Cincinnati’s senior day celebrates Josh Whyle, Malik Vann, other Hometown Heroes


CINCINNATI — Josh Whyle did his best to play it cool with his friends when then-Cincinnati assistant coach Doug Phillips reached out to him, shortly after Luke Fickell was hired as head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats in December 2016.

Whyle was a highly touted 2018 tight end for local La Salle High School at the time, rated a four-star prospect by 247Sports and top-500 recruit in the country. He had garnered plenty of attention and scholarship offers from Power 5 programs in the region and across the country but only casual interest from his hometown Bearcats, who were floundering in the American Athletic Conference under a head coach in Tommy Tuberville with more Southern-based recruiting roots. That changed when Cincinnati hired Fickell ahead of the 2017 season. So did Whyle’s outlook.

“It’s funny, I told my friends I wasn’t that excited, but I was stoked. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Whyle said. “I always knew in my heart UC was the place I wanted to end up.”

Only five years later, with the Bearcats coming off a College Football Playoff appearance and headed to the Big 12 next season, it’s disorienting to properly convey how shocking Whyle’s sentiment was at the time of his recruitment. The Tuberville regime infamously had abandoned the local recruiting market, but an area talent like Whyle was precisely the type of prospect who the Bearcats never could convince to stay home regardless.

Whyle, however, felt otherwise. He had his pick of big-time colleges and was considering Ohio State, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, but there was something special about what Fickell was selling and where he was selling it. Whyle remembers driving back to Cincinnati with his parents after a visit to Indiana during his junior year at La Salle and having a moment of clarity.

“It’s hard. When you’re 17, 18 years old and getting these big-time schools calling you, people in your ear, it can be stressful,” Whyle said. “But what I realized through the recruiting process is that having a place to play, in front of your family, for the city you’ve lived in your entire life, that’s bigger than how big a name the school is.”

Josh Whyle has 88 catches for 1,062 yards and 15 touchdowns during his Cincinnati career. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

It was similar for defensive lineman Malik Vann, another prized, top-500 local prospect out of Fairfield High School. Vann received a scholarship offer from the Bearcats as a freshman in high school and had a couple subsequent conversations with the previous staff, but it wasn’t until then-Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman reached out that UC became a real contender for him. Vann remembers Freeman relaying the new staff’s plan to convince top area players to stay home and then inviting Vann on campus for a visit soon for the Crosstown Shootout in January 2017.

“When you get somebody like Fick coming from a big-time program, been there forever, to come down to the city, it’s something you’re going to notice,” Vann said, thinking back.

Fickell and his staff were pushing the Hometown Hero narrative to players like Whyle, Vann, Ja’Von Hicks (Colerain) and Blake Bacevich (St. Xavier), as well as the importance of a home-grown roster to broader Ohio recruits such as Ty Van Fossen, Ryan Montgomery and Dylan O’Quinn. Linebacker Jarell White, who played with Whyle at La Salle and who Vann grew up with, helped pave the way as well when he signed with the Bearcats in Fickell’s initial, truncated 2017 class as the new coach’s original Hometown Hero.

“Jarell deserves his flowers,” Vann said.

Whyle and Vann were both in direct-message group chats on Twitter with various Ohio prospects from the 2018 class who were being recruited by the Bearcats, some of whom ultimately went elsewhere (Brian Asamoah, Brennan Armstrong, Chase Wolf) and some who wound up at UC (Montgomery, Bacevich, Leonard Taylor). Those chats are normal for prospects considering any program, but both Whyle and Vann said the Cincinnati ones were unique because it was all players who were intrigued by the blind faith and culture building Fickell was preaching but reckoning with whether to shirk their higher-profile offers and become a true disciple.

“Honestly, we were talking about if we could actually do it. Could we pull it off? Go to Cincy and turn away the bigger offers we had?” said Vann, who was also considering Michigan State, Wisconsin and Tennessee. “Some guys believed in it, some guys didn’t. But those of us that believed it reaped the benefits.”

A couple jumped on board early, with Van Fossen and Bacevich both committing in March 2017. They were solid additions, but Whyle was the first to really turn heads in early April, a bonafide power-conference talent choosing to stay home for a new coach and sputtering program. Vann followed suit a couple of weeks later at Cincinnati’s spring game. Hicks committed a few days after that. Suddenly, Fickell’s blueprint was coming together as a fence sprung up around the Queen City.

“I just remember having extreme faith and belief in what Fick was going to build here, and that’s why I ultimately picked UC,” Whyle said. “I believed this place was going to be better by the time I left.”

It was a savvy prediction from Whyle, who has gone 53-9 during his five seasons in Clifton and never lost a game inside Nippert Stadium. The same goes for Vann, Hicks, Van Fossen and the others from a 2018 class who still make up the core of these present-day Bearcats. More than a dozen recruits from that group are currently starters or major contributors for Cincinnati, and a couple — Alec Pierce, Myjai Sanders — are already playing in the NFL. As good as that class was for Fickell and the Bearcats as far as recruiting rankings and respect level, it has meant exponentially more in terms of on-field production and cultural impact.

“I never felt I made the wrong decision,” Whyle said. “Everything we’ve done these past five years is a pretty good I-told-you-so.”

The remaining fifth-year seniors who signed in 2018 have played in three straight conference title games, winning two, and have a chance to secure their spot in a fourth with a win on Friday against Tulane. They will have played in a bowl game every season, never winning fewer than nine games — even during the 10-game COVID-19 2020 schedule — with at least two New Year’s Six appearances, one being the first (and probably only) Group of 5 school to reach the four-team CFP. The players have achieved historic, unprecedented levels of success for the program, joining a sinking ship and making it soar. Fickell gets top billing when dolling out credit for Cincinnati’s revival, but he’s also the first to point toward what those initial blueprints built.

“They did everything,” Fickell said. “They might be great players. There are a lot of great players. But when they leave and you don’t take a drop-off, you see the way it’s created and can look back and say, ‘Wow, that leadership was really strong.’ Even though they were great players, they set the example, they paid attention to those younger guys, and that’s what gives you a chance to continue to build the program.”

Many of them will be honored as part of the senior day festivities before kickoff on Friday. Some of them will be back next season for a sixth year, a product of the strange silver lining of the pandemic-induced bonus season of eligibility. Some thought they were done last year, including Whyle, who likely would have declared for the NFL had he not broken his foot in the final minutes of the Cotton Bowl loss to Alabama, yet has made the most of the unexpected.

“I think I was leaning toward leaving, but this was the best thing that has happened to me, staying this year,” Whyle said. “It’s only benefitted me. Des (Ridder) always talked about leaving this place better than we found it, and with my leadership, being a captain this season, I’ve done those things better than I have in the past.”

Vann might have been the same way had it not been for an ankle injury that hampered him during the final stretch of a strong season in 2021. Now he finds himself right back in the same position a year later, injured since the first series of Week 2 when he tore his pectoral muscle against Kennesaw State.

“Obviously the season didn’t go the way I envisioned,” said Vann, who admitted he broke down in tears in the MRI room when the doctor informed him of the diagnosis.

He intends to walk in the festivities on Friday and then will have to watch from the sideline but says he hasn’t made a final decision on whether he will return for a sixth season in 2023.

Regardless, the Tulane game is a chance for Whyle, Vann and the rest of their graduating class to preserve their five-season-long home winning streak and bring a third-straight AAC championship to Nippert Stadium, a triumph that would feel even sweeter considering all the talent that was lost from last year’s roster. It would validate the “reload not rebuild” mantra that was propagated all offseason, setting the tone — on the recruiting trail, in the weight room, and on the field — for a program that will enter the Big 12 and continue forward with grand plans and grander aspirations.

Whyle and Vann put that movement in motion. Both chuckled when asked how often the coaching and recruiting staffs have capitalized on their Hometown Hero credentials in the years since.

“Every phone call, every official and unofficial visit for local guys,” Vann said. “A picture of me and Corey (Kiner) just popped up from 2019. He was here on a visit on the sideline. Now he’s my roommate.”

The streaks and records tell the story, but the individual, unforgettable moments from those seasons are what will live on, preserved in amber by a university and fan base that have embraced and cherished this jet-fueled ascent to glory. There was the 2018 season-opening win over UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The Nipp at Night upset over UCF in 2019. The last-second, game-winning field goal in the driving rain to win the 2020 AAC crown. The road victory over a top-10 Notre Dame last October that charted a path to the CFP, with Vann waving the C-Paw flag in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. A euphoric, capacity crowd spilling onto the turf at Nippert as the final seconds of the 2021 conference championship ticked away.

The remaining members of the 2018 class have been there for all of it and will have a chance to add another to the list on Friday. It will come with the first-course emotion of Senior Day ceremonies, something Whyle knows is looming, but hasn’t allowed himself to dwell on just yet.

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” said Whyle, who anticipates roughly 40 close friends and family members will be in attendance, most of them wearing No. 81 jerseys. “My mom was dang near crying already the other night when I went home and we were talking about it. It will hit me that day for sure, walking out one last time. That will be hard. A lot of good memories in Nippert Stadium.”

The Bearcats have the good fortune of celebrating it last year, this year and again next year — as they should, a treasure worth relishing as much and as often as possible, for as long as they still can. It’s also exactly what Fickell and his staff promised Whyle, Vann and the rest of those players all those years ago, with talk of blind faith, Hometown Heroes and dormant dreams waiting to be lived out.

“Yeah, they ended up being right,” Vann said. “We talk about that in the locker room all the time, wondering how this place would have turned out if we went to those different places we were all talking about. But we all came here. We all made it happen.”

(Top photo of Malik Vann: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


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