When Rich Rodriguez portrayed Keanu Reeves in a parody of the movie “Speed” earlier this month, it was his way of sending one final message to the NCAA about a proposed rule change.
But there might have been a hidden meaning.
The Wildcats are going to have more team speed than they’ve ever had in Rodriguez’s time at Arizona. For a coach who preaches playing fast, this is a good thing.
“If last year was a five (out of 10), we’re probably at a seven, speed-wise, which is good,” Rodriguez said.
The biggest place speed will be on display for the Wildcats this season is wide receiver.
Arizona will have two new faces in the fold at receiver — DaVonte Neal and T.J. Johnson — who possess plenty of quickness. The Wildcats also have senior Garic Wharton, who might have been the fastest player on the roster before Neal and Johnson enrolled.
Arizona’s coaches will try to get the ball to their speedsters as much as possible.
“We’ll probably tinker with some things in the spring to find different ways to get some of our faster players the ball more,” receivers coach Tony Dews said.
Here’s a closer look at Johnson, Neal and Wharton and how they could be used this season.
How he got here: Johnson was originally a part of the UA’s 2013 recruiting class, but didn’t qualify academically. He attended Milford Academy, a prep school in New York last fall, and was ruled eligible in December. He joined the UA as a mid-year enrollee in January and has four years of eligibility remaining.
What you need to know: Rodriguez, Dews and even Neal all said Johnson is the fastest player on the roster. Recruited to Arizona as a receiver, Johnson mainly played running back at Milford. After having just 122 yards on 19 carries in the team’s first nine games, he rushed for 439 yards on 61 carries over the final three contests. As a senior at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, Fla., in 2012, Johnson had 38 catches for 588 yards and seven TDs.
Track background: Johnson was a track star at Island Coast, where he finished third in the 100 meters in the Florida state meet. His time of 10.4 seconds broke the county record, which was held by Sammy Watkins, who is expected to be a high first-round pick in May’s NFL draft after a standout career at Clemson. Johnson also finished fourth in the 200 meters.
How he could be used: It wouldn’t be surprising to see Johnson line up in the backfield on top of his responsibilities as a receiver. Look for the Wildcats to get him in the ball on straight handoffs and on quick passes.
Quotable: “T.J. is clearly faster than anyone else we have. He brings some of the same dynamics that DaVonte brings. He has the ability to be explosive when you hand him the ball or throw him the ball. Both of them will help us in the return game to bring us some explosive plays. They can both catch a bubble pass and turn that 20-yard bubble into a 60-yard touchdown.” — Dews.
How he got here: A five-star recruit out of Scottsdale Chaparral High School, Neal signed with Notre Dame over Arizona. After one season with the Fighting Irish, the receiver transferred to the UA. He sat out last season per NCAA rules and is eligible to play in 2014.
What you need to know: Neal can do it all — and he likely will for the Wildcats. As a senior at Chaparral in 2011, Neal had 30 offensive touchdowns, 16 rushing and 14 receiving. As a receiver, Neal had 62 catches for 1,113 yards. He also added 641 return yards and scored five more touchdowns. He played as a true freshman at Notre Dame but didn’t do much. He had 21 punt returns for 46 yards and caught one pass.
Track background: As a freshman in high school, he was a part of the state champion 400-meter relay team at Laveen Cesar Chavez. He also ran a 21.48-second 200 as a senior at Chaparral at the Chandler Rotary Invitational.
How he could be used: Expect Neal to get some carries out of the backfield. Neal said last week he’s already been getting some reps there during spring drills and feels comfortable in that role. He’ll also see plenty of time in the slot as a receiver.
Quotable: “DaVonte still has a lot to learn. I don’t want to put the expectations too high. But one thing about it is he loves to play and he has an infectious enthusiasm when he comes out to work, and I think that’s rubbing off on a lot of guys.” — Rodriguez.
How he got here: Wharton signed with former coach Mike Stoops in 2010 out of Valley High School in Las Vegas. He redshirted his first season in Tucson and has played in a total of 23 games over the past three seasons.
What you need to know: Wharton hasn’t put up overwhelming numbers during his Arizona career, but Rodriguez and Dews are still high on him because of his speed. The Las Vegas product has 36 catches for 555 yards and four touchdowns in his career. He averaged 17.4 yards per catch last season, which was the highest average on the team.
Track background: Wharton was the Las Vegas Review-Journal high school track athlete of the year in 2008. He set a state-meet record in the 200 at 21.1 as a sophomore. A year later, he added the 100 state-meet record at 10.39.
How he could be used: The UA would like to use him more on deep routes, something it had success with at times last season. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Wharton get a few carries on fly sweep plays.
Quotable: “Garic Wharton is a fast guy that we’d like to get the ball. He has some experience and knows what we’re trying to do. He’s one of those guys we’d like to be creative with.” — Rodriguez