Since Cincinnati reached the 10-win plateau for the first time in 56 years last season, a familiar scene has repeated itself all over campus.
Senior defensive backs DeAngelo Smith and Mike Mickens are in the middle of a conversation when Smith suddenly orders Mickens to do up to 50 push-ups. Mickens has to honor the request, no matter where he might be at the time.
On the practice field.
In the film room.
Even in a classroom.
"It's kind of fun because you can catch him off-guard early in the morning or in class," Smith said.
Heck, Mickens might even do a few push-ups on the field Saturday, when Cincinnati – about a three-touchdown underdog – plays at Oklahoma.
That's the price Mickens has to pay for losing a bet with his teammate last season. Mickens and Smith conducted a friendly wager over which player would finish the season with more interceptions. The winner could order the loser to do push-ups at any given time throughout the rest of the year.
Smith staged a comeback victory when he picked off three passes in a Papajohns.com Bowl triumph over Southern Miss, which allowed him to tie for the NCAA lead with eight interceptions. Mickens finished with six interceptions, which tied the school's previous single-season record.
The real losers have been opposing quarterbacks. Smith and Mickens combined for more interceptions last season than any other tandem in the nation while leading Cincinnati to a 10-3 record.
"We had 14 last year and want to keep adding to that number," Mickens said. "We just want to be the best secondary in the country."
If Mickens and Smith can help Cincinnati upset Oklahoma on Saturday, it would be tough to argue there's a better secondary in the land.
But it's also a challenge for Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, who led the nation in passing efficiency last season. The Bearcats' secondary may be the best one Bradford sees this season.
Smith and Mickens arrived at Cincinnati as two-star prospects who chose the Bearcats over a number of Mid-American Conference programs. Shortly before enrolling at Cincinnati, Smith had some family issues that nearly caused him to stay home in Columbus, Ohio.
"When I first got here, I didn't know if I really wanted to be here," Smith said. "I kept questioning myself, 'Should I be here or not?' I had to realize it's not going to be as easy as it was in high school. I had to work harder. I'm kind of glad it happened to me. I realized not everything comes easy to you. You have to work for it. That situation helped me grow as a man and as a football player."
Smith settled into his new situation and hosted Mickens on his recruiting visit to Cincinnati. It turned out they had at least a few things in common.
Mickens boasted enough athleticism to win the state 300-meter hurdles championship his junior year at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, yet he didn't receive much interest from big-time programs.
"I wasn't highly recruited out of high school," said Mickens, who committed to Bowling Green before signing with Cincinnati. "A lot of people just thought I was a track guy."
The then-Cincinnati coach saw something in Mickens that just about every other major-college program outside the MAC failed to notice. Dantonio's presence also had helped persuade Smith to sign with the Bearcats a year earlier.
"The thing that set Mike apart is he's a very tenacious and confident player," said Dantonio, now coach at Michigan State. "DeAngelo Smith is a guy that works extremely hard at developing his game and studying the game. … Both of them have great ball skills, the ability to run, and they're very, very coachable players."
Their competitiveness was evident to Brian Kelly's staff as soon as they took over for Dantonio before the International Bowl two years ago.
Coombs tried reducing mistakes in the secondary by telling his defensive backs to do push-ups every time they dropped a pass or got beaten in coverage. Mickens and Smith took the push-up craze to a whole new level, which didn't surprise Coombs at all.
"They're competitive to the 'nth' degree," Coombs said. "They don't want to get beat in practice. They don't want to get beat in a game. They don't want to get beat if they're taking a test on this week's opponent.''
Smith and Mickens certainly won't get stumped about this particular opponent. Oklahoma ranked fifth in the nation in scoring a year ago and opened the '08 season by racking up 50 first-half points before coasting to a 57-2 triumph over Chattanooga.
"We're looking at it as a bowl game," Smith said. "It's a big game. It can really put Cincinnati on the map."
This game should prove particularly challenging for Smith, who still is adjusting to a position switch. After teaming up with Mickens last season to give Cincinnati one of the nation's top cornerback tandems, he has moved to free safety this season.
Smith switched positions in part because Cincinnati needed leadership and experience at safety following the departure of three-year starter Haruki Nakamura, now a member of the Baltimore Ravens. His move also made room for Ohio State transfer Brandon Underwood, who has filled Mickens' old spot at cornerback.
"We'll get a better indication of his success at that position this weekend against Oklahoma," Kelly said. "Thus far, it's like anything else. He still has to get lined up right all the time and be consistent, but he makes up for it with such a great knack and savvy in terms of going and getting the football."
Coombs believes the position switch actually could boost Smith's interception total, which would allow him to boost his NFL stock. And that's one area in which Smith once again must come from behind to beat his teammate.
Smith certainly caught the attention of NFL scouts by picking off so many passes last season, but Mickens is a probable first-round pick. Mickens already had the athleticism and coverage skills to play at the pro level. Now he is gradually developing NFL size.
Wayne coach Jay Minton remembers Mickens weighing 150-155 pounds during his high school career, but the 6-foot senior now is listed at 190 pounds. Mickens has gained at least 10 pounds over the past year, which hasn't been lost on his teammates.
"He's gotten kind of big," Smith said. "His biceps are huge."
Smith deserves at least part of the credit for his teammate's physical development. All those push-ups could help Mickens become the first cornerback taken in the next draft.