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Arizona football: Player development during spring practice crucial for success in 2016

Arizona is going to be a relatively young team this season, meaning that development in the off-season will be huge

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

With the annual Spring Game being pushed forward to March 4th, Rich Rodriguez and his Arizona Wildcats will get a quick move on spring practice. During spring practice, it'll be up to some of the younger guys to take advantage of these early reps before heading into summer workouts and fall camp. Rodriguez has also said that this year's spring ball will feature very few team drills, and more individual drills.

Player development, or lack thereof, has been a popular topic for Arizona the past few years. The injuries that plagued the team this season had many questioning where the depth is. Why the backups weren't capable of filling in was a common question.

But truth be told, many of the guys called upon are just regular three-star recruits. I've said it before, but player development isn't going to happen from year one to two or even two to three. Maybe with four and five-star talent you can ask more questions, and there are a few four-star guys we're questioning, but a lot of these guys aren't top 300 recruits, some not even top 500. Arizona isn't going to be stockpiling 4-star guys because the program just isn't there yet. The greed starts to set in a bit, but when you consider the fact that Arizona is the 4th-best option in their division, it's hard to get talent in, which makes player development so important for some of these mid-tier guys.

Below are some notable names, particularly redshirt sophomores and younger, that people will start, or have already started looking forward to their development. Keep in mind that these guys are still going to have three or four years of eligibility ahead, and it's going to take time to develop into the systematic players fit for Rich Rodriguez' scheme. Whether the defense switches schemes is still unknown. However if it does, I wouldn't expect it to delay the process any longer, because a lot of these guys are familiar with the 4-3.


Brandon Dawkins - redshirt sophomore

Given his performance against Arizona State, you would think that Dawkins isn't that far behind Anu Solomon. And given Solomon's injury history, injuries that held him out of three games this past season, Dawkins could have his number called on any time this season. Dawkins, along with incoming freshman Khalil Tate will help keep the quarterback race competitive, and difficult for anyone to win. Still, I think Rich Rodriguez has a lot of trust in Solomon, and can't see him ever losing his starting job, unless it comes to injuries.

Running backs

Orlando Bradford - sophomore

We've seen some powerful runs from Orlando Bradford, and he has the tools to be successful in this offense. He runs similar to Ka'Deem Carey and Nick Wilson, but injuries have impeded on Wilson's success. Bradford is like a bowling ball in the running game, and could emerge as a primary back for Arizona soon.

Jonathan Haden - junior

Haden has bounced around in the offense, serving as a flex option. Haden actually caught a pass his freshman year, which resulted in a three yard gain vs Washington State. This year, he had seven rushes for 44 yards, and three receptions for 21 yards. You would think his versatility would get him more involved in the offense. The lack of usage in the offense might be a little concerning however, as Haden and Tyrell Johnson are similar in skill set as some incoming freshmen.

Wide Receiver

Shun Brown - sophomore

He originally came in as a corner, but switched to receiver soon upon his arrival. Brown only recorded offensive stats in the three non-conference games, totaling four receptions for 24 yards. He started getting some looks at kick return against the Washington schools, taking four kicks for 82 yards.

Considering the fact that Arizona will be losing Cayleb Jones, Samajie Grant, Nate Phillips and Trey Griffey all within the next year, the development of this group will be crucial, and it might start with Brown.

Tony Ellison - redshirt sophomore

Ellison is a guy that a lot of people were talking about last summer heading into fall camp. Arizona has a slew of receivers, which limits the amount of targets for any single guy. The 5-11 175lb wideout was receiving some high praise, and hopefully with guys like David Richards, Johnny Jackson, and Cayleb Jones gone, he gets some more looks and emerges as a decent target.

Bryant O'Georgia - redshirt sophomore

O'Georgia is an NAU transfer who seems to have the talents to be a standout receiver at Arizona. Listed at 6-0, he's actually going to be one of the taller receivers on the roster. From what I heard talking to players and people in the Phoenix area who followed him at NAU, he's a freak athlete. If you want some proof, he set the Arizona high school high jump record during his senior track season at North Canyon High School.

Cedric Peterson - redshirt freshman

The defensive back-turned-receiver should get some looks throughout the spring to emerge as one of the top candidates to take over after this wave of receivers roll through. I wouldn't expect him to get too many looks though, but it's time for him to start taking on a bigger role, preparing for life without the slew of great Arizona receivers.

Offensive line

Nathan Eldridge - redshirt freshman

He figures to be in the mix for the starting center spot in 2016, with Zach Hemmila likely owning the lead simply because of his six starts this past season. The 6-3 280lb lineman was a 3-star recruit out of Boulder Creek High School (Phoenix, AZ), and would be a nice staple to the offensive line if he can beat Hemmila this spring.

Levi Walton - redshirt sophomore

Walton also seems to be in the mix at center, but on the outside looking in. But the great thing about Walton is that he could be moved around, particularly to guard, which Rich Rodriguez has not been scared of doing with his linemen. Walton only adds to the young line depth and could likely be plugged in as a great injury replacement throughout the season.

Layth Friekh - junior

We saw Layth Friekh take over the left tackle spot this season, over a much bigger and talented Freddie Tagaloa. While Tagaloa's size and strength didn't really roll over, Layth held down Anu Solomon's blind side and kept him out of trouble.... most of the time. Another young piece to this offensive line that could be a 3-year starter going forward.

Alex Kosinski - redshirt freshman

Kosinski was an early enrollee last January and his name came up quite a bit from the coaches. While the offensive line seems to have all the positions filled or a competition in place, Kosinski is still a guy who will develop this spring and eventually take over for Jacob Alsadek once he leaves.

Defensive line

Marcus Griffin - redshirt sophomore

Everyone always asks about Marcus Griffin, the former 3/4-star defensive tackle. I had a feeling that he would emerge as a big-time role player this past season, especially considering the depth, or lack thereof, on the defensive line. While he rarely saw the field in 2015, keep in mind that the 300lb lineman will be the much-needed size Rich Rodriguez has wanted. He has three years of eligibility left. But with Luca Bruno, Sani Fuimaono, Jack Banda, Parker Zellers and Calvin Allen, there's just a lot of guys ahead of Griffin on the depth chart with the game experience that Rodriguez so craves.

Sharif Williams - redshirt freshman

This is a guy who was told he would never be able to play football after suffering a catastrophic knee injury in high school. Whenever Rodriguez starts talking about the future of the defensive line, Sharif Williams' name usually comes out of his mouth. I spoke to Sharif before the season began and he said that his knee is 100% healthy, he just has to get back into the conditioning. Being out of football for so long, and keeping up with a fast-paced offense has imposed some difficulties. But again, this is a defensive talent who has four years of eligibility ahead of him, as well as the guys I listed above ahead of him.


Kendal Franklin - redshirt freshman

One of my favorite commits of Rich Rodriguez' 2015 class, Kendal Franklin followed Scooby Wright around all season, soaking in anything and everything the consensus All-American said to him. Scooby has said good things about Kendal throughout the season as well. He's big, strong, tough, and physical, but just needs to learn how they play football at Arizona; the ins-and-outs of the defense. Coming from a 4-3 defense out of high school, it's probably pretty challenging to learn an entirely new scheme in the 3-3-5 at a collegiate level with bigger, faster guys on the field. The linebacker situation might not be entirely too bad next season, which pushes Franklin out a little bit, but I think he could come in for some snaps come this fall.

Marquis Ware - redshirt sophomore

One of Arizona's highest ranked recruits of all-time, the 4-star linebacker has yet to see the field. He suffered a shoulder injury that set him back so far he could barely bench the bar in the weight room. The former 4-star recruit was ranked 16th among all linebackers in the country, and 189th overall, leaving fans drooling at the possibility of him seeing the field. I was able to speak to him last spring practice and he had said that the responsibilities of the 3-3-5 defense were far greater than what he was used to and it was causing him a lot of issues. From what I've heard, he simply lacks the awareness to play linebacker. Take that how you will.

John Kenny - redshirt junior

I know I said I was going to cover redshirt sophomores and younger, but John Kenny is a guy we should keep an eye on. The Iowa transfer has been in the system for a year after sitting out due to transfer rules. He committed to Iowa as a linebacker, but switched to fullback to fill in, and ultimately decided to transfer. Not much has been said about Kenny and his progression, but he could be a necessary piece to the linebacker group if in fact Derrick Turituri sits out for the entirety of the 2016 season as well.


Devon Brewer - sophomore

Devon Brewer got a lot of looks last spring and was someone that you would have expected to get some quality snaps in games as a true freshman. Slowly but surely, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles took over at free safety, and then Brewer became a utility defensive back, usually coming in as a slot corner. This is a young group of corners and he could be on his way to getting more looks as the season goes on.

Sammy Morrison - sophomore

Once the starter for the season-opener vs. UTSA, Sammy Morrison's hamstring injury held him back quite a bit and not much was heard from him again the rest of the season. Maybe this is a lingering injury much like Jarvis McCall's was all through camp, which would set Morrison back even further, but he should be a guy who competes for a spot on the two-deep.

Jace Whittaker - sophomore

Rich Rodriguez threw Whittaker in the fire vs. Colorado, and he was pretty decent through the remainder of the year. While he did get burned quite a few times, I think he could be someone that Arizona relies on heavily next year as a strong rotational guy.


Anthony Mariscal - redshirt freshman

A 3-star recruit from the 2015 recruiting class, he had a lot of comparisons to Tucson's favorite Jared Tevis. He's a hard-nosed safety who was constantly winning scout team player of the week honors throughout the season. While I wouldn't expect him to be getting significant reps in games this season, he's someone to keep an eye on this spring.

Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles - sophomore

I'm a big fan of Flannigan-Fowles. He's going to be the bright spot of this defense over the course of the next four years, likely a three-year starter for the program. He fared well in his freshman campaign and I would expect him to progress with meaningful first-team snaps in practice and early playing time against lowly talented non-conference opponents heading into conference play.