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Luke Fickell Has a Knack for Finding, Developing Unheralded Defensive Backs



Wisconsin football head coach Luke Fickell
Apr 11, 2023; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, left, talks with head coach Luke Fickell during practice Tuesday, April 11, 2023 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin football head coach Luke Fickell has become well-known nationwide for his ability to find and develop unheralded defensive backs during his time at Cincinnati.

His most recent example of this is Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, who stands at 6-foot-3 and was one of the best cornerbacks in college football. Sauce was a low three-star prospect out of Michigan and rated as the No. 144 CB in his recruiting class.

But the coaching staff saw something in him, developed him, and after a successful collegiate career, he was selected fourth overall by the New York Jets in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft. Gardner went on to win Rookie of the Year honors and was even named first-team All-Pro.

But he’s not coach Fickell’s only success story. He’s also played a role in developing Mike Tyson, a 6-foot-2, three-star outside linebacker recruit turned safety, who made it to the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick.

And then there’s Darrick Forest (6-foot), the No. 196 CB prospect in his class, who became a free safety at Cincinnati and went on to the NFL as a fifth-round selection. Along with former three-star cornerback James Wiggins, who became a seventh-round draft pick at free safety the same year.

Lastly, Colby Bryant, a 5-foot-11 two-star CB ranked No. 214 in his class at his position, developed into a fourth-round draft pick under the Bearcats coaching staff.

What is Luke Fickell’s Secret? 

So, you’re probably wondering what is the secret to his success in finding and developing these underrecruited and potentially undervalued players.

One key factor is his emphasis on height and length thresholds during the recruiting process. Luke Fickell and his defensive staff prioritize recruiting players with good height (6-foot plus, in most cases), long arms, and impressive verticals, as these physical traits can give defensive backs an advantage in both man and zone coverage. 

The idea is that it’ll make already tight throwing windows even tighter and allow the defense to make plays on the backend. 

“My objective is not to change that [Wisconsin’s identity],” Fickell told UW reporters. “My objective is to try and find ways to grow it and enhance it … I wouldn’t expect it to be much of any different or change in those ways of it being the tough, hard-nosed kind of guys that have made this place special.”

Once he has these balls of clay in the fold, Fickell and his trusted staff focus on developing their technique and football IQ. They refine their players’ footwork, positioning, and understanding of coverages, helping them become more effective defenders. 

They also emphasize the importance of competition in the weight room (thank you, Brady Collins), film study, and preparation, giving their players the tools to recognize and react to different offensive schemes.

Another factor contributing to their success is their emphasis on competition in practice. They’ve created an environment where players are constantly competing for playing time, pushing them to work harder and never become complacent. This competitive atmosphere builds a sustainable culture and helps identify the players who are most prepared and ready to contribute on game day.

Final Thoughts on Wisconsin Football Head Coach Luke Fickell 

It’s also important to mention that Luke Fickell has a track record of success in developing players at all positions, not just defensive backs.

Despite not coaching a Power 5 program, he produced 21 total NFL draft picks since 2017 while coaching at Cincinnati. For reference, Paul Chryst had 26 players selected from the Wisconsin football program in that same time frame. Not too shabby for a guy operating with less talent on paper. 

To take those comparisons a step further, Cincinnati has been better at recruiting and developing skill players into NFL draft picks since 2017, where the Bearcats produced nine to the Badgers four. 

Additionally, Fickell took a team comprised of largely two and three-star recruits that he developed — to college football’s final four and didn’t look outclassed against Nick Saban and Alabama. 

Getting more skilled playmakers on offense and improving cornerback play on the backend has arguably been Wisconsin’s Achilles heel that’s prevented them from taking the next step as a program. 

Could those days be over? 

Their ability to build a winning culture and develop players has led to success at Cincinnati and will almost undoubtedly continue now that he’s the head coach of the Wisconsin football program. 

I, for one, cannot wait to see how it unfolds and evolves in the coming years. 

Should Wisconsin Basketball Consider Hiring an Ace Recruiting Specialist?

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Dillon Graff is a Substack Newsletter Best Selling Author and the Owner of, your go-to source for in-depth coverage of the Wisconsin Badgers. His work has been featured in top media publications like USA Today, Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, B5Q, Saturday Blitz, and Fansided.