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Arizona’s Juron Criner ready to roll upon return to offseason workouts

Juron Criner has 21 career touchdown receptions, nine off the school record held by T Bell. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

LOS ANGELES — The official explanation for the summer absence of Arizona Wildcats star receiver Juron Criner appears to be this: “personal and family issues.”

Those are the words coach Mike Stoops used Tuesday, further clarifying that Criner has been spending time in Killeen, Texas, to be his ailing mother.

“His mom has been really sick,” Stoops said. “It really bothered him, so we just gave him time to go home and spend time with her.”

Whatever else there is to the story will be up to Criner to tell.

Maybe he will say at some point in fall camp. Maybe he won’t. Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe the only important thing is that it looks as if he will be catching, running and scoring in 2011 just as much as Arizona fans had hoped.

Criner returned to informal 7-on-7 workouts about a week ago, giving Arizona the centerpiece to what could be one of the best passing games in school history.

“Juron is a great player. Everybody knows that,” senior quarterback Nick Foles told TucsonCitizen.com at Pac-12 Media Day.

“But what everybody doesn’t see is the off-the-field stuff you do in the weight room and the locker room. And when we didn’t have him there, it just felt like you were missing your buddy. Just to have him there in workouts, it’s like having a family member back.

“Having him there just feels right. I don’t know how else to put it. I know he’s talented, but I care more about him as a person than a player.”

When the Arizona Daily Star speculated about a month ago that “Criner’s status for the 2011 season remains uncertain because of undisclosed medical reasons,” that ignited a blaze of conjecture, gossip and fears for the worst.

With any luck, the worst of it is that Criner missed about a month of offseason workouts.

Which isn’t much of a problem at all.

“Let’s just say this,” Foles said.

“Juron took off about a month. He came back and was still strong, was still fast, was still going over people. That’s Juron. He’s very talented.”

Or as Stoops put it later in between bites of a sandwich: “He’s a freak.”

Remember, Criner missed the bulk of fall camp last season because of a concussion. The missed practice time wasn’t a problem. Assorted injuries during the season meant that he played last season at “75, 80 percent” — that was his estimation in a spring interview — and yet he motored on to catch 82 passes for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“The reason he gets so banged up during camp and the season is the way he plays,” Foles said.

“You’ve seen the way he plays. He catches the ball … and then try to tackle him. It’s going to take two or three guys. He’s a big dude, he’s strong and he’s determined. That’s why he gets banged up.”

In addition to Criner’s green-light status physically, Stoops said that the receiver has returned to the “normal stuff he does, day-in and day-out.”

“I think he feels better about his mother, and that is a big part of who he is,” Stoops said. “I think he feels a lot better about her condition.”

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