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Wide receiver remains Arizona’s biggest offensive question mark entering 2020

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Brian Casteel led Arizona with 45 receptions in 2019
Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Will the Arizona Wildcats’ go-to receiver please stand up?

A season ago Jamarye Joiner, a converted quarterback in his first year playing the position, was Arizona’s leader in receiving yards (552) and touchdowns (five), while Brian Casteel led the Wildcats with 45 receptions.

The last time the UA’s top pass-catching numbers were that low was in 2016, when nobody had more than 33 catches, 521 yards or three TDs. Oh, the team also went 3-9 and averaged only 178.1 passing yards per game, its fewest since 2004.

Heading into the shortened 2020 campaign, figuring out who the key contributors are on the outside is the biggest question mark on an otherwise solidified offense. Head coach Kevin Sumlin has said as much, both just before Arizona started preseason practice 10 days ago and after Saturday’s scrimmage.

“What we’ve got to do there is look to the perimeter for our receiving corps to kind of step that up,” Sumlin said.

There is no shortage of options for Arizona to turn to. Joiner, a redshirt sophomore, and Casteel, a redshirt junior, are two of eight receivers who caught at least one pass in 2019, and nearly all of them have the kind of size that can make them difference-makers on the edges.

“We’ve got a lot of guys, a lot of big guys,” outside receivers coach Taylor Mazzone said Monday via Zoom. “The outside receiver room, plus Jamarye, we’re averaging about 6-1. We’ve got guys that can play big on the field that we need, especially in critical downs. Guys that can run.”

Joiner is already a known quantity based on what he showed down the stretch in 2019, an effort made even more impressive by learning he might have been doing so with a foot fracture.

To a lesser degree the same goes for Casteel, who had only one catch in his first two seasons before taking a big step forward last fall. He caught 17 balls from Grant Gunnell, most of any Arizona wideout.

“He just brings that natural element that you want at outside receiver,” Mazzone said of Casteel. “Very football savvy. He’s like a quarterback out there, like Jamarye. He can see the coverages. He’s a great guy you can put out in space and let him go to work.”

Mazzone singled out sophomore Boobie Curry as the one ready to make that leap in 2020. Curry, who considered his freshman year “frustrating” because of preseason injuries, was Gunnell’s high school teammate and now each have a year in Arizona’s system together.

“I would say Boobie has made tremendous strides in his top of the routes, the fundamentals,” Mazzone said. “You can just tell the confidence and how smooth he is running routes and you can see the separation.”

Also figuring to play a big role is redshirt junior Drew Dixon, who like Joiner is a former prep quarterback. He had 14 catches in 2019 but only four came during Arizona’s season-ending seven-game losing streak.

“The one thing you’re going to get from Drew Dixon is competitiveness,” Mazzone said. “He loves the game. The more he’s learning the offense, the more reps he’s getting with Grant, he’s getting more comfortable out there. We need Drew to get out there and get into a position to succeed. The way he handled the offseason, from the end of spring ball and throughout until now, he worked his butt off, day in and day out, in the weight room, in the film room, so I’m excited for him.”

Arizona signed a pair of 6-foot-2 receivers in the 2020 recruiting class in true freshmen Dyelan Miller and Ma’jon Wright, both of whom Mazzone expects to see meaningful snaps this year. But it will be the guys with prior experience in his father Noel Mazzone’s offense that should be primed to dominate.

“Going into year three, that’s when it kinda starts clicking with the offense,” he said. “They know what we mean when we’re installing plays, there’s less thinking and they’re just playing fast.”

Gunnell’s improved arm strength well-noted in receiver room

With not much else to do during the offseason, Gunnell put in overtime trying to find ways to improve a passing arm that was already considered above average. Based on what others have to say, all that work was worth it.

“It’s big time,” Joiner said of Gunnell’s arm strength. “Last year, obviously, freshmen when they come in they’re not as strong as a college athlete yet. He really took it upon himself this offseason to really get his strength down and spin the ball. I’ve noticed it as a receiver just catching the ball, as soon as I get out of the break the ball is there, and it’s coming with some heat.”

Said Curry, who was on the receiving end of a boatload of Gunnell’s passes in high school: “He can really throw that thing now, and he’s confident in his arm so he’s not scared to throw it downfield.”

Mazzone said the biggest difference is in how Gunnell uses the lower half of his body when throwing the ball.

“You can tell ... he’s driving the ball more with his legs,” Mazzone said. “That’s the big key in his throwing motion is getting the ball to us is that leg drive.”