'Pushing to be a top-10 program': UC football sets fire to 2023 recruiting trail

Luke Fickell had an ambitious goal when he took over the University of Cincinnati football program in December 2016. Fickell wanted the Bearcats to be a top-10 program that rivals his alma mater, Ohio State.

Fickell, however, knew he had a long way to go to catch the Buckeyes, whom he helped lead to two national championships (2002 and 2014).

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In the second game of his third season as Cincinnati head coach, the former Ohio State defensive lineman and longtime Buckeyes assistant watched as his old team handed his new team a 42-0 drubbing inside Ohio Stadium in Columbus.

But as Fickell enters season No. 6 with the Bearcats, he's gaining ground on his former school.

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell watches drills during a spring practice at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Thursday, March 24, 2022.
Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell watches drills during a spring practice at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

Fickell and his staff led Cincinnati to last season's College Football Playoff, had a program-record nine players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft and have now passed Ohio State in the national 2023 recruiting class rankings.

The Bearcats on Wednesday landed their 10th 2023 commitment in a five-day span, including four-star defensive back Daeh McCullough. The momentous stretch brought Cincinnati's total number of 2023 commitments to 18 and propelled the Bearcats to No. 4 in the latest 247Sports rankings (highest in program history). Cincinnati trails No. 3 Penn State, No. 2 Texas Tech and top-ranked Notre Dame. Ohio State is ranked fifth (with 10 total 2023 commitments).

The Bearcats aren't finished yet. Fickell and his staff are scheduled to host several more highly-touted high school recruits this month for official visits and a variety of summer camps.

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"This month is so big because we want to continue pushing to be a top-10 program," said Pat Lambert, director of recruiting for Cincinnati football. "Recruiting is a major component to help us get there."

Fickell chose Lambert, who played for the Bearcats from 2008-12, to oversee his program's entire recruiting operation in early 2021 following the departure of previous recruiting director Chad Bowden to Notre Dame.

Lambert, along with Recruiting Strategy Director Max Stienecker and On-campus Recruiting Director Ashley Hecimovich, have worked tirelessly to keep the momentum going at Cincinnati while also keeping Fickell's vision and desire to have a family atmosphere at the center of their efforts.

"Max is amazing. He knows the program in and out because he's been here since Fickell started here," Lambert said. "He does such a great job building relationships with these recruits. Ashley brings a great element to our team as well."

Cincinnati's recent 2023 commitments:

CB Daeh McCullough

The four-star recruit is the highest-rated defensive commitment in program history and second-highest overall, trailing only former Wyoming High School standout and 2019 Ohio Mr. Football Evan Prater. McCullough, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound former Indiana commit, chose the Bearcats over offers from Kentucky, Penn State and others.

WR Ayden Greene

At 6 feet and 167 pounds, Greene helped lead Powell (Tennessee) High School to the 5A state championship in December. The three-star recruit committed to Cincinnati despite also visiting Clemson and owning other offers from schools like Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and Virginia Tech.

CB Luke Evans

The son of former Bearcats defensive lineman Percy Evans (1995-98), the three-star cornerback out of Hollywood, Florida, announced his commitment to Cincinnati despite drawing interest from Georgia, Mississippi State, Penn State, Texas A&M and others.

DL Kamari Burns

The three-star recruit out of Lincoln High School in Gahanna chose Cincinnati over offers from Kentucky, Michigan, Penn State, West Virginia and others. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Burns canceled his scheduled official visits to West Virginia and Penn State after committing to the Bearcats.

OL James Jenkins

The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Tampa, Florida, interior offensive lineman had offers from Cal, Colorado, Ole Miss and Purdue, among other schools, but chose the Bearcats after building connections with Cincinnati offensive line coach Mike Cummings and offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli.

RB Manny Covey

Cincinnati running backs coach Darren Paige added another weapon to the Bearcats backfield in the dynamic 5-foot-11, 175-pound Covey. A standout for Bradford High School in Starke, Florida, Covey also drew offers from schools like Central Florida, Memphis, Utah, Wake Forest and Washington State.

WR Ty Perkins

The three-star recruit out of Ironton is the teammate of four-star linebacker and fellow Cincinnati commit Trevor Carter. Bearcats wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Mike Brown was pivotal in pulling the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Perkins away from Air Force, Duke, Virginia Tech and others.

CB Jonas Duclona

A three-star recruit from Naples, Florida, Duclona committed to Cincinnati after meeting cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs. The 6-foot, 175-pound Duclona had offers from several schools including Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Iowa State, Louisville and Wisconsin.

OL Josh Gregory

Cincinnati dipped into St. Louis to grab Gregory, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound three-star standout who garnered interest from Memphis, Minnesota, Northwestern and others.

OL Nick Oliveira

The 6-foot-5, 280-pound recruit out of New Jersey had offers from Oregon, Penn State, Pittsburgh and several Ivy League schools, but chose to play for Cummings, Fickell and the Bearcats.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Luke Fickell and UC football recruiting class in 2023 strong