If that chart seems familiar to you, it should, because it is the same one that led off the post on the play of the Bearcats quarterbacks in 2014. It really doesn't matter if you are talking about the Bearcats quarterbacks or receivers, the point is essentially unchanged. The offense circa 2014 wasn't just better than the 2013 group, it was drastically better and nowhere is that more apparent than in the passing game.
Brendon Kay was a warrior in 2013, he battled through countless injuries all season long and posted season long numbers that makes it easily one of the five best single seasons by a UC quarterback ever. But the offense that year was far more conservative than most people realize. The emphasis was on the quick passing game and getting the ball out of Kay's hand as quickly as possible. It isn't that Kay wasn't capable of throwing the ball downfield, he really showed that he could do that in 2012. It was a matter of the coaching staff trying to save his battered body the punishment that comes with standing in the pocket waiting for deeper routes develop.
When the clock rolled over to 2014, and Gunner Kiel became eligible the Eddie Gran and co more or less retired the short passing approach that Kay was so comfortable in. On the surface nothing really changed between 2013 and 2014, the pre snap alignment's looked the same, most of the players were in possession of the same roles as the previous year, with the exception of Max Morrison. Pre snap everything looked the same, what happened after the snap was dramatically different.
The Bearcats went back to being a vertical passing team in 2014 in a big, big way. Look at the weapons that the Bearcats had this year. They had great deep threats in Mekale McKay, Chris Moore and Johnny Holton. How can you look at those guys and decide that what you are going to do is dink and dunk your way down the field? That's like a pirate sailing the Caribbean and seeing a Spanish frigate weighed down with gold and deciding you know what, I don't really need that gold. It's unconscionable. So of course Gunner Kiel, and later, Muncie Legaux pushed the ball vertically, but they stressed defenses multiple ways, seemingly at all times.
So yes, they threw many a jump ball to Mekale McKay and Chris Moore, but they also stretched defenses with their screen game. The most common of the screens was the receiver bubble screen that they "tagged" onto almost all of their running concepts. When defenses jumped the tag UC gladly took what they gave them. They also had several looks that were purpose built to be screens, something that almost never happened in 2013. Johnny Holton took one such screen to the house against USF. We don't even need to go into details about what Shaq Washington can do to a defense all by his lonesome exploiting the intermediate spaces.
What made this group so good in 2014 was the balance, I mean the balance is insane. UC went 8 deep at the receiver position and there was very little to no drop off from the first group of Washington, McKay, Moore and Max Morrison to the second group of Johnny Holton, Casey Gladney, Alex Chisum and Nate Cole. Any of the Bearcats second four would be the featured receiver at most AAC schools. The talent was balanced, but so was the distribution of targets.
As good as the Bearcats passing game was as a whole, none of the Bearcats receivers put up spectacular numbers individually, certainly not on a national level. A big part of that is structural. As good as the Bearcats passing game was the run to pass ratio was still a downright conservative 48/52. There simply weren't enough passing attempts to go around to give any one player a shot to put up huge numbers while at the same time enjoying the balance that made the Bearcats a nightmare for defenses. Shaq led the Bearcats in targets in 2014 with 100 and didn't even rank among the top sixty nationally in targets. That speaks to the collectivism of this group and how they are better than the sum total of their parts. It also says a lot about Gunner Kiel and his ability to read a defense and work the ball around.
The only area where you can knock this group is that they were not terribly efficient. Shaq's catch rate plummeted from an absurd 77 percent on 100 targets to 66 percent on the same 100 targets in 2014. Chris Moore's catch rate also dropped 10 percentage points, or 1,000 basis points for you investors, from 61 percent to 51 percent. Mekale McKay was much more consistent catching the football in 2014 with a 58% catch rate, up from 47 percent in 2013, but that is still a average to below average mark.
Part of those drops in efficiency stem from the change in approach to the passing game. There are trade offs to everything. UC traded the safety and efficiency of 2013's passing game for more opportunities for explosive plays down the field. The return on that trade off was a few more big plays for the offense, but also a few more of those plays missed. The bet was that the Bearcats could connect on enough of those explosive plays to offset the fall in efficiency. That is more or less exactly what happened, and its a big reason why the Bearcats offense went from being the 53rd rated offense according to Football Outsiders in 2013 to being the 25th rated offense in 2014.
Where the Bearcats can really make strides as a passing game is by becoming a little bit more efficient while keeping the big plays flowing, They can get there by becoming more efficient with their down filed passing attack. We are not talking about a huge difference in outcomes here, the Bearcats only need to be incrementally more efficient down the field to create big differences in how the offense is evaluated.
Incremental improvement is well within reach because this is the first time since the Brian Kelly era that an entire group of skill position players will roll over in two consecutive years. No one outside of the Linder Center and the Bearcat faithful seem to really understand how good this group will be running the offense back for a second season under the exact same system. Experience really matters in college football, and you would be extremely hard pressed to find a more experienced group of receivers 1 through 8 than the Bearcats will have to 2015.