When the Arizona Wildcats’ offense is clicking, it can be explosive, tough to stop, and dizzying for opposing defenses. Last year wasn’t one of those instances.
Between injuries and inconsistent play, the offense couldn’t mold together. In 2016, the offense averaged around 25 points per game compared to 37 points per game during 12 games in 2014.
In 2017, the offense has plenty of experience returning along the offensive line and the quarterback position. Add to that a stable of talented running backs and the offense should improve this year if everything is firing on all cylinders.
And if these five players have standout years, look for Arizona’s offense to start getting back to 2014 levels.
5. Shawn Poindexter, senior, wide receiver
The Wildcats lost their top three pass-catchers in Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey, and Nate Phillips, and with a lack of experience and size in the receiver corps, Poindexter will be an important piece to the offense.
At 6-foot-5, the former volleyball player has the size the ‘Cats need on the outside.
Last year, he played in 10 games but injuries hampered most of his progress. Poindexter finished the season with 82 yards on six catches. His best game was against Washington when he picked up three receptions for 29 yards.
Poindexter showed some real talent against Washington and looked like he was on his way to breakout, but was injured later in the game. The rest of the season, his production suffered mainly due to overthrows and inconsistent quarterback play.
This offseason, Poindexter has made a lot of noise. He has shown incredible progress in his route running, breaks, and catch radius. He has worked on his craft and so far the results are showing.
Wide receivers Shun Brown, Devaughn Cooper, Cam Denson, and Zach Benjamin will all be major players for UA this upcoming season. However, Poindexter should be a big target for Wildcat quarterbacks on the outside this year and might be able to breakout for his final season.
4. Nathan Eldridge, redshirt sophomore, center
The Arizona season did not start off the best way in 2016. With the tragic death of starting center Zach Hemmila during fall camp, Eldridge took the reigns, starting all 12 games for the Wildcats (the first time a freshman has done so since Blake Kerley in 2006).
Thrust into the fire, Eldridge had his fair share of growing pains. At the beginning of the season, his play was inconsistent and there were times he looked like, well, a freshman. As the season kept grinding on, it became clear that Eldridge was learning his position and making real progress. By the end of the season, Eldridge was a solid member of the Wildcat offensive line, which helped lead the Pac-12’s top rushing attack (235.0 yards per game).
Eldridge’s development continues to be on track and he has yet to reach his full potential. If he stays healthy, he can help anchor the offensive line along with seasoned veterans Jacob Alsadek and Layth Friekh, possibly leading to a more effective passing attack.
Last week, Eldridge was named to the pre-season Rimington Trophy award watchlist.
3. J.J. Taylor, redshirt freshman, running back
Explosive. Electrifying. Fun. These are all words that can describe J.J. Taylor.
Taylor showed flashes of being a game-changing playmaker. He is a human joystick, juking and spinning his way through the defense. Defenders honestly look like cartoon characters slipping on banana peels trying to take down the elusive Taylor. Taylor also has great speed, allowing him to gain huge chunks of yards after he is done making would-be tacklers look foolish.
Unfortunately, during the ‘Cats’ first conference game against Washington, Taylor’s season came to an end. After slashing the Husky defense throughout the first half, Taylor suffered a broken ankle.
During spring ball, Taylor claimed he was only 80 percent healthy, but he looked just as explosive as before. Having Taylor back in the backfield along with Nick Wilson, Nathan Tilford, and Zach Green will give defenses extremely different looks and running styles.
2. Khalil Tate, sophomore, quarterback
The first of two quarterbacks on this list, Tate has a really high ceiling. He has a cannon for an arm, launching the ball 70 yards in early 2016 during an open practice event, and the athleticism to make plays with his feet.
He showed these flashes last year, especially during his first action against UCLA. He showed great accuracy and touch on his two touchdown passes to Shun Brown and Cam Denson. He also had plenty of great runs all throughout his playing time during the season.
As a true freshman, Tate did have some issues. Some of his throws sailed on him and sometimes he didn’t make the right read. Reading defenses will get better with time and experience. Meanwhile he just needs to finesse some of his throws and pull pack on his motion a bit for those touch passes.
One thing that really was visible at times was how out of breath Tate was after a few plays. His conditioning is something he recently said that he is really working on this offseason.
As of right now, Dawkins seems to be the starter at quarterback. However, Tate had an outstanding performance during the last open spring scrimmage. He was able to move the offense effectively and score points. He and Devaughn Cooper have been quite the pairing so far. If he is able to build off of his performance during fall camp then he’ll be in a good spot to compete for the starting spot.
1. Brandon Dawkins, redshirt junior, quarterback
And we now come to the most experienced quarterback on the roster. Dawkins started nine of 10 games he played last year.
Dawkins produced some pretty memorable moments from busting some big plays to crashing into Miss Arizona on the sideline.
One thing that really stands out about Dawkins is his ability to make plays with his feet. He finished fourth overall in the Pac-12 in rushing (94.4 rushing yards per game) and the only quarterback to place in the top 10 in the conference.
When it comes to his passing game, Dawkins did make some throws, but was not consistent. He would miss wide open receivers or not see them all together. He had some issues reading defenses and anticipating his throws as well. There were times that he had open receivers but because of injuries to the running back corps, was blitzed mercilessly. These caused errant throws or for him to take off and run.
This offseason has been about Dawkins working on his passing game and throwing motion. He has been training with NFL receivers to work on his timing when he’s been back in Southern California and has continued to tweak his mechanics with quarterbacks coach Rod Smith during spring practice.
Building a relationship with wide receivers is important for quarterbacks and is also something that Dawkins (and the other quarterbacks) have been working on. It doesn’t matter who is behind center for the ‘Cats, the quarterback play has to become consistent to keep defenses honest, at the least. And if the air and ground games sync together, Arizona’s offense may regain the explosiveness it displayed in 2014.