Immediately after Wednesday’s final spring football practice at Kindall/Sancet Stadium, two ice cream trucks arrived on Fred Enke Drive. They were swarmed.
Tackles who usually require 5.2 seconds to run 40 yards, ran 4.2s. Sophomore receiver DaVonte Neal almost broke the world land-speed record for a man in pursuit of a Haagen-Dazs on a stick.
Whatever he does, Neal goes fast. He wore jersey No. 19 at Arizona’s annual Spring Game on Saturday, but after breaking a tackle and then stiff-arming another would-be tackler, Neal ran so fast to the end zone you couldn’t be sure what number he wore. Was it 1? Maybe 9?
He talks as fast as he runs, too. Syllables have no chance.
“It’s a good feeling to get back to the end zone,” Neal said standing, appropriately, in the end zone at Arizona Stadium, challenging a reporter’s tape recorder to keep up. “I have a knack for getting into the end zone.”
Seinfeld could do an episode about Neal. It would be The Fast Talker.
This is good news for UA coach Rich Rodriguez, who invented speedy offenses before young guns like Chip Kelly and Steve Sarkisian copied his formula and sprinkled it with more speed than RichRod had been able to put in an Arizona uniform.
Neal is part of the new infusion of speed in RichRod’s offense, a hurry-up player among hurry-up players, and it was on public display Saturday for the first time.
The Wildcats were so efficient that they completed RichRod’s script about 55 minutes before the Pac-12 Networks scheduled two-hour programming window elapsed.
It was nonetheless enough time to notice that things have changed significantly since Arizona chopped up Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl.
Arizona has more potential game-changing players, none more so than Neal, a two-time Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year from Scottsdale Chaparral High School who can’t seem to sit still. The Wildcats plan to use him as a slot receiver, as a punt and kickoff returner, and, at times, as a catch-him-if-you-can tailback.
“Just put the ball in my hands and I’ll make some plays,” he said Saturday. “With my speed and my vision, I can make plays on end-arounds and on sweeps. I want to help this team by making big plays and by putting us in scoring position. I want to be a great blocker, too. I want to get better at blocking.”
Said RichRod: “DaVonte loves to compete; it’s infectious.”
For two years, RichRod has mixed and matched the available (if thin) talent pool, making the best of limited resources and, somehow, winning 16 games. He has been skilled working the transfer network, getting Neal from Notre Dame, receiver Cayleb Jones from Texas and quarterback Jesse Scroggins from USC.
Those are the types of four-star players Arizona usually couldn’t touch in the recruiting business.
If you paid attention at Saturday’s scrimmage, you saw Neal, Jones and Scroggins make the kind of big plays necessary to avoid getting buried in the wicked Pac-12 South Division.
“We got more done than we did in the first two spring (practices),” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got more bodies, a faster tempo and we’ve been able to evaluate our players more.”
Nobody’s picking Arizona to go to the Rose Bowl yet, but this is how a team keeps moving forward. It’s all about players. Arizona has better players than it had in 2012 and 2013.
RichRod said he might not name a starting quarterback until “seconds” before the Aug. 29 opener against UNLV, but Scroggins has the look of a third One Year Wonder, following 2012 QB Matt Scott and 2013 QB B.J. Denker.
“Jesse’s a leader, he’s older, he knows the system,” said Jones, the Texas transfer. “He’ll change plays at the line of scrimmage.”
Said senior safety Jared Tevis: “I’ve seen Jesse grow a lot this spring. I’m pretty impressed with some of the reads he’s been making, smarter reads. He can make things happen with his feet, and anytime a quarterback can extend a play like that, he’s a dangerous player.”
Arizona has an unusually deep cushion as it moves toward fall camp. It will be a significant favorite in its first four games — UNLV, UTSA, Nevada and Cal — which will allow the coaching staff to properly evaluate its quarterbacks and identify a starter.
It has issues on the defensive line more than anywhere else, and its linebacking group will be among the youngest in the league. Its place-kicking also remains uncertain.
But overall, RichRod has inspired confidence that Arizona will be difficult to beat.
When Jones impressively caught a touchdown pass Saturday, making an explosive move to snatch the ball near the goal line, he returned to the sideline and said, loud enough for a nearby media group to hear, “I’m going straight for the goal line, brother.”
That could stand as the working theme from Rich Rodriguez’s third spring training camp.