Rich Rodriguez mentions it almost every day because it bears repeating: The Arizona Wildcats’ passing game needs to improve significantly next season after struggling in 2016.
That growth must take place amid considerable turnover among the players who will be on the receiving end of those passes.
Three of Arizona’s top four receivers from last season are gone. Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey and Nate Phillips combined for 98 starts, 376 catches, 4,811 receiving yards and 33 receiving touchdowns in their UA careers. They also were three of the Wildcats’ most reliable players.
Last year’s leader in receiving yards, Shun Brown, is back, and is likely to be Arizona’s top target. The other spots are open to competition.
Seniors Cam Denson and Shawn Poindexter appeared to be the front-runners for those assignments, as the Wildcats concluded their third week of spring practice. The timing just might be right for both to make the leap from promising to dependable.
Denson, the former four-star recruit from Salpointe Catholic High School, is entering his second season at wide receiver after starting his UA career at cornerback. He said his comfort level and knowledge of the playbook are “light-years” ahead of last spring, when he initially made the switch.
“I know what’s going on,” Denson said. “I know why we’re doing things now. I know the coverages and what we want to do in certain situations.”
Denson became a starter late in the season when Grant moved to tailback. The bulk of Denson’s production came in the second half of the season: 11 catches for 207 yards (18.8 ypc) and a touchdown.
“I got more comfortable the more playing time I received,” Denson said. “Also, it was my time up — my time to step up.”
Denson has an even greater sense of urgency this year. This is his final opportunity to live up to the hype that sprung from an illustrious high school career, and he knows it.
“I’m one of the older guys now,” Denson said. “The past few years, I was the guy following other people. Now it’s my turn to step up and be in that leadership role.
“This is my last season being a Wildcat. I’ve got to go out with a bang.”
Poindexter also is entering his final season, although he took a different path to get there. While Denson was the local prep standout, Poindexter was an 11th-hour addition to Arizona’s 2016 recruiting class from Glendale Community College.
Poindexter had a limited football background — just two full seasons of organized ball, one at Peoria Centennial High School, one at Glendale CC — but tremendous size (he’s listed at 6-5, 210) and intriguing athleticism. He played volleyball and basketball in high school.
Poindexter appeared in 10 games last season, catching six passes for 82 yards. He suffered a high ankle sprain and sprained foot in Week 4 against Washington and wasn’t quite the same thereafter. He’s pain-free now and worked with the first team in the two practices open for media observation.
Poindexter described his first season as a learning experience. He spends a lot of time working on technique, trying to master all the little things that will enable him to take advantage of his big body.
“Technique is everything,” Poindexter said.
“I think I have enough time to get to where I want to be during the season, but it has to be all (about) work ethic. (There’s) no time to play around. I’ve gotten better from last year. I’ve just got to continue to work hard.”
Like Denson, Poindexter is much further along mentally. At times last season, Poindexter had to check with the slot receiver lined up next to him to make sure he had the play call right. That’s no longer necessary.
Rodriguez has emphasized the importance of the quarterbacks and receivers putting in extra time in the offseason to improve their timing and perfect their craft. That work already is underway.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming in on Saturdays,” Denson said. “We want to get better. We’ve got to make the extra effort to get better on Saturdays, Mondays, throughout the week.”
- Arizona held its final practice Thursday before taking 10 days off for spring break. Rodriguez welcomed the warm weather. He knows it’ll be sweltering in August and expects the team to be in better condition by then.
- Rodriguez on the progress of quarterbacks Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate: “I like the way they’ve thrown the ball. It’s not been perfect. But I think we’re better.”
- It appears that new special teams coach Brian Knorr’s primary defensive responsibility will be to work with the “stud” linebackers. The linebacker-defensive end hybrids have been working with defensive line coach Vince Amey for most of spring.
- Rodriguez on talented but injury-prone “stud” linebacker DeAndre’ Miller: “He’s a good football player when he’s healthy. He just hasn’t stayed healthy.” Miller said he’s up to 245 pounds. He’s listed at 6-3, 236. He has the ideal physique to rush the passer.
- Defensive lineman Larry Tharpe Jr. has trimmed fat and is down to 270 pounds. His next goal is to add muscle and bulk up to 285. He’s listed at 6-5, 275.
- Redshirt freshman defensive end Jalen Cochran hasn’t been able to participate in much on-field work this spring because of an undisclosed injury.