Here’s the final installment of our Arizona Wildcats spring football preview series. Practice is scheduled to begin Saturday.
In each post, we’ve asked and answered a critical question facing Arizona this spring and beyond. Links to all the previous questions and answers can be found at the bottom of this entry.
Question No. 5: Who besides Shun Brown will emerge as a reliable target at wide receiver?
This isn’t quite the total rebuild Arizona is facing at linebacker, but it’s pretty close.
Three of the Wildcats’ top four receivers are gone. Nate Phillips, Trey Griffey and Samajie Grant combined for almost half of Arizona’s catches last season (78 of 157). They also provided invaluable leadership.
Brown, as a true sophomore, led Arizona in receiving yards (521) and average per catch (18.0) while tying for the lead in touchdowns (three). Aside from quarterback Brandon Dawkins, Brown was the Wildcats’ most explosive offensive player. Although only 5-8 and 175 pounds, Brown has the makeup to be a No. 1 receiver.
The question is whether he’ll have enough help. Last season, Brown benefited from the attention paid to his senior teammates. At times, defenses literally left him wide open (see the first play of the Utah game). Brown won’t catch anybody by surprise next season, and he could face double teams if no one else steps up.
The candidates are plentiful, and some played meaningful snaps last season. At the top of that list: senior Cam Denson, who late in the season finally started to display the playmaking form that made him a force at Salpointe Catholic.
In a five-game stretch from Oct. 15 to Nov. 19, Denson caught 11 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown. It doesn’t sound like much, but in Arizona’s offense last year, that’s mammoth production.
There’s no question Denson possesses the requisite speed and explosiveness to be a real weapon. He needs to become more disciplined and consistent in his route-running, in addition to fine-tuning other parts of his game. Perhaps that will come in Year 2 at wide receiver; Denson spent his first two seasons at cornerback, making 2016 a transition year.
The other receivers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most have one common bond: a lack of substantial experience.
The exception is speedy senior Tyrell Johnson, who has been part of the offense and special teams since his freshman year. But Johnson is undersized (5-7, 164) and strictly a slot receiver. He also has had trouble staying healthy the past two seasons.
Johnson has 23 career catches. The rest of the returning receivers, aside from Brown? Thirteen.
Devaughn Cooper, Tony Ellison, Cedric Peterson and Shawn Poindexter will have every opportunity to earn starting positions next season. So will Zach Benjamin, a transfer from South Florida who had to sit out last year, and freshmen Brian Casteel and Drew Dixon.
The receivers will be working with a new positon coach after the departure of Tony Dews. His replacement had yet to be announced as of Thursday night.
Whether it’s an internal or external hire, the concepts will remain the same in Rich Rodriguez’s offense. But the late arrival of a new coach is yet another variable for a position that’s in a state of flux entering 2017.
SPRING PREVIEW SERIES
Part 1: The QB competition
Part 2: The lack of linebackers
Part 3: The promise up front
Part 4: The depth at cornerback