CINCINNATI — Colerain senior cornerback Ken Willis is confident the undefeated football season at the University of Cincinnati will have a significant impact on the 2022 recruiting class and beyond.
"I feel like it's going to go up," said Willis, who signed his National Letter of Intent Wednesday morning.
"The Class of 2022 that we've got recruiting right now – I feel real good about them. I've got all good connections with the guys that I have my visit with, so it's going to be fun to see what we can do out there."
As the Bearcats (13-0) prepare to play Alabama (12-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinal Dec. 31, recruiting took center stage this week during the start of the NCAA's Early Signing Period on Wednesday morning.
The Bearcats signed 19 players and added a transfer by about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. UC conducted a practice that day, too, adding to an already busy schedule.
UC's recruiting class was rated No. 25 by ESPN and No. 33 by 247Sports on Wednesday, marking the highest-rated class in the American Athletic Conference and the highest-ranked in school history.
This memorable season renewed enthusiasm for several players UC recruited as the Bearcats became the first non-Power 5 team to be selected for the College Football Playoff.
"I think it's not going to be just a one-year thing," UC coach Luke Fickell said Wednesday afternoon.
"As the season wraps up at some point in time and the Senior Bowl kicks in and you're going to say, 'Oh my goodness, look how many guys they got at the Senior Bowl.' That will be a big deal for the next class of recruiting. Then all of a sudden the (NFL) combine that is going to happen, we're going to have an inordinate amount of guys at the (NFL) draft. All those things will have an incredible impact on giving us greater opportunities to showing kids what it's really like here."
Chad Brendel, owner of BearcatJournal.com, said this season has already impacted the 2023 class as the Bearcats have four in-state verbal commitments, including four-star Ironton linebacker Trevor Carter.
"My understanding is a lot more people are open to answering the phone when Cincinnati calls now," Brendel said.
"And that's what happens when you win at the level that they've won. You have a coach that pretty clearly wants to stay and continue building something here. The momentum is unbelievable. So if you are working in the Cincinnati recruiting department, your job is pretty good right now. It's treating you well."
Brendel said it's a telling sign that the four juniors from Ohio have already verbally committed to UC.
"You've got four of the top 15-20 guys committed (in Ohio) depending on where you look," Brendel said. "That already speaks to kids looking at Cincinnati different. These are kids that have ended their process early, that didn't let it play out until the spring and the summer to see how big that (scholarship) offer list would get. I'm sure they're of the belief that if I don't jump in now, somebody else will. So they've locked their spot up early and I just think that shows where this thing is headed. I think you've also seen the brand explode not just in the 'State of Cincinnati' but in that 300-mile radius that Luke Fickell talks about and then ever farther."
The 2022 class is represented in 10 different states.
Eight of the 2022 signees this week were from Ohio and 14 players overall were from a 300-mile radius that is the foundation for UC's recruiting efforts.
UC's impending move to the Big 12 by no later than July 2024 also strengthened recruiting this year, Fickell said.
UC's ability to sign players from Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and Alabama gives the Bearcats a lot of opportunities in other states, too.
"Recruiting is the lifeblood of what it is that we do and how you build," Fickell said.
Colerain football coach Shawn Cutright said Fickell and his coaching staff's local recruiting efforts have certainly paid dividends this season.
"You know I've been here for 17 years and there's been quite a few different coaches down there at UC," Cutright said.
"Some more successful than others. But, I feel like this has a hometown feeling. There is a lot of players that played high school football in Cincinnati that are now playing for UC."
La Salle coach Pat McLaughlin said the high school players that UC has signed from La Salle have benefited from being in the Bearcats program.
"They've made a concerted effort to get kids from Cincinnati, to get the best kids in Cincinnati, to stay home," McLaughlin said.
"And the most important thing is the guys that go there like (junior tight end) Josh Whyle or (freshman cornerback) Iesa (Jarmon) – the kids that we have down there – other guys have said they're developing them," McLaughlin said.
"So they might be two or three or four stars and they go there and they're developed and they're going to have guys playing on Sundays getting drafted. They had a guy (Coby Bryant) last night win the Jim Thorpe Award. So the most important thing is they're going down there, they're having a good experience and they're developing those kids on and off the field."