This season, Rich Rodriguez will have to figure out how to replace three of the most productive receivers the Arizona Wildcats have had in the last few years in Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey and Nate Phillips.
The senior trio combined for 50 percent of Arizona’s catches last season, and 48 percent of the team’s receiving yards.
Rodriguez admitted “it’s a lot different” not having them around.
“We had veterans Samajie, Trey and Nate, three guys who could play every position so there was a comfort level,” he said.
Still, Rodriguez has a lot of confidence in his young and undersized receiving group heading into 2017.
“I think we have more talent there than maybe what a lot of folks think because a lot of them haven’t played or we have new guys,” he said. “We’re going to be OK at wideout.”
Arizona has about five or six viable options at receiver heading into the season, but Rodriguez said he would like to have about four or five more in the mix.
“I think we’ll be OK if we stay healthy,” Rodriguez said.
Receivers coach Theron Aych enters his first full season with the program after coming over from UTEP.
And when he joined the team in the spring, he made sure the returning receivers were aware of the playing time up for grabs, after the departures of Phillips, Griffey, and Grant.
“That’s the first thing we talked about this offseason when we met after this spring,” Aych said. “It’s not time to sit back, now is the time where somebody needs to step up and grab the ball and take that leadership.”
Leading the group will be Shun Brown, who led Arizona in receiving yards (521) on 29 catches, reaching the end zone three times as a sophomore.
Brown led the team in yards per catch, averaging just under 18 yards per grab, showing his explosive playmaking abilities.
“Shun Brown proved himself last year,” Rodriguez said. “He’s one of the most valuable players on offense. Great competitor, really good football player.”
Brown has stepped up as a leader, both on the field and in the wide receiver room.
“Shun Brown is going to give you great effort on every play and that’s what we’re looking for,” Aych said. “That’s how you turn this place into a championship program and that’s the type of championship effort we’re looking out of all of those guys.”
“...He’s a versatile player, knows the offense very well and we’re expecting big things out of him.”
On the outside, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Shawn Poindexter could be one of Arizona’s top threats as well.
Poindexter made an appearance in 10 games last season, catching six balls for 82 yards. But injuries limited his time on the field and forced him to miss the final two games of the season entirely.
“He’s making some plays, he can run too. He’s a really good athlete and he’s been working really hard. He played some last year but now his role, and he knows this, is going to be a lot more prevalent,” Rodriguez said.
The former three-sport athlete has impressed Rodriguez with his playmaking, athleticism and conditioning.
“As far as guys who can run and do the conditioning part, he might be the best on the team,” Rodriguez said. “He can run.”
Given his size and athleticism, Aych likes the scenarios he can use Poindexter in.
“Shawn’s pretty versatile,” Aych said. “Not only is he a big guy that can stretch the field but can also line up inside to as well to give some size to help create some matchups so there’s a lot of things we can do with him.”
Maybe it’s because he was only ranked two-stars by most recruiting services and only had a few Division I offers and he’s out to prove everyone wrong, but Poindexter has been working hard this offseason to get himself right for his full-time role this season.
“Shawn is a guy, he cares. And he wears that on his sleeve. He probably is the guy that works harder than anybody besides Shun Brown out there and he always takes everything seriously,” Aych said.
“He’s the first guy out on the field and last one to leave. That type of guy and that type of leadership is something we need in the receiver room.”
Over the last few years, Rodriguez has raved about Tony Ellison’s performance in camp, yet his playing time and production has not matched that praise. In three years with the program, Ellison has hauled in three catches for 32 yards.
So now the big question is if this is the year he actually steps up into a role on offense.
Maybe with Aych coaching the wide receivers, he’ll see more of the field this season. Opposing teams likely have no idea who Ellison is, and Aych thinks he can be something this season.
“Tony is one of the sleepers in the conference right now,” he said. “Tony gives his best effort every play. Great ball skills and obviously great knowledge of what we’re trying to do offensively and he’s very deceptive. It’s exciting to watch him him to make plays in space,”
So for what seems to be the third offseason in a row now, Ellison has been an outstanding performer. We’ll see if this is the year it translates to the game stage.
One who needs to step up is Tucson local and Salpointe standout Cam Denson, who entered the program as a top-150 recruit.
This is now year two at wideout for Denson, and after battling through injuries of his own, he is looking to rebound in his final season.
Rodriguez said Denson, who suffered a foot injury in the spring, is fully healthy.
“We’re limiting him a little in individual (workouts), working him into shape,” Rodriguez said. “I think Cam, if he can stay healthy and keep working, he needs to have a big year, it’s his time. He’s going to be a guy who we count on quite a bit.”
Denson had 15 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns last season. He’s one of the most athletic guys on the team, and boasts a 36-inch vertical.
After a redshirt season in 2015, Cedric Peterson slowly inched his way onto the field as a redshirt freshman in 2016. But after earning his first career start, his season was cut short due to a broken right foot he suffered in practice.
He finished with three catches for 47 yards.
“I came out of my route, and I heard an awkward pop in my foot and tried to run it off but couldn’t do much and they figured it out, it was broken,” Peterson said.
“I was out the rest of the season and slowly came back in the spring. I wasn’t full go until the last scrimmage of spring ball. Kind of in and out for summer but for the most part I’m 100 percent.”
So far, it seems as if he’s bounced back from injury.
“Cedric is having a really good camp so far,” Aych said. “He’s worked really hard this offseason to improve his skills and he’s got a real solid base of the package and what we’re doing right now.”
Peterson said he can play all four receiver positions, but will most likely play on the outside.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s really shown up and he’s certainly helping provide some quality depth for us and hopefully he’ll break that lineup,” Aych said.
Arizona added Brian Casteel in the 2017 recruiting class, a guy who logged over 3,700 yards of total offense at Charter Oak High School (Covina, Calif.) in his three-year varsity career.
“Brian is very sharp.” Aych said of the true freshman. “Of the young guys he’s definitely one of the guys who is very knowledgeable of the system and he’s only been here since June. He comes from a great program, so football has become really easy for him mentally.”
Rodriguez said he is going to force himself to use more players this season, and right now it looks like that may work in Casteel’s favor.
“(He) seems to grasp [the offense] pretty quickly in three days,” Rodriguez said. “But he’s gotta get in shape.”