2016 was a startlingly good year for Cincinnati wide receivers. The group was pretty much brand new, after the departure of guys like Shaq Washington, Max Morrison, Chris Moore and Mekale McKay. Then there was the fact that the offense was bad and no single quarterback really stepped up. Still, the Bearcats ranked sixth in the American Athletic Conference in passing offense (255.9 YPG) while enjoying some excellent seasons from a few players.
As we enter the 2017 season, the questions around the pass catchers are muted and the expectations are higher. Let’s take a look at the construction of this part of the roster.
If there was one receiver that the Bearcats knew they could rely on before the season started last fall, it was Nate Cole. The senior had the tools to be a great wideout, but he had been blocked by a glut of talent at the position. In 2016, he was given the chance to succeed and he did just that. He ranked second on the team in receptions (57) while tallying 518 yards and four touchdowns, all of which were far and away the best marks of his career. He was a go-to possession receiver and consistently one of the best things going for UC’s offense. Losing a player like him will be tough to deal with, as he was a bit of a safety net for the struggling quarterbacks.
In addition to Cole, tight end DJ Dowdy is no longer with the team. Pegged as a breakout candidate a year ago, Dowdy was somewhat useful in the red zone, but he had only four total receptions and lost starting time to Tyler Cogswell as the season went on. New offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has lots of experience working with tight ends so Dowdy may have missed out on getting the attention he deserved by one year.
Nothing brings a smile to my face more than the fact that both Devin Gray and Kahlil Lewis are back. That’s a wide receiver tandem that few teams in the American Athletic Conference can compete with. In fact, I’d posit that no team actually can. Gray was named UC’s best newcomer after coming over from junior college. He had an incredibly successful debut season, turning 58 receptions into 860 yards and five touchdowns.
Lewis was actually tabbed as the best receiver by the team, and ended up tallying 48 catches for 605 yards and five scores. The former three-star recruit is brimming with star power potential and its just a matter of time before that his spark turns to flame.
Jerron Rollins and Thomas Geddis both had limited roles in the passing game, but showed big-play ability, with each averaging at least 17 yards per reception. Other familiar faces include sophomore Braxton Neal, who redshirted in 2015 and is back as a walk-on, junior JJ Pinckney, redshirt sophomore Rashad Medaris and redshirt freshmen Tyrin Summers, Marcel Paul and Malick Mbodj.
As for the tight end post, Cogswell is back, but he isn’t an elite receiver. The senior had only two receptions for 42 yards last season but he could potentially get a boost in a new system, especially if he continues to be a solid blocker. Sophomore Josiah Deguara is a player to watch as he had four catches for 47 yards (more than Dowdy and Cogswell) as a freshman. Bruno Labelle is also back after redshirting and Jake Elfers is a junior who calls Cincy home.
There were a few notable receivers in the 2016 recruiting class. Javan Hawes and Trent Cloud are the top talents, with both earning three-star designations. Cloud comes from Cleveland where he was considered one of the best wide receivers in the state of Ohio. Hawes is a 6’0” tall wideout from Atlanta who was listed as a top 20 receiver in Georgia. Other incoming freshmen include Casey Kirk and Cameron Naber.
Garrett Weaver is a junior transfer student who could get some play at tight end. He tallied a total of 1,739 yards and 31 touchdowns on 90 receptions from Mount St. Joseph. Weaver is also a Cincinnati native. True freshman Wilson Huber, who was a three-star recruit, will also be in the mix.