When Rich Rodriguez sits down with an assistant coach to evaluate a recruit, his first question is always the same: “Does he like football or does he love football?”
“You better already have asked that question or have figured it out by watching the player when you meet with ‘Coach Rod,’ ” receivers coach Tony Dews said. “Once you get to college, it’s a job. It’s a heck of a commitment. If you don’t love it, you put way too much time in and it’s way too hard for someone who just kinda likes it.
“You have to love it.”
The UA has two freshmen receivers that love football. In fact, obsessed might be a better word.
Samajie Grant, a Compton, Calif., native, leads the UA in catches (24), and Nate Phillips, a Chandler product, has the most yards of any receiver (268).
It’s not an accident the two receivers are coming through so early in their careers.
They love football. They don’t just like it.
“I started getting texts at 11 p.m., midnight, saying ‘Coach, what do I do on this play? You said to do what on that play?’” Dews said. “These two are the first to do that to me here. They text me Saturday, Sunday, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, it doesn’t matter. As a coach, it’s refreshing to know they’re studying the stuff and they’re trying to do it right.”
As the passing game has improved the past three games, Grant and Phillips have seen the fruits of their labor on the field.
Phillips has caught a touchdown pass in three straight games; 203 of his 268 receiving yards have come during that span.
Grant hasn’t reached the end zone the last three games, but 15 of his 24 catches have come in the past three weeks.
Dews wasn’t sure if either would contribute as true freshmen, but it hasn’t surprised him.
“I knew they were good players and I knew they had some ability, but I also didn’t know we would have injuries and have so many guys missing,” Dews said. “We started and looked at the roster and there were 18 receivers. Then all of a sudden, we start camp and there’s 10 of them. We needed guys to step up and they have.”
Here’s a closer look at both freshmen receivers.
• Height, weight: 5 feet 7 inches, 177 pounds
• His stats: 17 catches, 268 yards, three touchdowns.
• His best game: Colorado - Four catches, 69 yards and a touchdown.
• His best attribute: Phillips is the purest playmaker of the wide receiver group and is a big-play waiting to happen. Despite his short stature, the Chandler Basha High School product is strong enough to make plays on the outside and fast enough to get open over the middle. Already this season, he has catches of 57, 44 and 36 yards.
• In his own words: “I just wanted to come in and contribute to the team as much as I could, and I think I’ve done that. Now, I just want to continue to grow and keep making plays. I’m definitely surprised I’ve been able to come in and play right away, but I’m more grateful than surprised or cocky about it. Not many people can come in and play as a true freshman across the country. … I think for everybody, it was the USC game when things started to turn. B.J. (Denker) came out and really threw the ball well and I think that was it for everybody. We knew we could throw the ball.”
• Height/weight: 5 feet 9 inches, 173 pounds
• His stats: 24 catches, 177 yards, one touchdown.
• His best game: UTSA — Five catches, 48 yards, one touchdown.
• His best attribute: Rodriguez loves Grant’s versatility. The head coach said Grant has already learned all of the different receiver positions, and the coaches can confidently line him up at any spot, whether it’s the slot or on the outside. Grant has also become one of Denker’s favorite targets on short gains. The quarterback trusts Grant’s reliable hands, and because of that, he’s become a weapon on third-and-short.
• In his own words: “When I was little, I didn’t want to play football. I wanted to be a boxer. But then my brother started playing and he was a little older than me, so I started playing. I’ll never forget my first game. I was 7 and the first time I got the football, I broke 100 yards on a kickoff return and I was hooked. I always wanted to play football after that. That’s where the love of the game came from for me.”