Here is the fifth part of our Arizona Wildcats football preview in collaboration with our Gannett partner, The Arizona Republic.
We write the words, and they have taken the cool photographs and put it all together in a slick presentation at azcentral.com.
Check back here and at azcentral.com every Friday as we roll out more of our preview every week, all the way into August.
This week: Wide receivers (I talked to receivers coach Dave Nichol this week, so there are some fresh quotes in this preview):
Big and tall. Short and quick. Proven and promising. And deep. Very deep.
Arizona’s receiving corps, led by potential All-American Juron Criner and with an intriguing combination of route-runners and run-away threats, pretty much has it all.
This is the Wildcats’ best position group and one of the best in the nation, as the receiving corps is ranked No. 5 by Lindy’s and Phil Steele’s preseason magazines. The team will look to Texas transfer Dan Buckner to add another element of danger.
But receivers coach Dave Nichol says he wants to “tap the brakes” on any of the hype.
“Whenever we turn on the film from last year, for however talented people think we are, we realize we have a lot of stuff to work on,” he said.
Criner has a chance to be the best Arizona receiver ever; certainly, the Wildcats haven’t had this combination of size, skill and passing offense at the same time. Coach Mike Stoops says Criner should be a “100-catch guy” this season.
Criner, 6-foot-4, was a unanimous All-Pac-10 selection as a junior, when he caught 82 passes for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns while playing through an assortment of injuries.
“Juron’s greatest attribute is he’s a very complete player,” Stoops said. “He has the ability to break short throws into big plays, to break tackles. He has great strength. He has separation speed. He has great timing, so he can up after jump balls.
“He is going to have every opportunity to make a play.”
The Texas transfer gives Arizona a 6-foot-4 bookend to Juron Criner, potentially setting up a pick-your-poison scenario for secondaries who can’t double-cover both wideouts.
Buckner caught 44 passes for 445 yards and four touchdowns in 2009 as the Longhorns advanced to the BCS title game against Alabama. He was especially effective early in the season when Texas was using more of a short passing game, the kind that Arizona figures to lean on this year.
Stoops has said that Buckner has first-round talent, but the goal in the offseason was to improve his timing with quarterback Nick Foles.
“We want to be the best receiving corps in the nation,” Buckner said in the spring. “We have a lot of good guys returning. Hopefully, I can add on.”
Douglas was the team’s second-leading receiver last season with 52 catches for 515 yards and five touchdowns. He can play outside in UA’s four-wide spread offense but is set to return to an inside position this season with the addition of Dan Buckner.
Douglas gets tagged as a “possession” receiver, although he’s more athletic than most think. But having good hands is part of his skill set; coaches use him at punt returner when all they want is for someone to catch the ball.
“It’s just a consistency thing with him — how he shows up ready to work in the weight room, on the practice field and in games,” said Nichol. “He’s a great example for the rest of our group.”
Roberts has been a reliable option for the past two seasons, mixing in some big games (12 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown against Washington in 2009) and big plays (stretching for a 38-yard reception on the game-winning drive against Iowa last season).
Roberts, who caught 43 passes in 2009 and 44 last season, is much like the receiving corps’ other David — David Douglas. They are consistent and lead through the example of their work ethic.
“Even when he’s a backup, he is going to find a way on Saturdays to do the right thing,” Nichol said. “It’s simple: He tries really hard. He has a personal pride and a team pride.”
It wasn’t considered much of a big deal offensively when senior-to-be Bug Wright was dismissed from the team in the offseason; that’s because Morrison is ready for a bigger role.
Morrison, a converted quarterback, becomes the team’s shorter, shiftier threat at slot receiver — kind of like Mike Thomas was a few years ago. Morrison’s development was slowed in 2010 by a midseason shoulder injury, but he finished with six catches for 66 yards in the Alamo Bowl (and had a 44-yard TD reception nullified by penalty).
In the spring game, Morrison made four catches for 63 yards and two scores.
“I think I’ve matured a lot more and I’m starting to read the defenses better,” Morrison said. “I’m really comfortable at the position.”
Tight end Rob Gronkowski sat out the 2009 season because of a back injury and then turned pro, so Arizona was without a middle-of-the-field threat for much of the past two years — until Miller emerged late last season.
Miller, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, will serve as Arizona’s big target from a slot position. He started to put it all together late last season, when 25 of his 29 receptions came in the final five games.
“He is definitely a different body type,” said Nichol, “and many plays in our system really fit him.”
Miller’s best game last season came against USC when he made seven catches for 116 yards.
Hill might have been the most ready of Arizona’s three true freshman receivers last season, but coaches were able to preserve his redshirt season. Hill flashed the ability to make difficult catches in camp last season.
At 6-3, 205 pounds, Hill is a little bigger than fellow redshirt freshman Tyler Slavin — a high school teammate at Roosevelt High in Corona, Calif. — and both have good speed from an outside receiver position.
“Boy, if they raced, I don’t know,” Nichol said.
Like Slavin, Hill’s playing time this season likely will come only in spot duty, barring injuries to other receivers. But both figure nicely into the team’s long-range plans.
Slavin made the two-deep for parts of last season after an impressive fall camp — and he was on the travel squad — but he never played as a true freshman.
“He’s really smooth,” said Nichol. “His pad level and the way he sinks his hips coming out of cuts … he does that naturally. But he probably had a few more drops than I like in the spring.”
The thing with Slavin and fellow redshirt freshman Austin Hill is consistency, Nichol said, and soaking up the leadership from the veteran receivers.
“Guys like Austin and Tyler, I need to feel good about, ‘Hey, man, you can go and do it,’” Nichol said. “We’re getting there.”
Wharton might be the fastest player on the team, and he’ll at least show that speed on kick returns, where he will replace the departed Travis Cobb. On offense, Arizona hopes Wharton will be a breakaway threat in the slot.
“We have to get his hands on the ball five to eight times a game,” Stoops said.
That could mean by Arizona’s usual variety of short passes, or on end arounds or other sorts of handoffs. Wharton recorded a 100-meter time of 10.39 seconds in high school.
“The thing with him is having great ball security,” Nichol said.
Crump, based on his 2010 performances in spring and fall camps, seemed to be on the verge of being a rotation player, although that didn’t materialize last season. He had four catches for 39 yards in the first two games, but no catches after that.
Crump will be battling in fall camp for a backup role at outside receiver.
“We have a lot of competition,” Nichol said. “He is right in the mix. He has done everything we have asked of him. He played some important plays for us last year.”
Crump walked on in August 2009 after redshirting at West Virginia in 2008.