The Arizona Wildcats held an open-to-the-media practice Saturday night on campus. The workout concluded the UA’s first week of training camp. Here are my top five observations:
1. Digging Dawkins
Brandon Dawkins looked like the most advanced quarterback. Even more important, he appeared to have made progress as a pocket passer, which was easily his biggest shortcoming. Of course, it was only practice, and the defense wasn’t allowed to hit Dawkins. But I liked what I saw on several occasions during the “team” period (11-on-11). A couple of examples: (1) When the defense crept up into a press-man, no-deep-safeties look, Dawkins recognized it and connected with Tony Ellison, who got behind Chacho Ulloa; (2) when the defense blitzed on a third-and-10 play, Dawkins calmly stood his ground and hit Shun Brown on a crossing route for a first down. UA coach Rich Rodriguez said Dawkins is starting to trust the timing of plays more. He looks comfortable and confident. At this early stage, he’s the clear favorite to start the opener.
2. The other quarterbacks
Sophomore Khalil Tate looks the like the No. 2 guy by a decent margin. Tate didn’t perform as consistently as Dawkins on Saturday but had some flashes. It’d be interesting to see what Tate could do if given an extended look with the first-team offense, and there’s still time for him to make up ground. I don’t see him falling behind any of the freshmen. Donavan Tate threw the ball erratically, including some errant passes that seemed to frustrate him a bit. He might’ve been fatigued at the end of a long, hard week. He’s also shaking off the rust from a lengthy absence from football. K’Hari Lane might have the most pure arm talent of any of the QBs. The ball just flies when he throws it. But in 11-on-11 drills, he seemed to have some trouble recognizing where to go with the ball – not surprising for someone who basically just got here. Finally, Rhett Rodriguez had some nice runs and throws but needs to get bigger and stronger to compete at the Division I level.
3. Defensive depth
Maybe the most striking thing about watching Arizona practice is how many viable defenders the Wildcats have at most positons. I’m not saying all these guys are good now, but a lot of them look like they could be in the near future. Dereck Boles is going to be part of the D-line rotation, maybe a big part. Tony Fields II and Gavin Robertson Jr. are athletic “Will” linebackers who undoubtedly will make mistakes but should make plenty of plays too. Freshman Colin Schooler already is challenging Brandon Rutt and Jacob Colacion at “Mike” ’backer. Fellow freshman Scottie Young Jr., who had two pass breakups during team drills, will push for immediate playing time at safety, where all of the newcomers look like keepers. There’s no question Arizona will be deeper and more athletic on defense this season. The Wildcats’ defensive numbers will improve as a result. But with so many projected contributors lacking substantial experience, it’s more likely the big jump will come in 2018 or ’19 – and who knows what will happen to the program between now and then.
4. Good Wood
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Arizona will get its tight ends more involved in the offense. You’re probably laughing right now. Or shaking your head. Or both. Call me naïve, but I think it’s going to happen. In the spring scrimmages that were open to the media, and again last night, Trevor Wood got a ton of targets. As Rodriguez said afterward, Wood is playing the best ball of his career. He’s fully healthy and has NFL-plus size at 6-6, 265. With the receiver position in a state of transition, it’d be foolish for the Wildcats to ignore a weapon as potentially potent as Wood. He presents a big target over the middle and is extremely difficult for smaller defensive backs to tackle. Given Rodriguez’s track record, you have every right to be skeptical. But as he noted Saturday, Arizona is playing more “11 personnel” (one back, one tight end, three receivers) than ever – and the quarterbacks are looking Wood’s way.
5. This time it’s personnel
A few notes on other players. … Both of Arizona’s freshman tailbacks, Nathan Tilford and Gary Brightwell, can catch the ball out of the backfield and look natural doing it. The Wildcats are in great shape at that position. … Freshman Brian Casteel, who has an Anquan Boldin-type frame, looks like a natural receiver as well. … I’m not sure if redshirt freshman Michael Eletise will start at left guard, but I’m pretty confident he’ll be among the top eight offensive linemen. When center Nathan Eldridge got a breather, Christian Boettcher slid over to that spot and Eletise ran with the ones. … Sophomore Lee Anderson III lined up with the first team at defensive end (or maybe “Stud” … it’s hard to tell the difference), and cornerback Lorenzo Burns played with the first unit with Tristan Cooper out. … Freshman Lucas Havrisik has a stronger leg than incumbent kicker Josh Pollack, but Havrisik currently lacks consistency. My guess: He’ll be the kickoff and long-field-goal specialist this year. … Freshman Jalen Harris flashes big-time pass-rush ability but needs to add bulk; he’s listed at 6-4, 212. … Freshman linebacker Josh Brown surged into the backfield to stop Dakota Poe for a 3-yard loss on third-and-goal from the 1.