The Rincon Vista practice facility hummed with excitement and throbbed with early morning heat Thursday, when the Arizona Wildcats held their first workout of training camp.
Luckily, wide receiver Dan Buckner was there to cool things off.
"He's a breath of fresh air," quarterback Nick Foles said. "Football's a serious game, but at the same time it's got to be fun."
And no UA player works harder at having fun than Buckner, a University of Texas transfer who sat out the 2010 season due to NCAA rules. Whether he's hooting at his teammates in practice, cracking jokes in meetings or teasing his coaches, the boisterous junior keeps things loose.
The Wildcats will lean on the 21-year-old Buckner during training camp, which can get tedious after the first few practices. He'll be a key if the UA hopes to make its fourth consecutive bowl game.
Buckner's act was a hit at Texas, where he caught 49 passes for 529 yards and six touchdowns in two seasons and played in the BCS National Championship Game.
It won't change, he said, now that he's fighting for playing time - and touches - on the most talented UA receiving corps in decades. Senior Juron Criner anchors a crew that includes veterans David Douglas and David Roberts, junior Terrence Miller and sophomore Richard Morrison.
"There's a lot of competition," receivers coach David Nichol said. "Dan doesn't have anything in terms of a starting spot by any means. Really, nobody does, there's so much competition.
"It sounds like I'm supposed to say that, but it's true."
Still, it's easy to imagine the 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound Buckner being a force this fall.
He was one of the nation's top wide receivers coming out of Allen (Texas) High School, where he caught 146 passes for 2,511 yards and 33 touchdowns during three years on the varsity team. Buckner started in the 2008 U.S. Army All-America Bowl in San Antonio; by then, he had already committed to Texas, choosing the Longhorns over Notre Dame.
Buckner stayed at UT until January 2010, when - shortly after being arrested on a charge of criminal trespass - he asked for and received a release from his scholarship. Buckner arrived at the UA a few weeks later.
Since then, Buckner has been a large and mostly positive influence in the Wildcats' locker room. In a sport where the talkative are often tagged, there's no questioning his passion for the game.
"Coaches will tell you, I love football," he said. "I'm happy to be out there and playing again."
He'll only get better, teammates say, as he focuses on fundamentals and gears up for his first game in 20 months. Buckner cycled in and out of the UA's rotation during Thursday's practice. While he made a few nice catches, coaches expect more consistency and - at times - more maturity.
"It's really, how good does he want to be? He's a very talented guy. He has to want to get better," Foles said. "We have to get him to catch the ball with two hands. He likes the highlight catches; sometimes, you have to do that."
The Texas transfer is already a showman. Now, he needs to show up.
"It works for him, and it works for us," Foles said. "Dan's very unique. I love Dan for it."
• Arizona was listed among "others receiving votes" in the first USA Today coaches poll of the season, released Thursday. Oklahoma was voted the preseason No. 1. Oregon, the defending conference champion, was ranked third with 1,309 points and Stanford (1,101 points) was sixth. Rival Arizona State received 158 points, most among the unranked teams. Arizona had 28 points.
• Arizona's opener against NAU will start at 7 p.m. on Sept. 3, the schools announced today. The game will be broadcast live across the state on Fox Sports and Channel 58, with the replay shown at 10:30 p.m. on Channel 9.
TRAINING CAMP INSIDER
Day 1 at Rincon Vista
• Highlights: The Wildcats opened training camp with an efficient, if unspectacular, early morning practice. Defensive back Lyle Brown returned an interception for a touchdown during 7-on-7 drills, the first of a handful of big takeaways for the defense. Cornerback Jonathan McKnight added a "pick-6" during 11-on-11s, and defensive linemen Justin Washington and Mohammed Usman both registered sacks. Defensive end C.J. Parish ended practice with a sack of Nick Foles, stopping the offense during a two-minute drill. Foles was solid running the first team. He found Gino Crump and Juron Criner for scores during 7-on-7s, and surprised his teammates with a 20-yard sneak during the two-minute drill.
• Weather: 82 degrees.
• Injury report: Safety Adam Hall, linebacker Jake Fischer, running back Greg Nwoko and defensive tackle Willie Mobley are all out indefinitely (knee surgeries).
• He said it: "That's what's exciting about this time of the year: Everybody has a chance. We feel like we have a lot to prove, and we have a very good football team." - coach Mike Stoops
Criner officially back
Wide receiver Juron Criner formally rejoined the Wildcats on Thursday, ending two months of speculation about the future of the team's best player.
Criner, a senior wide receiver, stretched and ran plays with his UA teammates at Rincon Vista practice complex. Criner did not address the media, though coach Mike Stoops said Criner "had a great day."
"He's out there to prove himself," Stoops said. "I look for him to have a good year."
Criner missed a scheduled trip to ESPN's Bristol, Conn., headquarters in June, citing personal and family troubles.
Criner's mother has reportedly been ill. Criner spent a week visiting her in Killeen, Texas, last month before rejoining the team.
Stoops said he never doubted Criner's dedication to the team.
"I know Juron's love for football and his love for his family, and that's what it gets down to: the two things he loves the most," Stoops said. "I was never fearful that Juron wouldn't be a part of our team."
UA practice schedule
• Today: 6:15 a.m.-8:15 a.m., Rincon Vista Practice Facility
• Saturday: 8 a.m.-10 a.m., Rincon Vista
• Sunday: Closed practice