TUCSON, Ariz. — Two days into Arizona’s preseason camp, Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez already was singing the praises of freshman Nate Phillips.
OK, singing may be too strong, but he took notice pretty quickly of his 5-foot-7 talent.
“He’s a quick learner, very conscientious,” Rodriguez said at a time when he rarely spoke about individual players so as to not single them out. “Doesn’t look like he is going to be redshirting.”
Hardly. In fact, Phillips, out of Basha High in Chandler, has been one of the more productive Arizona players.
He’s a 5-7 blur, and one of two true freshmen who are listed on Arizona’s two-deep. The other is linebacker Scooby Wright.
“I have a lot of confidence in him,” Rodriguez said on Tuesday in preparation for Saturday’s game with No. 16 Washington. Both teams go in 3-0.
So confident, Rodriguez had him as his guy returning punts in the season opener. There in isolation for all eyes to see.
Did he expect that he’d play right away?
“Not right away, but all the coaches said they don’t recruit backups,” he said.
“You recruit every player with the expectation he’s going to play some coming in,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t guarantee them a start when they get on campus, but we also don’t recruit guys to be backups, either. We expect them to come and compete when they get on campus.”
For Phillips, timing helped. Star wide receiver Austin Hill is out with an injury, and David Richards, another veteran, might make his first appearance this weekend. Arizona had a need at the position, and Phillips was also talented enough to get the starting role at kickoff return man and punt returner, although he no longer has the latter job after muffing a punt in the first game.
“I just had first-game jitters,” Phillips said. “They trusted me back there, and now I have to build that trust back.”
As for his size, that’s never been an issue.
“He’s built well and strong and one of the stronger receivers we have as a freshman,” Rodriguez said. “You’d like them all to be 6-4, but nowadays with the spread offense you can have more short guys that have an impact.”
Said Phillips: “You just have to be tough. You’re small and going to get knocked around. You just have to not get knocked around.”
Sounds easy. His water-bug moves have helped him to this point.
“Nate has been pretty special. When he got here for the summer he worked out on his own and jumped into it,” offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said. “He’s a smart kid who understands football.”
Arizona first noticed Phillips two years ago on film, and then again at Rodriguez’s 7-on-7 summer camp.
“He was one of the hardest working kids at the camp,” Magee said. “Whatever play it was, he didn’t take it off. That’s what caught our eye.”
So, Arizona offered. His other offers were North Dakota, Northern Arizona and Air Force. He quickly committed to Arizona. Now he’s playing in the Pac-12 as a true freshman — not bad for a kid who wasn’t highly recruited.
In Arizona’s first three games, he has four catches for 40 yards, three punt returns for 11 yards and two kickoff returns for 42 yards.
“He looks to be a pretty dynamic type player,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian.
Sarkisian knows about playing freshmen. He’s played eight so far this season. Like Rodriguez, his mentality is: We will get them in where they fit. The key is putting the freshmen in scenarios where they can succeed, Sarkisian said.
“Then you look for who can make plays,” he said. “We’ve never shied away from playing younger players.”
Ditto for Rodriguez, who used nine last season and will continue to go with his younger guys on an as-needed basis. To this point, seven true freshman have played.
“Next year is going to be the same thing,” said Rodriguez. “If we do the right job in recruiting and developing in two or three years it’ll be harder for freshmen to come in and play. But this year and next year and the year after that, a lot of young guys will get the opportunity to play. And that’s pretty exciting.”