TUCSON, Ariz. — It was a year ago, almost to the week, when receiver Cayleb Jones arrived on the University of Arizona campus looking — hoping — for a second chance at success.
It’s not like he didn’t possess the talent. He was been a high school All-American. But life at Texas didn’t work out. He was suspended for what was later classified a misdemeanor after allegedly punching a fellow Longhorns athlete.
Just months before, he had just two catches and one run in what turned out to be a season to forget. In fact, 2012-13 is all but a memory for the 6-foot-3, 215-pound receiver.
"I don’t even think about it," Jones said of his time in Austin. "And that’s good. I’m looking forward, and that’s a good feeling."
He’ll showcase his talent in Arizona’s season-opener on Friday against UNLV at Arizona Stadium.
If fall camp is any indication, there’s plenty of hope to look forward to with Jones & Co. catching passes from newly named quarterback Anu Solomon. Jones has been as good as advertised on some days, leaping for passes and coming down with them like Spiderman would.
And he’s getting better. He came in a bit raw, wide receiver coach Tony Dews said, but he’s learning and, more importantly, working hard.
"He was kind of loosey goosey and all over the place," Dews said, referring to his first impressions of Jones. "You’d kind of expect that. But in the spring it came around. As far as technique goes he has a ways to go, but in the spring he got better. The summer he got better. This fall he got better."
He opened camp on the second-team but has worked his way into a starting position.
"He brings a lot to the table," said fellow receiver Austin Hill. "He’s athletic and his big body is a big threat, especially when he’s up against smaller defensive backs. He’s able to get to balls and he’s able to adjust his body. He catches the ball well."
Last year, Jones and Notre Dame transfer DaVonte’ Neal were stars on the scout team, where their role was to make the starters better. Players and coaches would joke that they had one of the better scout teams in the country.
This year, we’ll see what their impact will be.
"I feel very comfortable," Jones said. "I feel good … great."
Arizona’s receiving corps has received considerable preseason recognition as one of the nation’s deepest and most talented. Jones is glad to be a part of it.
"I think I fit in well," Jones said. "I think I bring a confidence with the things I can do. I still have a lot of work to do on a lot to things, but I think everybody feels that way if we expect to be more complete. But we’ve had a great camp."
Well, it depended on the day, and Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez let them know about it. One day he ripped his wide receivers for playing like they had already accomplished whatever they were hoping to accomplish. Who anointed them the best? Rodriguez wanted to know. A day later, the receivers came out with more fire.
"I just felt there was a little more hype than justified," Rodriguez said.
But he also offered up this evaluation.
"It’s a diverse group," Rodriguez said. "We have size and speed and include that with experience … we have that now. I’m a little comfortable to where we have enough (depth) for a game now."
"I don’t think you can put a cap on our potential," Jones said. "The potential is through the roof. We have knowledge and speed. Now, we just have to have guys to step up."
Dews prefers to avoid words like potential.
"That’s a word that only gets people in trouble," he said. "If you are not willing to work and get better, it can be a negative thing. (Jones) has worked hard to get better. He’s not settling because he has talent. He’s working hard at the little things."
Hill, the leader of the group who returns to the lineup 18 months after a knee injury, said he likes the group, although he’s looking for "more consistency and more confidence from the younger receivers."
The core is strong and athletic, Hill said, breaking down his teammates:
— Trey Griffey is "very smart and he knows what he’s doing in any situation. He has so much potential."
— David Richards "has come a long way. He’s one of our biggest receivers. He can throw his body around. And he’s very good in red zone catches."
— Nate Phillips: "I love Nate. He’s very smart. He knows where to go in certain coverages and he can really tear up a defense by reading zone and man. He’s very good with (man-to-man) routes. He’ll be even better than he was (last year)."
— Samajie Grant "is awesome. He’s quick and one of the quicker receivers. His body control is unbelievable."
As for himself, Hill says he’s 100 percent healthy and ready for a potential All-America season like he had two seasons ago.
"I don’t want to say I’m old school, but I think I bring that element," he said. "I think I’m just rough, hard-nosed. I’m not afraid to get hit; not afraid to throw my body around and go for those hard-to-get-to balls. I think I’m a third-down threat. I’ll be there when they need me the most."