After combining for four touchdown receptions in last week’s scrimmage, Arizona’s tight ends made sure departed senior Josh Kern knew about it.
“We were all rubbing it in his face,” redshirt freshman Jamie Nunley said, laughing.
That’s because those four TD catches represented a third of the Wildcats’ total tight end haul last season, touchdown or otherwise.
The question, of course, is whether the scrimmage was a sign of things to come or simply a spring fling. Will the Wildcats finally get their tight ends involved in the passing game, something that hasn’t happened on a consistent basis under Rich Rodriguez?
“That’s the No. 1 thing (among) college football fans across the country: Throw to the tight end. He’s always open. It’s universal,” Rodriguez said Monday. “We’ve got good tight ends that we could throw to. If they get open, they’ll catch more balls.
“I like the group we have. So far in spring, they’ve done some good stuff.”
Nunley is running with the twos behind redshirt junior Trevor Wood, who started two games last season. They combined for three touchdowns in the scrimmage. Freshman Bryce Gilbert added another.
Forgive Arizona fans for being skeptical about an uptick in usage. The tight ends have been talked up before, but the targets haven’t followed.
The 12 receptions compiled by Wood and Kern in 2016 actually marked an increase from the previous season, when Kern and Darrell Cloy Jr. combined for nine.
“It feels good to get the ball thrown your way,” said Wood, who enters 2017 as the presumptive starter. “At the same time, it’s got to fit in the offense. I’m not going to be selfish and just say, ‘Throw me the ball, throw me the ball, throw me the ball.’ ”
Wood caught two touchdown passes in the scrimmage, one on a seam route from about 20 yards. He also scored on a bubble screen.
Nunley eluded safety Jarvis McCall Jr. with a nifty run-after-the-catch move en route to the end zone. Gilbert made a tiptoe grab for his TD.
Wood is listed at 6-foot-6, Nunley at 6-5. Getting them more involved, especially in the red zone, would provide an alternative for a passing attack that struggled in 2016.
Last season was the least productive for the passing game during Rodriguez’s five-year tenure. Overall, the offense scored a touchdown just 56.1 percent of the time in the red zone, ranking 99th in the country in that category.
Arizona also rarely used its running backs as receivers. No UA tailback caught more than three passes last season, continuing a downward trend from 2012, Rodriguez’s first year, when Ka’Deem Carey had 36 grabs.
J.J. Taylor smoked every linebacker who tried to cover him during one-on-one drills before the scrimmage portion of the open practice, and he turned a swing pass into a sizable gain during team drills.
“We need a little more versatility,” said Calvin Magee, who coaches the running backs and tight ends. “These guys are starting to show they can handle that. That just gives the defense something else they have to plan for.”
Special role for new coach
Rodriguez was looking for a specific set of credentials in his search for a new special-teams coach: someone who could not only work with those units but help the defense as well.
Rodriguez found his man in Brian Knorr, a former defensive coordinator at Wake Forest and Indiana. Knorr coordinated special teams while serving as the head coach at Ohio, and he worked with the specialists as a quality-control coach at Ohio State last season.
“I wanted defensive experience,” Rodriguez said, “maybe a guy that had some defensive-coordinator experience to bring us another set of eyes to help in that room.”
Knorr said Indiana’s defensive front was similar to Arizona’s, featuring a position not unlike the Wildcats’ “Stud” pass rusher.
Knorr played quarterback at Air Force and later coached there. He has recruiting ties to Southern California’s Inland Empire as well as Texas from his time at the academy.
Rodriguez said new quarterback signee K’Hari Lane from Montezuma, Georgia, was “completely overlooked” in recruiting. The coaches liked Lane’s demeanor when he visited campus last month. Arizona officially announced the addition of Lane on Monday and listed him at 6 feet, 222 pounds.
“We were fortunate to get him,” Rodriguez said. “We watched him on film, talked to everybody at his school, his coaches, they loved the guy.
“We needed more guys there (at quarterback), and we’re still talking to some others. This class is not done yet.”
Rodriguez didn’t name names, but one name that’s still out there: Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire.
• Arizona will hold another open, free football practice on Friday, March 31, at 6 p.m. Rodriguez wants to give the team a second opportunity “to experience more of a game-type atmosphere.”
• Receiver Cam Denson had a walking boot on his right foot as he made his way from the practice field to the locker room.
• Defensive end Jalen Cochran had a helmet as he left practice. He was held out of last week’s scrimmage because of an undisclosed injury.
• Rodriguez, his staff and some of his players will conduct a clinic for kids Wednesday through the “Kids of Steele” program. The event is scheduled for 5 p.m. at Arizona Stadium for children age 5 through eighth grade. Kids of Steele is part of the UA Steele Children’s Research Center. For more information visit kidsofsteele.org