Following an off day, Arizona got back on the practice field Sunday and once again focused on trying to get better in the red zone. But only one side was particularly crisp.
The Wildcat defense owned the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods, keeping touchdowns to a minimum and forcing a lot of outlets and dump offs. That performance was promising for a unit that was third-worst in FBS in red zone TD percentage in 2021, while at the same time disheartening for an offense that had only 12 TDs in 39 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line a year ago.
“I think our defense has done a phenomenal job of really owning the red zone right now,” UA tight ends coach Jordan Paopao said afterward. “I think it’s been outstanding competition both ways. And knowing that our defense is that passionate, that energetic and that focused on stopping the red zone is gonna do nothing but make us better as well.”
Sixth-year senior defensive end Jalen Harris was all over the place in team drills, while junior wide receiver Jamarye Joiner had a couple TD catches and looks like he’s fully healed from a third foot surgery that caused him to miss spring ball.
Monday will be the final workout before full pads are added on Tuesday, at which point a much better assessment can be made of the red zone offense. And when it comes to how the tight ends are used down there, Paopao said it comes down to maximizing their size.
“Honestly, it’s just contested catches,” he said. “When you’re covered by a Mike linebacker or you have single coverage, that isn’t really covered. You got to make sure that you work to separate and use your body to shield defenders. That’s what I’d like to see, us continuing to grow, and we’ve made a couple of plays down there. It’s been pretty cool to see.”
Added sophomore Alex Lines: “You’re a lot bigger than most of the guys that are guarding you, so I think that’s the biggest thing in the red zone.”
Tight end tally expectations
Despite plenty of talk about how much the position was going to be involved in the offense, Arizona’s tight ends recorded only 16 catches in 2021. That was on just 30 targets, accounting for less than 7 percent of pass attempts last season.
Why should 2022 be any different? Two words: Keyan Burnett.
The 4-star prospect has been a big presence on offense since arriving on campus in January, having a solid spring that’s set the stage for an even better training camp to this point.
“It’s been cool to be able to see him understand why he’s doing things,” Paopao said. “He took a lot of time (in the spring) just trying to understand where to wind up and what to do. The big focus for the spring was what, and now we can focus on why we’re doing it, and that’s when you start to see that next step, that next evolution of becoming a better player, playing faster.”
The 6-foot-5 Burnett was used more as a receiver than a tight end at Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., where he was catching passes from UA freshman Noah Fifita. He said he knows he can do that in college but his goal is to play more like the position for which he was recruited, and in that respect said he’s added 16 pounds to weigh in at 240 entering camp.
“At the end of the day I want to be a true inline tight end,” he said. “That’s what I’m here for, is to be a tight end.”
Paopao said Burnett, Lines and junior walk-on Tanner McLachlan, a transfer from Southern Utah, are the top three tight ends at this point. As for how many catches he expects from that group, or at least how often they’ll be targeted, the position coach admitted that’s above his pay grade.
“I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t want more targets for the tight ends, and we’re always going to make sure that we continue to work on our pass-catching ability,” he said. “That’s always going to be a very, very big focal point. But the best thing about playing the tight end position is (it’s) going to be a position where you may get 10 catches in a game, in one game you may get two targets. So being able to control that ultimately is going to be out of our hands. We just want to make sure that we’re affecting the game. So if we’re asked for run block, we want to make sure that we take pride in our run blocking and it’s done in a dominant fashion. If it’s pass protection, we’re going to pass protect our ass off, make sure that we utilize ourselves to the best of our ability. And if it happens to be one of those great games where you do get 15 targets, 10 catches ...”