Sometimes the number one most overrated stat in football can be sacks,” Fickell said Tuesday after practice at the Sheakley Athletics Center. “I don’t mean that like we don’t want to get sacks. D-line coaches would go crazy. But the reality is sometimes you’re all wired up to go get sacks and everybody’s running behind the quarterback. Sometimes batted down balls and keeping the guy in the pocket are every bit as important as coming free and making a sack.

“But with that being said, you’ve got to create pressure. You’ve got to be able to put the heat on the quarterback. If you can do it with four (down linemen), great. I’ve been at a place where we were fortunate with four guys to be able to put more heat on a quarterback than we could with five or six sometimes because they can go straight.”

The Bearcats didn’t blitz frequently last season, preferring a less risky approach to rushing the passer. How much that changes in 2017 is still under discussion. It will also depend on the opponent.

“We’re still developing and trying to figure out what works best for us,” Fickell said. “But we know we’ve definitely got to find ways to put heat on the quarterback. We’ll be smart about it. Third down is a different animal. And the game’s changed, too. Nowadays, if you’re going to be blitzing all the time, these guys are sight-adjusting and making hot reads and RPO’s (run/pass option) and things. It can put you in some tough situations. That’s a balance of what we’ve got to be able to do as well as figuring out what we do well too.”

Whatever the UC coaching staff decides, Fitz said he’s confident the players will be executing from a more solid fundamental base, thanks to the instruction they’re receiving from defensive line coach Al Washington, who arrived at UC this year after spending the last five seasons at Boston College, his alma mater. Last year the Eagles ranked second nationally with 3.62 sacks per game under Washington’s tutelage.

“He’s literally a guru,” Fitz said. “One thing he preaches is fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals all day. Fundamentals when we go through individual drills have to be 100 percent correct or he’s going to rib you about it. That’s what’s making us a whole lot better. It starts with your feet and goes to your upper body. Get off first and then upper body balance helps you get to the quarterback.”

Fitz, who had 1.5 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss last year, almost salivates at the thought of applying what he’s learned from Washington to go after quarterbacks next season. 

When he heard Fickell talk about adopting a more aggressive culture, Fitz said, “I felt like I was ready to pin my ears back and was ready to go. I was very happy and ready to take on the challenge. We knew where we were ranked (last year) but we tried not to let that get to us. We’re getting back to that this year. We’re trying to lead the country in every statistic.”

NEW PUNTER: Senior Sam Geraci, who frequently punted with a bad knee last year, will not return next season by mutual agreement with Fickell and will transfer to another school.

“Our philosophy coming in was that we want to be able to move the punter and do some things and not just sit back there in the pocket all the time,” Fickell said, “and that’s not something that Sam probably feels as comfortable doing. With his injuries and his knee, he doesn’t feel like he can do a lot of that. We’ve had this conversation since the beginning of spring. We finally sat down this weekend with him and kind of talked it out and said this is the route we want to go. We kind of worked it out and we’re going to try to help him find a place that’s going to be a little bit more traditional.”

Geraci has been UC’s punter for each of the past three seasons, averaging 41.5 yards per kick and placing 20 kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Last year, he punted 66 times for an average of 40.0 yards. The Bearcats ranked 96th nationally last year in net punting.

Geraci earned his bachelor's degree in finance in December 2016.

Fickell said he has a new punter lined up, but he wasn’t ready to reveal who he is. 

LEWIS ON HAND: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis watched Tuesday’s practice from the sideline and spent about 15 minutes chatting with Fickell after the session was over.

“That’s great for all of us,” Fickell said, “as coaches too. It says, ‘Hey, this is important. This means something to the community. This means something to everybody around here.’

This is a game of emotion. They’re still 18 to 22-year-olds. We pound on them and we push them and all those things. They love the positivity to what football can bring. All of that that we can do, I think, is awesome.”

Fickell said he has communicated by text message with Lewis several times since he took the UC job in December and let him know that he would always be welcome at practice.

“I got a message from him yesterday that I thought he was going to come by, so I texted him last night and sure enough he showed up,” Fickell said. “I’m very impressed.”

Lewis did not address the UC players. 

“I wasn’t going to throw him out there and say, ‘Run over there and talk to our team,’” Fickell said. “I would love for him to do it at some point in time, but I also wanted him to feel like he could come and get a piece of football and enjoy himself a little bit and (I could) pick his brain for sure, as much as I can.”

Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January 2015.