Arizona football: Casteel ready for defense to roar in '13

"The only way we're going to get better is by getting reps," said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. The Wildcats gave up 499 yards per game last year.


The Arizona Wildcats will wrap up their spring workouts Saturday, when they hold their annual Spring Game at Arizona Stadium.

It's not too soon to name a most valuable player.

Wide receiver Juron Criner has been that good.

"Juron's starting to emerge as the player we felt he could be. He's the No. 1 go-to guy," coach Mike Stoops said. "Before, he would disappear at times. Now, we have to make sure he's involved because he's a special type of player."

Criner was a breakout star as a sophomore in 2009, catching 45 passes for a team-high 582 yards and nine touchdowns. His 44.8yards per game also was a UA best.

He's only gotten better in the spring.

Pushed by the arrival of Texas transfer Dan Buckner, Criner has become a model of consistency and the team's primary deep threat. Barring something unexpected, the 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pounder will open 2010 season as the Wildcats' starting "X" receiver.

"Last year gave me a lot of confidence heading into this year," Criner said. "There's a lot of focus on the future, on the present, what I'm capable of doing, and what I want to do for this team."

Criner said things began to "click" last summer, when - motivated by the prospect of playing time and a rapport with quarterback Nick Foles - he began to fully grasp the UA's spread passing attack. He was crisper in practices and brilliant for longer stretches in games.

Criner found a place in Wildcats lore with a pair of late-season catches.

Criner's 71-yard catch-and-run gave the UA a lead over Oregon in a November loss that had Rose Bowl implications. Criner caught a short pass from Foles, split a pair of Ducks defenders and sprinted down the middle of the field for the score. Had the Wildcats won the game - the Ducks tied it in the last few seconds and won in overtime - Criner's streaking play could have been the one that put Arizona in Pasadena. As it was, he finished the game with three touchdowns.

Two games later, Criner made the most important catch of his budding career. With the Wildcats trailing USC 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, Foles found Criner for a 36-yard touchdown pass. The leaping grab gave the UA a 21-17 lead that held, securing the team a spot in the Holiday Bowl.

Stoops said Criner's catch against the Trojans "was a huge play for all of us, especially Juron."

"To pull it out like that and to beat coverage like that - I think it gave him a lot of confidence," he said.

Criner said he's watched the replay "three or four times" but isn't dwelling on his past accomplishments.

The Wildcats will look to Criner to shoulder more of the offensive load this fall. Though the team returns 10 offensive starters, Criner is the only wide receiver who has not battled injury issues. Delashaun Dean (concussion, hamstring), David Douglas (deep thigh bruise) and Bug Wright (knee) all missed chunks of the 2009 season with various injuries.

Spring MVP is one thing. Criner hopes to carry it through to the fall.

"I felt like I couldn't bring out my true talent until I knew the new offense just as well as Nick did," he said. "As soon as I got it down pat, I became far more comfortable with what I was doing. …

"It's a new season, and time to make new plays."

Up next

• What: Spring Game

• Where: Arizona Stadium

• When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday