WEST HARRISON, Ind. –Maybe “speed” isn’t the first adjective most fans associate with Cincinnati’s offense under Luke Fickell, but the Bearcats are suddenly ripe for the wide receiver this season.
Senior Tre Tucker, kick return and throw sweep extraordinaire, sprinted 4.29 seconds for 40 yards this summer, tying the personal best of deep-threat junior Tyler Scott. Drew Donley, affectionately nicknamed “White Lightning” by his teammates, ran a 4.31 and comes across as an over-the-top threat to link up with Will Pauling, another sophomore and still unstable wide receiver. And those are just the obvious burners.
“You’ve got Tyler, Will, Tre, Drew Donley, all those guys can really run,” offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli said. “Nick Mardner is a tall, long body that doesn’t look like he’s running, but he covers the grass. Jadon Thompson is a guy here who makes plays.
Even though the offense has evolved into a much more balanced offense over the past two seasons, Cincinnati has largely retained a tough, mean identity punctuated by the running game. But despite losing starters Alec Pierce and Michael Young Jr. to the NFL, the returning wides are a deep, versatile and dynamic group and one of the strongest positions on the roster. In a unit with a first-year offensive coordinator in Guidugli, a few unknowns at running back, and a quarterback battle that includes a comfortable pocket passer in Ben Bryant, that depth and versatility could prove to be a essential catalyst for the Bearcats in 2022.
“All these guys are vying to be first on the pitch, and it’s good when you have these battles because ultimately it’s going to make your unit better,” Guidugli said.
Cincinnati has lost significant production, especially from Pierce, who led the team with 52 receptions for 884 yards and eight touchdowns last season. But receivers coach Mike Brown isn’t exactly lacking in experience with Tyler Scott, Tucker and Thompson all back after combining for 78 catches, 1,154 yards and seven touchdowns and Tucker emerging as a leading voice in the locker room. .
“At the end of the day, we have to leave this place better than we found it,” Tucker said. “If something happens in this reception hall, these guys are watching me now. And I want to make sure this room is held to the highest standard. If we drop a pass, it doesn’t matter if it was a little behind you, I need push-ups. We have to make the quarterback look good.
ICYMI last night, I love the line, “Well, I’m still exploring different candles, but I love ocean scents.” And I love that a college football player said it so sincerely.
Tyler Scott is built differently, that’s for sure. #Cubs https://t.co/xGWtCPLQeO
— Justin Williams (@Williams_Justin) August 6, 2022
Promising new talent also joins this trio, headlined by Mardner. The 6-foot-6 transfer from Hawaii was named to the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list after throwing 46 receptions for 913 yards and five touchdowns for the Rainbow Warriors last season, and he added 25 pounds since arriving in Cincinnati.
Third-year Chris Scott is also expected to be part of the rotation, and while he may not be a traditional burner, he has the best hands on the team when it comes to Tucker.
“He’s my breakout guy: Chris Scott. Dude is a baller,” Tucker said. He catches everything.”
Add Pauling, Donley, proven Wyatt Fischer and fifth-year senior Blue Smith, who is coming off a strong spring session. Freshman Quincy Burroughs has a crowded depth chart ahead of him, but he flashed early in camp.
“The DBs always talk about our speed. It’s a very fast group,” said Tyler Scott. “But at the end of the day we know we still have to walk good roads and catch the football.”
The returners get the nod entering the camp: Tyler Scott at the ground point, Tucker in the slot and Thompson at the boundary. But Mardner will also matter a lot on the border, with Donley behind Tyler Scott and Pauling behind Tucker.
Chris Scott, Blue Smith, Quincy Burroughs
Mardner was brought in specifically as a tall frontier receiver to help ease the sting of Pierce’s departure. After finding his footing in the spring, Mardner commands attention in preseason camp with a tantalizing combination of size and athleticism.
“He’s weird. He’s 6-foot-6, but he bends like he’s a 6-foot guy,” Tucker said. “Usually guys this big, it’s harder to come down and do certain things, but he’s got everything. And he’s still developing.
The 25 pounds he gained in the weight room this offseason is a perfect example of that and something Tucker credits Mardner for embracing his new surroundings.
“When people come from other programs, you see what makes us different. We are one of the only ones in what we do. Fitting into our culture, adapting to it, is tough,” Tucker said. “But in the end, it’s worth it, and Nick is doing just fine.”
Hawaii is known for its offense, but Mardner’s 913 receiving yards in 2021 is more than any Cincinnati receiver since 2015, when Shaq Washington had a program-record 90 catches for 982 yards.
seen and heard
Tucker and Tyler Scott both ballooned to 185 pounds this offseason, but Tucker still maintains he’s the fastest player on the team. Brown reluctantly agrees. … Tucker predicted Donley would get his first career touchdown this season. … Burroughs was one of the stars of the preseason through the first handful of practices. … Freshman Jojo Bermudez is expected to miss the 2022 season due to injury. … Wide receiver Jiair Thomas, the older brother of linebacker Jaheim Thomas, is entering his fourth year in the program. … Mardner Moss freshman cornerback JQ Hardaway during one-on-one drills in the red zone during early preseason practice, but Hardaway was redeemed the next day with a nice breaking on a try to the back of Mardner.
Player to watch
Take your pick, but I’ll go with Tucker. He’s still electrifying as a kick returner – a role he refuses to give up – and on gimmick plays, and he’s become a disciplined and versatile receiver as well as being an essential leader. If he has another solid season, he will absolutely be on the NFL draft boards next spring.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series examining every Bearcats position group ahead of the 2022 season opener vs. Arkansas September 3. Check out the previous breakdowns:
(Photo by Tre Tucker: Katie Stratman/USA Today)