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The Cincinnati Bearcats Passing Game Took A Leap Forward In 2014

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Simply looking at the raw unadjusted stats tells you that the Cincinnati Bearcats passing attacks in the 2013 and 2014 season are roughly the same. The yardage totals are, for all intents and purposes, identical. Yards per attempt and completion rate are different, but not drastically so. You could be forgiven for thinking that there is no meaningful difference between the Brendon Kay led attack of 2013 and the Gunner Kiel led attack of 2014. But there is a big difference, and this year's attack was a leap forward.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For nearly a decade the Bearcats have fielded, at the very least, above average passing attacks one after the other. Who the quarterback has been hasn't particularly mattered. UC has hit on some quarterbacks and missed on others, but generally quarterback friendly schemes have helped facilitate production. The last time that the Bearcats fielded a truly bad passing attack was way back in 2005 when a young red shirt freshman from Maysville, Kentucky took the reigns from the immortal Gino Guidugli. In that season both Grutza and his weapons looked young and inexperienced, which they were. Since that first Dustin Grutza season the Bearcats have consistently fielded passing attacks that were, at worst,  above average.

Not all of those quarterbacks have been home grown. Grutza progressed nicely as a sophomore but was dislodged from his spot in 2007 by a graduate transfer from Wake Forrest named Ben Mauk. That went well, but then again the 2008 season sort of proved that it didn't really matter who Brian Kelly's quarterback was. The system was very quarterback friendly. In 2009 Tony Pike and Zach Collaros combined to produce the greatest passing season in school history.

Tony Pike stepped aside after 2009, and it was Zach Collaros's turn on center stage. The 2010 season was a step down from Zach's scorched earth run as starter in 2009, but that was still a very productive season for the passing game. By the Bearcats standards the bottom dropped out during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. In 2013 under Brendon Kay the Bearcats offense finally hit it's stride after a disastrous start to the season. From October through mid November of that year the Bearcats passing game took something like it's final form under Eddie Gran. The identity crisis that was so obvious early in that season was settled by November. For the offense to work with the personnel on hand Gran had no choice but to embrace four receiver sets.

It was that fully formed offense that Gunner Kiel stepped into last off season, and it is the same offense that he will pilot in 2015. That is not exactly a comforting thought for the defensive coordinator's who will be tasked with slowing this offense down. Gunner waited a very, very long time to make his first collegiate start, but when it finally came against the Toledo Rockets on September 12th he exploded.

That, that was just about perfect for Gunner Kiel, too bad he had 12 more games to play. Don't get it twisted, Gunner Kiel and this passing attack were magnificent in 2014. The Bearcats passing S&P ended up being 130.0, the seventh best single season mark among teams that played in UC's conference* since 2005. That's a tremendous output. It's also just the first work of a phenom, great in and of itself, but what really gets people excited is the knowledge that he is capable of much more.

* #1 Louisville 2005, #2 Louisville 2006, #3 Louisville 2007, #4 West Virginia 2006, #5 Pitt 2006, #6 Cincinnati 2009

The number one question mark is whether or not Gunner Kiel can stay healthy through an entire season. In his press conference after the Toledo game Gunner talked about silencing his critics. He certainly did for that day. However as the season wore on and his inability to finish games became more acute those critics started chirping again. Many allusions to his chest were made as the season wore on, talk that he surely must have thought he had silenced forever. The nature of his initial rib injury had a lot to do with Gunner's numerous second half absences in 2014. That meant that the Bearcats were increasingly forced to turn to an old face in a new role.

It was the Bearcats good fortune that Munchie Legaux came back for his 6th season. Munchie was the ultimate security blanket for the Bearcats in 2014. He came back from his catastrophic injury a new man, and a completely different kind of quarterback. Robbed of the athleticism that so defined his style he became a new man entirely. Sitting back in the pocket, rooted to his spot, surveying the defense down field and working through his progressions. In essence he became the very thing that Bearcat fans thought he never could become, a steady pair of hands to keep things ticking over.

We never will know what Munchie might have done with the offense in 2013 when fully healthy and in full possession of his immense capacity for athletic endeavors. But this season we got to see some of what Eddie Gran and the coaching staff saw that summer when he made his charge to overtake Brendon Kay before the start of that season against Purdue. Munchie's decision making got better, he stuck in the pocket much longer than he used to, and he developed some touch to his intermediate passing game. It's hard to believe that all that change came about simply because Munchie couldn't just outrun people anymore.

Whatever the source of the changes Munchie Legaux was a huge asset for the Bearcats offense in 2014, That is an indisputable fact of last season. That being said the offense was still better with Gunner. That is why the Bearcats have so much hope for the quarterback position in 2015, but there is also a lingering uncertainty.

Whether or not Gunner Kiel can stay healthy is the number one concern for the Bearcats next season. My personal, non medical, opinion is that bruised (or cracked) ribs are just a bitch to live with. I had a similar injury a few years ago and it sucked. Basically every single thing you do, every move you make hurts. Some things hurt a little, rolling off the couch for example. Some thing's hurt a lot, such as anything that involves exerting torque on your torso.* That Gunner was able to battle through that for two months says a lot about his toughness, even though he lost some of those battles.

*throwing a football for example.

The hope is that his lingering rib injury will go away and he will get back to being himself. If Gunner can stay healthy for an entire season start to finish every single season UC passing record could fall. But if his struggles with injury prove to be the rule rather than the exception the entire season becomes a big question mark.