KOCH: Bearcats Preparing For Spring Game Friday Night
April 13, 2017

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By Bill Koch
GoBearcats.com

CINCINNATI - Luke Fickell views Friday night's spring game as much more than a spectacle to mark the end of his first spring practice session as the University of Cincinnati's head football coach.

Fickell sees it as a crucial tool as he continues to evaluate the team he inherited when UC and former coach Tommy Tuberville parted ways at the end of last season.

With the exception of no kickoffs and no live punting, this will be a real football game, Red vs. Black, with the makeup of the teams chosen by the seniors during a Wednesday draft. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Nippert Stadium. The game is free and open to the public. Parking is available in Corry and Calhoun garages for $5 per car.

"Like I said to our coaches," Fickell said after Thursday's final practice of the spring. "They're going to take the attitude that we take. If we think it's just an exhibition and a fun game, then that's the attitude they'll have. This will be a competition. And we want the players to go into it with that kind of attitude and have that kind of demeanor so they feel that when they walk in here tomorrow, that it's like a true game day."

Junior Hayden Moore will quarterback the Red team, sophomore Ross Trail will quarterback the Black team, and redshirt freshman Jake Sopko will take turns running the offense with both teams.

Earlier this week, Fickell designated Moore, the most experienced of UC's three quarterbacks, as the leader in the competition for the starting job. That was encouraging to Moore, but he takes nothing for granted. This is a quarterback who has been forced to try to prove himself repeatedly since he broke Greg Cook's school record for passing yards against Memphis as a redshirt freshman in 2015.

That startling performance branded Moore as a star in waiting, but it hasn't happened.

"I can't assume anything," Moore said, "so I'm going to keep the same mindset throughout the spring game and throughout the summer and fall camp. I've got to keep on competing so I can get better and so that the offense can get better. I've already done it before. Really, every year I've had to prove myself again. I don't know if I do, but it keeps me on my toes."

This will be Moore's best chance so far to make a lasting impression on the new coaching staff, to show them how much he has improved since last year and since the beginning of spring practice.

"I've made some strides in some areas," Moore said. "My decision-making is a lot faster. Making my reads, definitely the timing on throws, that's really the main thing that's different from last year."

There will be no contrived scoring system in the spring game, like the kind some coaches employ where the defense gets points for a sack or an interception. The Bearcats will play four quarters with the final two expected to be with a running clock. Otherwise, it's straight-up football with traditional scoring.

"We want game days to be different," Fickell said. "That's why we're going to make sure tomorrow they get an idea what the coaches are going to be like, what the head coach is going to be like on a game day as much as we possibly can.

"We'll get everybody in. Every one of these guys deserves an opportunity to play. That also puts pressure on them. There's a winner and a loser. It's a competition and your teammates are counting on you, whether you're a third-team guy or not, whether you're a Jake Sopko that's going to switch teams and bounce back and forth as a quarterback. Your teammates are going to be looking at you."

Fickell's decision to let the seniors draft the teams - under the supervision of the coaching staff - was also to provide the coaches with more insight into their players. As Fickell said, you can't learn everything about a player on the field.

"You do a draft for a reason," he said, "to see who they pick and see what they think of each other. There's a lot more things that you get out of this even before the game starts. You get to see a lot. There's some guys that rise when the lights go on. They get a heightened awareness and intensity levels that increase and then there's some guys that don't.

"We want to try to make it as much as we possibly can like that to see what we've got. We don't want to wait until the first game of the year to find out what guys actually thrive in some of those environments and feed off the energies that are around a true game."

Given the Bearcats' early schedule next season it's understandable that Fickell views the spring game as an important event.

The Bearcats will open the regular season on Aug. 31 at Nippert against Austin Peay. Ten days later, they're off to the Big House at Michigan where they'll play in an environment, unlike anything they've seen. The following week they'll play up the road at Miami (Ohio) to face a team determined to end an 11-game losing streak to the Bearcats in the annual Battle for the Victory Bell.

"We want to put them under some pressure and see how they perform," Fickell said

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.