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Re-examining Arizona’s X-factors: Richardson, Salazar, Buckner

Dan Buckner caught four passes in his Arizona debut. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

In advance of the Arizona Wildcats’ game against NAU, I took a look at three players to watch — basically, three X-factors, three players I had lingering doubts about.

Let’s see how they did in Arizona’s 41-10 victory over the Lumberjacks on Saturday:

Cornerback Shaquille Richardson

Richardson was picked on by NAU cornerback Cary Gossart and repeatedly beaten by guys named Khalil Paden and Ify Umodu.

In no time at all — like Thursday night at Oklahoma State with the college football world watching on ESPN — Richardson is going to have to try to stop Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden, a strong-armed NFL prospect.

“Shaquille can play better. He knows it,” said coach Mike Stoops.

“I wasn’t pleased with the way he played, and neither was he. He is going to have to play better next week against a very prolific offense and receiver and quarterback.”

Richardson did finish with a team-high eight tackles, if only because NAU targeted his side of the field so much. For example, he made the tackle at the end of a 36-yard pass to Umodu, who beat coverage with a double move — the kind that often fooled Arizona during its five-game skid to end last season.

“You can’t do that in that situation,” Stoops said.

The situation was late in the first half, and the long pass play put NAU in position to score a touchdown before intermission to make the score 14-10.

Richardson was one of the freshman standouts of last season, starting three games. He is a 6-foot-2 cornerback with athleticism. His progress was slowed as he sat out the spring because of a shoulder injury, and he was behind cornerbacks Trevin Wade and Jonathan McKnight through fall camp … until McKnight tore his ACL less than two weeks before the opener.

Stoops suggested Richardson might be going through a crisis of confidence, much like what Wade went through in a disappointing junior season.

“We can’t afford for him to not show up and compete, and not play with fundamentals,” Stoops said of Richardson.

Bottom line: The injury to McKnight is the most costly of the team’s five ACL tears. Richardson might have to sink or swim Thursday night, considering a true freshman, Cortez Johnson, is the backup at both cornerback spots. Defensive coordinator vowed Arizona would play tighter coverage against Oklahoma State — not giving the receivers as much cushion — so those corners really will be on the spot.

Place-kicker Jaime Salazar

The junior college transfer seems to have caught a bad case of Zendejas.

Salazar won the job in fall camp from two-year starter Alex Zendejas, although Salazar didn’t make a high-enough percentage of kicks to be deemed completely trustworthy. Still, he might have had a slight statistical edge, and coaches wanted to see how he would convert in a game.

Not so well.

Salazar missed badly from 46 yards — the kick started right, then drifted further to the right — and pushed a PAT to the right. The coaches’ response to that was to put Zendejas back in for the final PAT of the game.

Stoops said after the game he didn’t know what he was going to do yet with the kicking game this week.

Bottom line: Going for the two-point conversion after every TD doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

Wide receiver Dan Buckner

The Texas transfer fared the best of the X-factors, and not just because the other two set the bar limbo low. Buckner was OK in his Arizona debut, catching four passes for 38 yards.

Was he the big-play threat Arizona covets opposite Juron Criner? No, but quarterback Nick Foles has plenty of options, and the reception of everyone not named Criner likely will ebb and flow from game to game. Foles will just take whatever the defense gives him

Foles’ best buddy, David Douglas, didn’t even catch a pass (Foles misfired on one attempt to him over the middle).

Bottom line: NAU made the mistake of covering Criner one-on-one early. Other teams won’t be as generous. “If they are going to take him out of the game, then we have to be able to go to the other side of the field,” Stoops said. That’s when big-play Buckner needs to emerge.

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