Nestled amidst the fresh young faces redefining a new era of offensive explosiveness in college football is a familiar name, proven winner and, oh yeah, architect of the high-octane offense of possible College Football Playoff Cinderella, Cincinnati.
Mike Denbrock, 30-year-coaching veteran, is orchestrating a Bearcats offense averaging 41.6 points per game, 13th among all Football Bowls Subdivision teams and eighth of teams to play six or more games. It's a 12-point increase from the 29.6 average during Cincinnati's 11-3 2019 campaign.
The unbeaten and seventh-ranked Bearcats (7-0,5-0), facing UCF (5-2, 4-2) on the road Saturday in a crucial American Athletic Conference battle, are equal parts their coordinator's makeup: blue collar base along the offensive front, growing a running game with a stable of backs including Alabama transfer Jerome Ford and evolving to their identity with Desmond Ridder at quarterback.
“I think more than anything just continuing to try to be open to new perspectives, techniques and new ways of enhancing your core beliefs,” Denbrock told FootballScoop.com. “I don't know that your core beliefs as a coach necessarily change all that much year to year, and it starts with building meaningful relationships, but I think your approach as to what style of play, what fits each particular team the best. How do we get to be even better or on a higher level? How do you get there? I
“One thing I spent a bunch of time on was just watching and studying some of the best coaches that are out there and the way they do their business. If you find one thing, or three things to add to what we're doing here, and then getting together as an offensive staff, and we've really got a great staff and all our coaches did a nice job of doing that. It's allowed us to make some subtle changes to things we've done. But really, it's how do I give my guys the best opportunity to be successful? That's what it was all about during the pandemic.”
COVID-19 pandemic or otherwise, Cincinnati under fourth-year coach Luke Fickell is crowding into unprecedented fields of success with uncanny balance on both sides of the line of scrimmage. In addition to Denbrock's ground-and-pound-and-fling-it-around offense, Marcus Freeman's Bearcats defense nationally is allowing the third-fewest points per game at 12.4.
“I think the secret sauce of what makes our program at this point what it is, I think that's the trust, love and respect we've built, first off in the locker room,” Denbrock said. “Our players have an incredible amount of commitment to one another. There's not any selfish element to any part of our team or staff or anybody putting themselves in position where anyone is more important than the whole. These guys genuinely love and respect one another, and I think that's been a major factor.
“And that's true even between the coaching staff. We spent a lot of time, sometimes not even talking football, and just checking in on one another and making sure everybody was healthy and in a safe place. Dealing with players or coaches, I think a huge piece is continuing helping them understand we care about you more than what you can do on a football field.”
What Denbrock doesn't say but is seen in the Queen City is the Cincinnati staff's embrace of the community and its area prep programs.
“Coach Denbrock has done a great job at UC,” said Princeton High School (Ohio) coach Mike Daniels, a former Bearcats wideout and budding young coaching talent selected to the NFL's prestigious 2020 Bill Walsh coaching intern program. “His ability to use different personnels and be explosive. His units (tight ends) have arguably been the best unit since his arrival at UC.
“As a high school coach, Mike has been extremely open and accessible to information and film. I consider him a friend, and I’m very happy for his success.”
Denbrock traces his unit's on-field success to their “Code R.E.D. Offense.”
“The 'R' is for 'Relentless,' and we want to play that style, be that physically dominant football team,” said Denbrock, who logged 10 years as an assistant at Notre Dame and also notched stints at both Stanford and Washington. “The 'E,' we want to be 'Explosive.' We needed to be more explosive offensively this year than we were a year ago, for sure. We've found some things over the course of the last year to this year that has allowed us to be a little bit more explosive in the running game and the downfield throw game. And 'D,' we want to be disciplined in what we do.”
To wit: the Bearcats have four ball-carriers with at least 115 rushing yards on the season; Ridder owns 469 rushing yards and 1,483 passing yards; seven players own more than 100 receiving yards on the season.
All of which leaves plenty in front of the Bearcats – maybe even a chance to become the unprecedented Group of 5 CFP team in an unprecedented pandemic season.
“I think we've got an opportunity to be,” Denbrock said. “If we had to line up right now, today, I think we would have our challenges but what I've seen from this team is an ability to continue to grow. We're much better today than two weeks ago, and that's been a continual trend throughout our season.
“I think as long as our guys remain committed to the process, there's an opportunity to continue to grown even more. Who knows where we end up? I know this: When you put the ball down and it's time to play, the University of Cincinnati is going to line up and be ready to go.”