In January of 2012 Shaq Washington was coming off an up and down freshman season. Washington had played in the first five contests of the year and wound up catching 3 passes for 13 yards. But he never played beyond September and he was red shirted.
For a brief while it looked as though he was on his way out. He disappeared from the roster and rumors circulated that he was seeking greener pastures closer or home. It did not turn out that way afterall. Shaq was enrolled in classes for January 2012 following his mysterious departure and struggled to find a spot in the rotation. And he was been with the team ever since. But he couldn't find his niche a year ago playing in just 5 games catching 3 passes for 23 yards.
This summer Anthony McClung was limited and barely practiced. Most of the first team reps went to Shaq, and he put them to good use. Establishing himself as a viable option in McClung's stead. The start of the season only solidified that, the Illinois game in particular when he broke out for 5 catches for 83 yards.
Through 6 games no receiver has been targeted more times (45), or has more catches (34) than Shaq. The combination of Shaq and McClung sharing the field, which happened more in the last two games than it has at any other point in this season has proven devastating. In the last two game Washington and McClung have come up with 31 catches for 296 yards, thats basically half of the passing output from those two guys.
The catches and yards are illuminating, but digging into the situational stats reveals how important Shaq has become to the offense. In 2013 UC has earned 73 first downs via the pass, Washington has been on the receiving end of 22 of those, thats 30 per cent. No one else has more than 15 firsts.
The numbers are even more impressive for the most important down in football, third down. Shaq has 10 catches on third downs, nine of them have gone for first downs. The rest of the team has 16 combined, the only other individual receiver who comes close is McClung.
To summarize, Shaq is a third down machine who free's up the rest of the Bearcats to attack vertically because he has the underneath stuff covered. It has also allowed the Bearcats to run more and more three and four receiver sets. The Bearcats ran a ton of that stuff in the Illinois game, but that was dictated by circumstances.
Against USF and Temple the base was a four, or at least three receivers, and a back. In the last two games I have charted just 32 occurrences where the Bearcats lined up with two backs, with either Jared Golden or a tight end in the backfield. That's slightly more than the per game average in the first four weeks of the season.
But that is probably going to be the new normal for this offense. If the Bearcats continue to feature Tion Green in those four receiver sets it puts defenses in a bind. Most teams will counter an ace set by bringing in a fifth defensive back to match up with the most dangerous slot receiver. But the Bearcats have two, which leaves a linebacker to cover either McClung or Shaq. Even the best coverage linebackers will struggle in that scenario. The defense can bring in a sixth defensive back and play dime, in which case the Bearcats will pound away with Green on those five man boxes until the defense changes.
Shaq's play, as well as the emergence of Tion Green has given the Bearcats offense something it hasn't had in a while, a way to force the hand of the defense into alignments that are beneficial to the offense. Shaq Washington has become a trump card for Eddie Gran. Thats quite a redemption song.