For all of the hype that surrounded the Bearcats passing game coming into the 2014 season the Bearcats receivers more than lived up to it. They lived up to it collectively because they all, as a group, got better individually. The player who showed the most growth was beyond any doubt Mekale McKay.
In his first year in the system last year McKay was primarily a deep ball specialist. He caught 16 passes on 34 targets, for 485 yards (an absurd 14.3 yards per target) with 7 touchdowns and just as many drops. In that 2013 Mekale was wildly, almost hilariously inconsistent. Looking at his gamelog from that season you see a lot yards and touchdowns, but you also see a lot of 1's and 2's in the catch column.
In 2014 he was the Bearcats best receiver (non Shaq Washington division). It's not just that his stats jumped, though that is part of it, it was that even when he didn't get targets and catches, he still managed to impact the game by simply being on the field.
If you watch a lot of NBA basketball there is a phenomenon to that game that is relevant to this discussion. The best players in the NBA manipulate defenses in low key, but spectacular ways. When you watch Kevin Durant, Steph Currey or especially LeBron James for any extended period of time you begin to see how they distort the shapes of opposing defenses. When guys like that have the ball, everyone keeps one eye on them and one eye sort of on their man. Their mere presence on the floor produces a gravitational pull that is not merely noticeable, but exploitable. Because the gravitational effect they create is so predictable, but also uniform, it can be anticipated and exploited in routine ways.
Mekale McKay did similar things for the Bearcats offense. He was an instant source of gravitational pull that distorted defenses in predictable and easily exploitable ways. Everyone who played the Bearcats this year stationed one safety permanently over the top of McKay with a corner trying to jam him at the line. There are only so many coverage's a defense can run while keeping safety help over the top of one guy with the corner trying to press at the line. Cloud Cover 3 is probably the best for that, though Tampa 2 is another good one. Knowing that gave Gunner Kiel and Munchie Legaux a huge advantage. It's like going into a test knowing, with near certainty, exactly what the questions will be.
The few teams that didn't devote two men to McKay's side, Toledo and ECU for example, were burned early and often, and eventually conceded the point by keeping safety help to his side at all times. In the ECU game Chris Moore was the primary beneficiary with four catches for 97 yards, all of them coming after McKay racked up 96 yards in the Bearcats first four possessions forcing ECU to change their defensive approach. In those two games McKay averaged 9 catches and 173.5 yards (19.2 yards per catch) and scored 3 of his 8 touchdowns.
His ability to manipulate defenses alone wouldn't get him on this list though, it was his growth as a receiver that made him so good this year. McKay is 6'6", which we all know, but he really does play after the catch like a much, much smaller man. Just re-watch his touchdown against ECU. He's downright shifty, and 6'6" guys aren't supposed to be shifty and he didn't show any of that ability after the catch in his first year here.
McKay is by no means a finished product for the Bearcats, consistency is an ongoing issue. His drops were way down this year, certainly relative to his increased target totals but he still had them, and he had them in huge spots like the third down drop midway through the third quarter which lead to a missed field goal attempt from Andrew Gantz when a touchdown on that drive would have buried the Cougars for good. Still, that's picking nits because McKay was a huge weapon for the Bearcats this year, and he will be even better next year. Scary thought for everyone on the Bearcats schedule in 2015.