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Arizona football: Wildcats wide receivers presenting all kinds of challenges for opposing defenses

The depth and variety at wide receiver has really shown itself in the first five games of Arizona's season

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, the most-hyped group for the Arizona Wildcats was the wide receivers. And with good reason. Austin Hill was coming back after missing 2013, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant having a year of experience after successful freshman campaigns, and transfers Cayleb Jones and DaVonte' Neal were poised to contribute big numbers right away.

That has come true in every way possible.

"Ya'll gave 'em all they hype," head coach Rich Rodriguez joked last week. "I was hard on them all of August because we hadn't proved it yet, and I still think we've got to get better. If you watch the game, we're not clean in our routes, and we have to get better at the consistency on some of their techniques."

"All the guys gotta be crisper at route running," coach continued. "They've gotten better at it, and coach Dews has done a good job. But sometimes in the heat of the battle, you forget about technique and just want to say 'OK I'm just going to go catch the ball'. Whereas good technique will allow you to get open to catch the ball."

"We have not played a great receiver game yet."

If this group of receivers hasn't played a great game yet, imagine what it will look like when they do.

Arizona can use all kinds of different looks at receiver, which seems to be the biggest advantage the Wildcats have against opposing defenses.

"We have enough flexibility where we can go big, we can go small, we can go mixed," Rodriguez continued. "Most of the receivers have been playing every position, so whether it's a matchup thing or a sequence of plays we want to call, we can move our receivers inside and outside and have a lot of flexibility."

"It's nice to have a group of kids that all know all the spots," WR coach Tony Dews added. "A guy like Samajie's pretty valuable because he knows all four spots and can play all four spots."

"There's nine or ten guys right now who are playing unselfish as a group of kids where sometimes you can let jealousy creep in," Dews continued. "I think these kids are really enjoying each other. I think they learn from each other when we're watching film together. It's nice to point out things that EACH guy is doing. There's not one guy that does everything right."

"Anyone can go in at anytime," added Trey Griffey. "We're just looking at the plays, learning off each other. Everybody wants to have that big game. But that's the good thing about our receiver group. Nobody's really jealous about anything. We're just happy for each other every time somebody makes a play, and we get to see it when we go in and watch film."

"Coach Dews is a lot happier," Griffey joked. "When camp was around, he was a little hard on us, but he's starting to loosen up a little bit and we're starting to get comfortable."

One thing that B.J. Denker and the Arizona passing game was missing last year was the size factor. Terrence Miller was really the only big guy who was healthy last season and contributed throughout. Trey Griffey came on late, and David Richards was injured basically the entire season.

Now with Cayleb Jones, who was added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list this week, and Austin Hill, and an improved Griffey, Anu Solomon's job is a lot easier than Denker's was.

"Certainly it helps," continued coach Dews. "Just cuz they're bigger guys and they're playing against corners that are about the same size and strength. There's obviously a difference having some guys that can do that, can allow you to do some different things that we didn't do a year ago."

"It gives us an advantage," Anu Solomon said about the size of his receivers. "They're just so big and strong that I can just throw it up and when I see something I can just give 'em the ball."

"It helps a lot," added Trey Griffey. "Whenever you have big receivers going against small corners, it helps out a lot. We just use that as our advantage going into games and we're able to take advantage of that."

Jones has been the star to this point, leading the team with 32 catches, 525 yards, and six touchdowns. But it's more than just his size.

"He obviously has great size and speed but he's got great hand strength, ball skills, and he's extremely competitive," Rodriguez said. "Almost to a fault where he sometimes just relies on his competitiveness and strength as opposed to his technique. We're trying to get him to be more consistent in his technique in addition to his strength and his physical skills so he can get better."

"Big, physical, strong," added Griffey about his teammate. "Route running, smart off the field and on the field. Just everything about (Cayleb and Austin).

"I think it's just his love of the game," explained Dews. "His passion that he comes to practice with. He loves playing the game of football. Obviously he was blessed with some great abilities, but I know he's putting the time in off the field in the weight room and he's in the office every day."

"I think (the passion's become contagious)," Dews continued. "DaVonte' brings a lot of energy to the group. Nate and Samajie bring a lot of energy and passion. They love being Wildcats, love playing the game. Trey is like that too. Cayleb is like that too after missing a year."

After last year's injury, David Richards had sort of become an afterthought, although he was targeted often early in the Oregon game. He could turn out to be that guy late in the year like Trey Griffey last year where all of the sudden he catches fire.

There's nine or ten guys right now who are playing unselfish as a group -WR Coach Tony Dews

"He's a guy that's in the rotation just like everybody else," coach Dews explained. "Again, he's another bigger guy with great ball skills that can certainly stretch the field. He can also be a physical blocker when we're running the ball. I see him just like Austin, Trey and Cayleb. The four of those guys out there together do a great job. It's nice: You can put him in for redzone, you can put him in against a corner that's smaller than him. Those four guys do a great job for us."

Last season saw two true freshmen contributing regularly. This year, Tyrell Johnson is that guy, picking up five catches through the first five games, while running back kicks as well. There's not as much pressure on Johnson to contribute as much as Phillips and Grant did last year, but he's developing just as the coaches would like him too.

"He's coming along just great," Dews said of the freshman. "He's learning every day, coming in and trying to learn and doing extra stuff. He's developing just fine."

There are just so many options at wide receiver for this Arizona team, and it's panned out like everyone hoped it would up to this point. Even when DaVonte' missed games, or Samajie was out for Cal, it wasn't a huge deal because everyone else stepped up and did their part to contribute. In a conference like the Pac-12, having that variety at receiver is what's going to make Arizona such a dangerous team heading forward in 2014.