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Arizona’s Criner seems back to form; NFL draft analysts still skeptical

Juron Criner

The question isn't about Juron Criner's hands; it's about beating press coverage. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona Wildcats senior wide receiver Juron Criner had his best game of the season — at least his best against a major-college opponent — Thursday night against UCLA in the ESPN spotlight.

Criner had 10 catches for 101 yards and three touchdowns, including a spectacular reception in the end zone when he reached around Aaron Hester’s helmet to secure the ball behind the cornerback’s head.

He looked like the Criner of 2010 — the big-play guy who caught 82 passes for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns. He earned a place on some second-team All-America squads, and was generally projected as a top five receiver in the country this season.

Question is: What damage has his start-and-stop 2011 season done to his pro prospects?

Wes Bunting of the National Football Post addressed this after watching Thursday night’s game, and he does not see Criner as an elite receiver prospect. The issue, according to Bunting, is his inability to create separation vs. corners in press coverage.

Wrote Bunting:

Criner doesn’t showcase much in the form of short area quickness, physicality or burst in order to free himself routinely off the line. And even when he does get into his route he isn’t the type of straight-line athlete to be able to simply run away from coverage and too often is forced to make plays with defenders draped all over him when they play him off the line.

To his credit, he is a strong handed kid who adjusts well to the football and can go make a play at the balls highest point. But, I still see a guy who is always going to have a tough time separating vs. press coverage at the next level.

Overall, as a prospect the guy can play on the outside and be effective as a route runner when he sees a cushion and can build up his speed initially into his routes. But, in order to be a legit starting wide out in the NFL on the outside, you have be effective beating press coverage, and at this stage I can’t give that endorsement to Criner.

Criner could build off the UCLA game and have a big second half of the season. His contributions in the first half were limited by an appendectomy after the first game, a hand injury and then a knee injury that forced him out at Oregon State in the first quarter.

And then there were the “family and personal issues” that kept him away from the team for a month this summer. That prompted Criner to self-impose a media blackout, which he lifted briefly after the UCLA game, talking to a small group of reporters on the field before heading to the locker room.

Criner has 36 catches for 441 yards and six touchdowns.

Arizona doesn’t play a team in the final five games that has a passing defense rated better than 68th in the country (heading into this weekend’s game). So, if Criner is healthy, he and quarterback Nick Foles (and the rest of a deep receiving corps) could do some damage down the stretch.

Even if they do, Criner will have a lot to prove after the season. Bunting isn’t the only one concerned about how Criner’s skills will translate to the NFL.

Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com told me before the season Criner will need to show the kind of speed in postseason workouts that will lead NFL personnel men to believe he can beat press coverage, which is more common in the NFL than in college.

NFLDraftScout.com, which contributes to CBSSports.com, has dropped Criner from 12th among senior receivers in the preseason to 19th. If NFL teams end up generally agreeing with that assessment, Criner would merely be a late-round pick.

“One of the questions about him is, ‘What kind of speed does he have?’” Rang said.

“If he doesn’t have the speed to burn defenders who press him, then he is going to struggle in the NFL. I have reservations about his speed. That is going to be critical for him to show he is able to get off press coverage.”

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