TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona’s wide receiver position, as a whole, is a blank canvas. There’s potential, but there’s essentially nothing there in terms of past production or even meaningful experience.
What was once a one of the team’s most talented and healthy groups — and has been for the last couple of years — has turned into a depth- and experience-deprived spot.
There is talent, yes, but it is untapped talent.
“We’re (crossing) our fingers right now, just because of injuries,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said recently.
Throw in the aforementioned lack of experience among the healthy options and, well, it would appear Arizona is in dire straits at the position.
“I’m not going there yet,” Rodriguez said, all but laughing at the question.
Arizona must find a way to replace Dan Buckner (out of eligibility) and Tyler Slavin (left team in the summer) while hoping David Richards (foot) returns soon. The Wildcats are hoping to have him back at at some point next week.
The bigger loss, of course, was that of Austin Hill, who finished last season as a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist and an All-Pac-12 second-team selection. He had 81 receptions and 11 touchdowns and was expected to be among the conference’s top wideouts this year, but he tore his ACL in the spring, and Rodriguez recently said called his potential return a long shot.
Among the candidates to step up is fifth-year senior Terrence Miller. But is it realistic to think that a player who was just a depth option last year (13 catches, two touchdowns) could break out, fill the void and post Hill-like numbers this season?
“It could happen to anybody,” Miller said. “The offense is wide open for anyone who wants to make plays. You have to make the most of the opportunity. Once you get a good relationship with your quarterback, you could be that guy.”
There are still plenty of bodies. Sophomore Johnny Jackson is one. A season ago, he had 25 receptions and one touchdown. Junior Garic Wharton (19 catches, two TDs) is another.
“He’s in good shape, but he has to be more physical sometimes,” Rodriguez said of Wharton. “He did come on (last year). He lingered in the shadows and came on.”
Arizona can’t afford any lingerers this season. That’s why Rodriguez said he’s expecting freshmen Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant and Aaron Lacombe to see the field this year. There will be no redshirting for them this year. Redshirt freshman Trey Griffey also in the mix.
“I’ve done better this year than last year, a lot better,” Griffey said. “With Austin being out, it opens up everything.”
There’s agreement that catches are there for the taking; someone just has to step up and take them.
Rodriguez said of the current group that it features “the least amount of experience” he’s had in a long time. He hopes to remedy that some in camp, getting his youngsters a lot of snaps to get them more acclimated to the offense.
What UA wide receivers coach Tony Dews said he liked about the group is “they are hanging on every word” and perhaps too young to realize their own importance. All are eager to prove they can play.
“They don’t know anything else, so they haven’t developed any bad habits yet,” Dews said. “You get to mold them in the way we want to do things as a program.”
Dews said the freshmen, to their credit, are very smart kids and have absorbed everything that’s been presented to them. Rodriguez, too, has raved about the class.
“We’ve seen flashes out of all of them,” he said. “Sometimes when things like this happen and you have a young group, it’s kind of by committee. Sometimes that’s good because everyone is developing, and the kids stay into it because they know they have an opportunity.
“At the end of the day, we don’t care who plays. We want to play those who give us the best chance to win.”
TO THE FORT
Arizona had its first practice at Fort Huachuca on Thursday morning and it went well, with the players practicing in shorts and helmets. Rodriguez said the team will be in plenty of meetings when not on the field but will have time to spend time with the troops in the coming days.
“We have a dinner (Thursday) where some of the coaches and I will be with the brass,” Rodriguez said. “I really enjoy some of their stories. And then our players will be meeting with a lot of troops and eating dinner with them. They enjoy that. Really, if you look at it, they are about the same age. It’s a pretty good interaction there.”