Cincinnati

‘This draft is huge’: 2021 NFL Draft could be a game-changer for UC football program


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The University of Cincinnati football team will open the 2021 season either in or close to the top 10 in every major ranking. But Luke Fickell, who is entering his fifth season as Bearcats head coach, isn’t interested in having a top-10 team, he’s looking to build a top-10 program.

The difference between the two is clear. It’s sustained success, not fleeting highs. It’s a palpable expectation to be excellent, not a fading feeling of greatness. It’s a winning culture, every single day.

Back-to-back 11-win seasons topped with bowl victories, followed by an 8-0 regular season, a conference championship and a New Year’s Six Bowl berth is a good start.

Another major building block for Fickell’s top-10 program begins Thursday night with the 2021 NFL Draft.

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell and the Cincinnati Bearcats get set to take the field before kickoff of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against the Georgia Bulldogs, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell and the Cincinnati Bearcats get set to take the field before kickoff of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against the Georgia Bulldogs, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)

“This draft is huge because it’s the first group we’ve had the full time with and these are the guys that have built our culture,” Fickell told The Enquirer.

The first round of the draft unfolds at 8 p.m. on ESPN, ABC and NFL Network. The Jacksonville Jaguars are on the clock first with the No. 1 overall pick.

Fickell’s ears will perk up at 7 p.m. on Friday. That’s when the second and third rounds are set to get underway. That’s also when the run on Bearcats could begin.

Offensive tackle James Hudson, safeties James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest and punter James Smith are all listed in most draft experts’ list of top 300 draft-eligible prospects and are expected to hear their names called anywhere between the third and seventh rounds.

Rounds four through seven will begin Saturday at noon.

Quarterback Desmond Ridder, cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and defensive end Myjai Sanders highlight Cincinnati’s batch of 2022 draft hopefuls, but this year’s impressive group could open the floodgates for the Bearcats program for years to come.

“This will be a springboard to next year, where we could/will break the UC record of number of guys drafted in one draft,” Fickell said. “This is a great sign of who we are and how we develop.”

The record for most UC players taken in one draft is six in 2009.

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell fist bumps Cincinnati Bearcats offensive lineman James Hudson (55) during the fourth quarter of a college football game against the Memphis Tigers, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won 49-10.

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell fist bumps Cincinnati Bearcats offensive lineman James Hudson (55) during the fourth quarter of a college football game against the Memphis Tigers, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won 49-10.  (Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)

Senior OT James Hudson

The 6-foot-5, 295-pound Hudson is a raw but talented tackle and the highest-rated prospect in UC’s draft class. The Michigan transfer has tremendous speed out of his stance and has equally impressive balance. Hudson’s frame and play style, somewhat comparable to two-time first-team All-Pro Green Bay Packers offensive tackle David Bakhtiari, makes the 2020 first-team All-American Athletic Conference performer an attractive option after the first two rounds.

“I’m willing to do whatever,” Hudson said. “If I have to go in and sit behind somebody who’s a vet (veteran) and been there a long time and knows what he’s talking about, I’m going to go do that, try to soak up as much information that I can and learn as much as I can from them so that when my jersey is called, I’ll be ready.”

Sports Betting Dime has the over/under for Hudson set at pick No. 109.5.

Safety James Wiggins eyes his counterparts as the University of Cincinnati football team started 2020 training camp Wednesday, Aug. 5, at Higher Ground Conference and Retreat Center.

Safety James Wiggins eyes his counterparts as the University of Cincinnati football team started 2020 training camp Wednesday, Aug. 5, at Higher Ground Conference and Retreat Center. (Photo: Thanks to University of Cincinnati Athletics)

Senior S James Wiggins

One of the most athletically gifted players to ever roam the UC defensive backfield, the 6-foot, 205-pound Wiggins had some injury woes during his career and is a tad undersized in today’s NFL, but he more than measures up in every other category. The 2020 Associated Press second-team All-American has a nose for the football and possesses a high character that will endear him to any organization.

“I just do what I have to do to get the job done,” said Wiggins, who didn’t play football until his sophomore year of high school. “… I am the player that you want and that you will need one day.”

Sports Betting Dime has the over/under for Wiggins set at pick No. 172.5.

Cincinnati Bearcats safety Darrick Forrest (5) tackles Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Cameron Moore (85) in the first quarter during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cincinnati Bearcats safety Darrick Forrest (5) tackles Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Cameron Moore (85) in the first quarter during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)

Senior S Darrick Forrest

Forrest was the lesser-known of the two safeties in NFL circles before his standout performance at UC’s pro day last month. The 6-foot, 206-pound 2020 defensive captain had a team-high 106 tackles in 2019 and will be a steal in the latter rounds.

“Darrick is one of the best leaders and hardest workers I’ve been around in my coaching career,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman told The Enquirer. (Freeman left Cincinnati to join the Fighting Irish staff in January.) “He always made those around him better. What I’ll remember most is how unselfish he was. Those traits will make him a great asset to any NFL team, but more importantly, they will make him a great husband and father one day.”

Sports Betting Dime has the over/under for Forrest set at pick No. 204.5.

Cincinnati Bearcats punter James Smith (37) punts the ball away in the first quarter of the NCAA football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Miami (Oh) Redhawks at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. The Bearcats retained the Victory Bell trophy for the 14th consecutive year with a 35-13 win.

Cincinnati Bearcats punter James Smith (37) punts the ball away in the first quarter of the NCAA football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Miami (Oh) Redhawks at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. The Bearcats retained the Victory Bell trophy for the 14th consecutive year with a 35-13 win. (Photo: Sam Greene)

Senior P James Smith

Arguably the most consistent player of the group during his tenure at Cincinnati, Smith ended his career with a 43.6-yards-per-punt average. The Wangaratta, Australia, native had 91 career punts inside the 20-yard line.

“Just to know there’s enthusiasm around your name as being regarded as one of the best punters in the class is always nice,” Smith said.

Sports Betting Dime has the over/under for Smith set at pick No. 250.5.

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