Throughout training camp, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has insisted the Wildcats’ receiving corps will be better than it looks on paper. The UA lost a ton of experience at that position, and junior Shun Brown is the only proven commodity among the returnees.
Pundits have questioned the unit’s depth and playmaking potential. But some recent developments should provide the group with a turbo boost.
The first is the return of Devaughn Cooper to the program. Cooper, who showed great promise as a freshman, had left the team last month. Rodriguez indicated that the door remained open for Cooper to come back, and the coach announced Monday morning that the speedster from Narbonne High in Los Angeles was back on the roster.
Cooper caught only one pass for 15 yards as a freshman before suffering a season-ending injury.
But UA defensive backs have said he’s one of the most challenging receivers on the team to cover, and he has as much upside as any wideout on the squad.
“The guys welcomed him back,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll see what happens the next couple weeks.
“He’s a good young man. We’ve always thought a lot of him. Hopefully he’ll make the most of this opportunity.”
Rodriguez wouldn’t say what precipitated Cooper’s departure. Rodriguez did say Cooper called “a couple weeks ago” to express his desire to return.
“We told him he had to earn his way back in, so he’s earning his way back in,” Rodriguez said. “He’s got a couple weeks to catch up.”
Receivers coach Theron Aych also declined to divulge specifics about Cooper’s situation, but did say: “He’s an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old man. Sometimes things happen in life. We’re happy to have him back. We’re going to love him up, support him and try to give him everything he needs to get himself ready to play this season.”
Cooper’s classmate, running back J.J. Taylor, sometimes would drive with his teammate from Tucson to California. Asked if Cooper was unhappy at the time he left, Taylor said the following:
“It’s not really that you’re unhappy. Sometimes it can become too much.
“You know how coaches always say you’ve got to work on your mindset and push through stuff and become stronger? It’s real hard. Offseason training was the hardest part of this whole year. All the conditioning, the weightlifting — it’s a different intensity.
“You’ve just got to push through it. That’s very difficult.”
Taylor found out a few days ago that Cooper was returning. Taylor’s reaction? “We got our wide receiver back!”
Senior receiver Cam Denson spoke to Cooper before and after he decided to leave and simply offered support for his friend and teammate. Denson has dealt with plenty of adversity himself.
Denson began his UA career as a cornerback before switching to receiver in spring 2016. At neither position did he make as big an impact as expected after earning All-America recognition at Salpointe Catholic High.
Denson flashed his game-breaking ability late in ‘16 and was having a strong spring when he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. The injury, suffered in early March, forced Denson to wear a walking boot for about three months.
“It was a lot longer than what I imagined,” Denson said. “I thought it was going to be about a month or so. We wanted to get it right for the season.”
Denson stayed in shape by running on an underwater treadmill. He got cleared in late June and has been trying to play catchup ever since.
Denson did not open training camp as a starter and has been battling Cedric Peterson at one of the outside receiver spots. Denson did not take a full allotment of reps as the coaching staff, eyeing the Sept. 2 opener against Northern Arizona, tried to manage his workload.
“The big issue with him is trying to get him game ready,” Aych said. “He’s physically ready to play. He’s mentally ready to play. But I’ve got to be smart when we’ve got 29 practices to prepare.”
Denson said he has pushed himself harder each day “to see what I can really do and how long I can do it.” The results have been positive.
“I feel like my usual self,” Denson said.
His goals for 2017 remain the same: to make his last season his best and help return the program to its winning ways.
“I feel like I’m still on track to achieve the things I want to,” Denson said. “Of course it slowed me down, being out for so long. You’ve just got to get back and grind.”
- Defensive tackle Sione Taufahema (knee) has returned to practice. Like Cooper, Taufahema must go through an acclimatization period before doing full contact work. Taufahema underwent a knee scope earlier in the offseason.
- While much praise has been heaped on Arizona’s defensive newcomers, Rodriguez said the new guys on offense – especially at the skill positions – have advanced “beyond our expectations” through two-plus weeks of camp.
- Rodriguez continued to laud freshman Gary Brightwell, who’s playing tailback and slot receiver. He has picked things up even quicker than Taylor did as a freshman — according to Taylor, who’s about as sharp as they come.
- The Arizona coaches met Sunday to discuss the depth chart. More time will be spent this week zeroing in on a two-deep and figuring out who will play on special teams.
- No quarterback announcement is coming anytime soon. But Rodriguez did say he’ll pare the competition down to four by the end of this week and divvy up the practice reps accordingly. Veteran Brandon Dawkins remains a heavy favorite to start Week 1 vs. Northern Arizona.
- The Wildcats practiced in shorts and shells on a warm, muggy morning. The defense rallied late to win the practice.