The Cincinnati Bearcats are going to a bowl game! Unfortunately, they won’t be playing until Dec. 31. That means we’ve got to do something to pass the time. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Military Bowl between the Bearcats and Virginia Tech Hokies, we’ll be breaking down the matchup position by position. Today we’ll be looking at all the wide receivers and tight ends for each side.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Among Atlantic Coast Conference teams, the Hokies are near the middle of the pack in terms of passing offense. They average 256.8 yards per game through the air, which ranks fifth in the league. So, I guess if you want to get specific, they are near the upper portion of the middle of the pack, but who wants to read a mouthful of a sentence like that? The point is, the Hokies can throw the ball but they’re not going to throw at will.
When they do pass, the Hokies need guys to catch the ball and they have more than a few guys who are very good at that. Whether or not every one of those pass-catchers is available is another matter.
Damon Hazelton is a second-team all-league wideout who led the team in receptions (45), receiving yards (745) and receiving touchdowns (eight) this season. A home run threat if there ever was one, Hazelton averages 16.6 yards per reception and has moonlighted as the primary punt returner as well. Unfortunately for the Hokies, the redshirt sophomore has been dealing with a mystery injury the last few weeks. When healthy, Hazelton can be unstoppable, like when he caught 12 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown against College Football Playoff bound Notre Dame.
If Hazelton misses this one, the Hokies will turn to Eric Kumah and Tre Turner to make plays through the air. Kumah has flashed the ability to be a primary target, what with solid games against Pitt (six receptions, 80 yards, two touchdowns) and Marshall (four receptions, 63 yards, one touchdown) during the back half of the season. Turner is a freshman with a lot of promise and he can help replicate Hazelton’s ability to get vertical, as he is averaging 19.8 yards per reception. During the final three games of the regular season, he averaged 82.7 yards per game, including a 99-yard effort (on only three catches) against Marshall.
Other players to watch include Hezekiah Grimsley (30 receptions, 374 yards, one touchdown) and tight end Dalton Keene (24 receptions, 322 yards, three touchdowns).
When you put it all together, the Hokies have a solid group of pass-catchers, but they are much more than that when Hazelton is 100 percent.
The Bearcats have their own rotating cast of characters in the passing game. The lead of the group is senior Kahlil Lewis, who has had a resurgence of late. After struggling to get open and make plays during the first portion of the year, Lewis came alive in the second half. It all began when he caught 12 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns against SMU and ended when he had 203 yards and three scores on nine catches in the regular season finale against East Carolina. There were three games in between that and he had five receptions in each one of those. For that entire five-game stretch, Lewis averaged 105.6 yards per game. He averaged 34.3 in the first seven contests.
The streaky play of Lewis was pretty infectious in the receiving corps. Rashad Medaris can break open a drive, but had too many games when he was a non-factor. Jayshon Jackson is a converted running back and a rising star, but he had more than three catches in a game just once this season. Thomas Geddis was meant to be the No. 2 to Lewis, but he regressed this season and managed a total of 19 catches.
If you want a little more consistency, you have to go to the tight end position, where Josiah Deguara put in the best year for a Bearcat since Travis Kelce in 2012. While he still had his share of quiet outings, Deguara finished with 37 receptions for 465 yards and five touchdowns, ranking second on the team in all three categories.
Lewis’ hot streak is happening at the perfect time for the Bearcats, as they will need their wideouts and tight ends to make plays and open up the field for Michael Warren and the rest of the running game to feast.
Advantage: Push (leaning toward Virginia Tech)
It’s tough to really give one team the edge here. If Lewis had played all year like he has the last five games, then the answer is Cincinnati. However, you could also argue that if Haezleton is healthy, then this goes to the Hokies by a landslide. We will take the coward’s way out and call it a push for now.