Arizona’s receivers learn a simple but powerful rule the minute they step on campus.
“It’s not always the next guy on the depth chart, it’s the next best guy,” receivers coach Tony Dews explained.
In Arizona’s spread offense, there are four different receiver positions — two on the inside and two on the outside. To play wideout for Dews and coach Rich Rodriguez, knowing all four positions is a must.
“That provides more depth than anything,” Dews said. “To me, when you install a concept, they are all in there hearing the same things, so they should be able to move around. When they learn all of them, it gives us the flexibility to play fast, and if a guy gets dinged up or something, you can call on your next best guy and plug him in.”
There are other advantages.
In Rodriguez’s first season at the UA, Dews often lined up Austin Hill in the inside slot position. Hill, listed at 6 feet 3 inches and 212 pounds, matched up with safeties and linebackers who didn’t have the speed to stay with him.
When defenses adjusted and subbed in an extra cornerback, Hill moved back to the outside.
The result? He hauled in 81 catches for 1,364 and 11 touchdowns, and Arizona averaged 38.2 points per game.
“It’s good when we get those bigger guys playing in the slot,” Dews said. “We had success with Austin.”
UA coaches didn’t have as much flexibility with the receivers when they first arrived following the 2011 season. The team was stocked with bigger, taller receivers like Hill, Dan Buckner, David Richards, Tyler Slavin and Terrence Miller. The shortest receiver to make a meaningful contribution was 5-10 walk-on Johnny Jackson.
This year, the UA has the taller receivers like Hill, Richards, Cayleb Jones and Trey Griffey, but also smaller, faster receivers like DaVonte’ Neal, Samajie Grant, Nate Phillips, Tyrell Johnson, Kaelin DeBoskie and Jonathan Haden.
As a result, Dews and Rodriguez can be even more creative this year. The Wildcats can move the bigger guys inside and the smaller playmakers outside to continually create mismatches.
“In a perfect world recruiting, if you get two guys, you want a speed guy, and you’d love to have a lengthy, big guy,” Dews said. “When we first got here, we had some big guys. Now it’s nice to have a combination of both because they can do so many things.”
Here’s a closer look at the UA’s deep receiving corps, and how they could be used this season.
The big boys
Personnel: Hill (6-3, 212), Richards (6-4, 213), Jones (6-3, 215) and Griffey (6-3, 195).
By the numbers: 160: The total number of catches Hill, Richards and Griffey have combined for at Arizona. Jones, a Texas transfer, had two catches for 35 yards his freshman season with the Longhorns.
The lowdown: Richards has battled various lower-body injuries the past two seasons, but is healthy this year, and Rodriguez praised the junior for having a strong camp. Hill’s contact and participation in practice has been limited the past week, but he’s fully healthy after missing last season with a torn ACL.
Griffey, exclusively an outside receiver last year, split time with Jones throughout camp. Jones spent the first couple of weeks of camp lining up on the outside, but recently has moved into the slot and should provide a Hill-like mismatch for opponents.
Quotable: “I love playing inside. It’s cool. It changes it up from the outside, where you have the same release moves most plays. (Inside) it’s easier getting off the ball, it’s more second-level releases and you have to know the coverages a lot better than you do outside. At Texas, I was always outside, but in high school I did both, and I liked it a lot.” — Jones
Personnel: Neal (5-10, 173), Grant (5-9, 177), Phillips (5-7, 180), Johnson (5-7, 160), DeBoskie (5-6, 155) and Haden (5-6, 181).
By the numbers: 13.6: Average yards per catch for Phillips last season. He amassed 696 yards on 51 catches.
The lowdown: Neal will probably be on the field more than any other Wildcat. He’ll be an every-down receiver, return kicks and punts, hold for kicks and extra-points and even play some cornerback on third downs. Rodriguez has continuously praised Grant for being able to play all four receiver spots flawlessly. He may be the most versatile player in the group.
Phillips has battled a foot injury this camp, but Rodriguez and Dews are hoping to have their leading receiver from a year ago ready for UNLV. Johnson, DeBoskie and Haden, all freshmen, will compete for playing time behind a deep group of experienced players.
Quotable: “At first, I liked playing on the outside better. But then when I went to the inside — it was so difficult at first being a freshman — I didn’t really like it. On the outside, you’re really just worried about yourself. When you’re inside, you have to worry about linebackers, safeties; you have to worry about multiple things. Now that I know everything 100 percent, inside is actually easier for me.” — Grant