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Cincinnati Bearcats Spring Football Position Battles; Second Slot Receiver

The Cincinnati Bearcats will have one of the best receiver corps in the nation in 2014 with nearly 80 percent of last years production returning from last years passing offense that ranked 17th in passing yards and 25th in passing efficiency. The biggest part missing from last years group is Anthony McClung. The battle for his spot will be watched intently.

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In no uncertain terms the Bearcats offense was a mess for much of September. There was little in the way of cohesion on a philosophical level. The running game did not mesh well with the passing game on personnel terms. The passing game struggled to punish defenses for staying in base alignments against the Bearcats primary 11 personnel, but the Bearcats struggled to run when they went with two back looks.

Anytime a new coordinator comes in there will be some struggles, its the nature of the game. The Bearcats were used to playing the game a certain way, the coaches enforced a different approach, and nothing quite clicked. The proverbial corner was turned when the most experience player on offense finally got up to speed after being injured for most of fall camp. Anthony McClung, who barely played against Purdue, was not quite himself against Illinois while still racking up 90 yards through the air, was finally looking like the old McClung in the loss to South Florida. That loss was a turning point in that it showed Gran's growth as a coordinator, and growing familiarity with his personnel.

That manifested itself in one major way, Shaq Washington and McClung would start sharing field time when the Bearcats went to four receiver sets. For most of September the receiver rotation was a zero sum game with McClung and Washington, if one played the other sat. When they started playing together the passing game became much more difficult to defend. Shaq and McClung ended up being targeted 197 times a season ago, the rest of the team was targeted 256 times.

Now four of the top five receivers from a season ago will be back in 2014; Shaq, Mekale McKay, Chris Moore, and Max Morrison. That doesn't include Alex Chisum who endured an injury induced red shirt season in 2013. But all of those guys operated on the outside a year ago and are poor choices to run the short and intermediate routes where McClung and Washington did the majority of their damage a year ago.

Assuming that the Bearcats offense will look, more or less, like it did in October and November, and that it will operate at more or less the same pace with a similar run pass balance that means that there are between 60 and 80 targets available for someone. The question is who?

The only possible fit for the role among returning front line players is Morrison who isn't as big or as fast as McKay, More and Chisum are. At 6'1" 175 he is a little taller than McClung, but has similar size. The one concern with Morrison in that role is the occasional lapses in concentration. McClung was as sure handed as they came a season ago catching 76 percent of the passes intended for him. Morrison for what its worth caught 57 per cent of his targets. Now most of those targets were on longer throws, throws that are naturally completed at a lower clip than the intermediate area where McClung ate. But that lower catch rate and his occasional drops are a cause for concern if Morrison gets shifted inside.

After Morrison we enter the murky reaches of guesswork. I have two names in mind for filling the part. One is Casey Gladney, the highly regarded JUCO receiver from Columbia South Carolina. Gladney is probably a more natural outside receiver, but that is one area where the Bearcats are not lacking for talent. The easiest way to get him on the field this season might be to stick him in the slot for now. However Gladney won't be on campus until summer which could give the other guy on my list a shot at the second slot receiver spot, Tshumbi Johnson

Johnson is a red shirt freshman who has no live experience. But he has devastating short area quickness and is electric with the ball in his hands. Johnson was really impressive in fall camp taking advantage of the extra reps afforded by McClung's hamstring issues, and he had people raving about his ability as a receiver. Spring football will give him a chance to make some noise.

The bottom line is that the Bearcats need a second receiver to work the intermediate areas of the field to make this offense work, and to make life somewhat easier for the QB, be it Gunner Kiel or Jarred Evans. The quality of the Bearcats outside receiver means that most defenses will play with two high safeties with the intention of keeping everything in front of them. They have to respect the threat of McKay, Moore and Chisum up top, and will give relatively easy throws underneath to the Bearcats. UC has a guy who thrives in those situations with Shaq, but they need another one to