The 2017 season began just as the 2016 season ended for the Arizona Wildcats, as they racked up 500-plus rushing yards in a blowout win against an in-state rival.
This time it was a 62-24 win against NAU.
Here are three things we learned from the game, aside from the fact that Arizona’s running game is dangerous.
Ellison finally emerges
Wide receiver Tony Ellison has been something of a training camp legend during his time at Arizona. Coaches and teammates always gush about his route-running and athleticism — Will Parks once called Ellison the most difficult receiver to cover — but it had never carried over into a game.
The redshirt junior had just three catches in his first two seasons in Tucson.
But Saturday, Ellison’s hype look justified. The Granite Bay, Calif. native hauled in five catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.
That stat-line may not completely jump off the page, but consider that Arizona’s quarterbacks only completed seven passes on the night, and Ellison caught every pass thrown his direction.
“Tony has been a guy I’ve been waiting for for a couple years because all of our guys have seen him practice,” head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He’s an explosive, quick twitch guy that’s really good in the open field.”
Ellison showcased his elusiveness on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Dawkins. The pass itself was only a few yards past the line of scrimmage, but Ellison made a defender miss and then outran the rest of NAU’s defense for a score.
“He and Shun Brown give us two experienced guys in the slot. Along with Tyrell Johnson, we got three pretty shifty guys that are really valuable,” Rodriguez said. “We missed them a couple times today in some of the passing plays for big gains, but I trust Tony for a lot of stuff.”
When Trey Griffey, Samajie Grant, and Nate Phillips graduated after the 2016 season, a major void opened at wide receiver for the Wildcats.
Playing time is up for grabs in 2017, and it appears this will be the year Ellison’s excellence on the practice field translates to the big stage.
“I think it’s just a reflection of all the hard work in the summer,” he said.
Arizona’s special teams are already better
Arizona’s special teams have been dismal in recent seasons. Last year, the Wildcats were 11th in the Pac-12 in return yardage, and were one of three Pac-12 teams not to return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown.
Brian Knorr took over the unit after Charlie Ragle left for Cal, and the early results are promising.
On Arizona’s very first return of the season, Shun Brown had a 66-yard punt return touchdown — Arizona’s first since 2015.
“Well, we want to have at least two big plays on special teams and get the momentum going,” Brown said. “Our coaches preach to us that if you win in special teams, more than likely you’re going to win in a game.”
The Wildcats got that second big play later when Tyrell Johnson had a 58-yard kick return. In total, Johnson, a speedy former track and field star, had four kickoff returns for 120 yards, a 30-yard average.
Last season, Arizona averaged 17 yards per kick return.
Meanwhile, Arizona didn’t have to worry about defending kick returns, because true freshman kicker Lucas Havrisik sent nine of his 10 kickoffs for a touchback.
“I’ve seen him kick it deeper than that,” Rodriguez joked. “But even the ones that he didn’t kick out, he angled really well, so if it would’ve been (returned), it would’ve been pinned inside the numbers.
“Lucas did a great job and he’s a weapon. That’s one less thing to worry about if you can kick them all out of the end zone, that’s for sure.”
The defense isn’t better...........yet
Arizona’s youth-infused defense surrendered 562 yards to NAU, and thus Rodriguez didn’t think it played well in any facet.
Rodriguez said Arizona didn’t cover the deep ball well (a concern of his going into the game) and lost contain too often. NAU quarterback Case Cookus threw for 306 yards and the very first play of the game was a 45-yard bomb to Elijah Marks.
Later, Cookus connected again with Marks for a 50-yard gain.
The Lumberjacks committed three costly turnovers, but mostly moved the ball with ease against the Wildcats, a troubling sign for Arizona.
NAU had a 52.9 conversation rate (10-19) on third down.
“We weren’t stopping them at all on any series,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think we had any three-and-outs.”
Rodriguez conceded that “there were a lot of nerves” among UA’s defenders, but “that was expected” because of the defense’s youth.
Arizona started three true freshmen on defense, and two of their top cornerbacks were redshirt freshman Lorenzo Burns and redshirt sophomore Sammy Morrison, who redshirted last season.
Freshman linebacker Colin Schooler and safety Troy Young were rotated in early and often, too.
The good thing if you’re Arizona is you figure those young players will improve as they get more experience at the collegiate level. And a freshman like Kylan Wilborn, who had a sack and forced fumble, already looks like he will be a difference-maker.
The bad thing is younger players are more prone to making costly mistakes, like committing pass interference to extend a drive or letting a receiver break free behind the defense, both of which happened multiple times against NAU.
But considering Arizona finished 115th in the country in total defense last season, there really isn’t anywhere to go but up, growing pains and all.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire