'I'm just glad he's on our team': Cincinnati's Tre Tucker's speed, vision a 'scary' combo
Having a kick returner who can flip the field in a matter of seconds is an invaluable weapon for a football team.
It's also a massive headache for a defensive coordinator.
"Football is such a game of field position," University of Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. "It's scary when you're covering kicks or as a defense when you know there's a guy back there that can take it to the house. ... That's a huge weapon in field position."
The good news for Tressel, who is entering his first season as the Bearcats' defensive coordinator: One of the top return specialists in the American Athletic Conference is on his team.
Cincinnati junior wide receiver Tre Tucker was named second-team All-AAC as a kick returner last season after averaging a league-best 29.9 yards per return.
Tucker accumulated 389 yards on 13 returns, with one of those returns going for a 97-yard score in a 28-7 win over South Florida at Nippert Stadium.
The touchdown return was the first of Tucker's career and the first kickoff return score for the Bearcats since Ralph David Abernathy IV raced 90 yards into the end zone against Vanderbilt in the 2011 Liberty Bowl.
"You need to have good vision because a lot of stuff happens so quick," said Tucker on what makes a special kick returner. "You gotta be able to see something and be able to hit it in that quick span or it will close up. Obviously, you need to have great speed too because like I said, things close up. You gotta be able to hit it and go."
Tucker's vision is unmatched, and the 5-foot-9-inch, 175-pound Akron native, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, is the fastest player on the Cincinnati roster.
The team ran sprints in the winter and in the summer. Tucker finished first during both sessions. Tucker was crowned "King of the Streets" following the winter sprints and was the top point-getter during the summer drills.
But one touchdown return in a season isn't enough for Tucker.
"One of my goals this year is to be an All-American," he said. "I had one return last year but I was close on two or three more."
Tucker just missed a touchdown return in last season's opener against Austin Peay. After getting a glimpse of open space, he regrettably left his lead blockers and was caught shortly thereafter.
Tucker’s first career touchdown reception came on a 29-yard shovel pass from quarterback Desmond Ridder just 1:29 into the game.
Tucker finished last season with three receiving touchdowns, including a 45-yard score from Ridder against East Carolina.
But the kickoff return that still eats at Tucker happened the previous week against Houston.
Again at Nippert, Tucker caught a kickoff in the end zone in the second half and raced 45 yards before being tripped up.
"I don't like watching it," he said. "I don't like talking about it, to be honest, because it was just like, man, I could've potentially had three. So, obviously, my goal is to get three or more this year."
Doug Phillips, who was hired as the head coach at Youngstown State University in February 2020, was Cincinnati's tight ends coach and served as the special teams coordinator in 2017 before switching over to the running backs in 2018. Phillips was the lead recruiter for Tucker, but it was Tucker's connection with Fickell that ultimately led him to play for the Bearcats.
"He was a wrestler and I used to wrestler, so we connected on that page," Tucker said. "Honestly, the big thing about me is I liked what Coach Fick and the program stand for. I went to a smaller high school (Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy). We didn't have the best facilities. To me, it was his motto: Tough and nasty. Clifton style. That's kind of what I was like in high school."
Tucker closed out his prep career with 2,417 rushing yards, 1,922 receiving yards and 68 touchdowns. The latter two marks are the most in CVCA program history.
"I've been working on a lot of things, like just learning how to read the defense on the fly," Tucker said. "Last year, I got better at it. There's some routes that have three different routes in one, so you have three different choices depending on what the defense gives you. So I'm getting better at that. I've definitely improved all throughout the spring and camp and I'm excited to see what I can do with it this year."
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has run a lot of sets this summer with four wide receivers, highlighting multiple ways to get the ball into Tucker's hands. Tucker has lined up both on the outside and in the slot and has motioned across the formation.
"I'm grateful to have a pretty big role on the team," Tucker said. "When I first came here as a freshman, I wanted to have a big role. I wanted to have an impact on what the offense and special teams do. As far as offense, they use me in a lot of different ways. You see me line up a bunch of different ways and try to get mismatches. And on special teams as a returner, coach (Fickell) always says if you can score points on special teams, your chances of winning the game increases. That can kill momentum for the other team. It's a pretty powerful thing."
Tucker also racked up nine interceptions during his high school career. Tucker's speed has Tressel even considering him for some snaps on the defensive side.
"He can run," Tressel said. "Man, he can run. And his routes are improving. ... I'm just glad he's on our team."