WRITER’S NOTE: Here’s a feature to go with our countdown of the Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. The list includes some especially tough calls among five receivers. (Juron Criner has been revealed at No. 38 on my list; the others are yet to come.) Vote for your favorite at the bottom of the story.
For a football program long known mostly for its defense, the University of Arizona has produced its share of standout receivers, especially in the past 15 years.
While counting down the top-50 players in school history, it’s difficult to separate four receivers of recent vintage who comprise the top four spots on the Wildcats’ career list of receptions and receiving yards.
Mike Thomas (2005-08) is the Pac-12 leader in career receptions with 259, moving one past ASU’s Derek Hagan by hauling in a quick pass on the final play of the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl. He is third in school history with 3,231 yards.
The numbers for UA’s Dennis Northcutt (1996-1999) and Bobby Wade (1999-2002) are nearly identical. Northcutt caught 223 passes for 3,252 yards and 24 touchdowns. Wade finished at 230 receptions for a school-best 3,351 yards and 23 scores.
Not much to choose from when trying to separate those three.
And then there’s Juron Criner (2008-2011), who is fourth in Arizona history in receptions (209) and receiving yards (2,859), with his advantage over the others being his height and touchdown-making skills. Criner is the school’s career leader with 32 touchdown receptions.
That quartet all played in the same general era of UA football, when the coaches — from Dick Tomey to John Mackovic to Mike Stoops — had good quarterbacks and could take advantage of the passing game. It’s comparing apples to apples. Pick your favorite flavor.
Northcutt achieved the highest honor of the group, chosen as a consensus All-American as an all-purpose player in 1999. He paired his 88 catches for a school-record 1,422 yards with being the nation’s top punt returner (18.9-yard average, two touchdowns, on 23 attempts).
Through the Pac-10 years, UA had other receivers who shined, albeit not for as long and/or as brightly as the top statistical four. Richard Dice. Jeremy McDaniel. Derek Hill. Terry Vaughn (who went on to set a since-broken Canadian Football League record with 1,006 receptions).
But the one receiver who needs to be added in the discussion comes from the Western Athletic Conference years, when coach Jim Young favored a powerful run offense, sometimes featuring the veer.
Speedy flanker Theopolis “T” Bell, who played from 1972-75, spent more than two decades as the no-doubt reigning top receiver in UA history, following a career in which caught 153 passes for 2,509 yards and 30 touchdowns.
If he had played in a pass-happy era, such as the aforementioned quartet did, would he have posted the same kind of overall numbers? Or would he have exceeded them?
That’s the debate.
Our top-50 countdown of Arizona’s best is 20 percent linebackers, not including a couple of others who just missed the cut, so there should be healthy discussion about how to rank players within that position group. Sean Harris or Marcus Bell? Lance Briggs or Byron Evans? Chris Singleton or Mark Arneson?
Another apples-to-apples debate comes at defensive tackle during a decade in which UA’s talent on the defensive line might have been unmatched, including College Football Hall of Famers Rob Waldrop and Tedy Bruschi, plus one year of Alabama transfer Anthony Smith, the 11th overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft.
Up for specific argument is this trio:
–Dana Wells, voted the Pac-10’s best defensive linemen in 1987 and 1988.
–Chuck Osborne, a sometimes-unsung member of the Desert Swarm teams from 1992-95.
–Joe Salave’a, another first-team all-conference player who extended the program’s excellence at defensive tackle until 1997.
They all have a case for being UA’s second-best defensive lineman of the Pac-10 years, behind Waldrop. Close call.
Other standout defensive linemen from 1987 to 1997 include Reggie Johnson, Ty Parten, Jim Hoffman and Jimmie Hopkins.
“There’s not a lot of question as to why we were so good on defense,” former player and assistant coach Heath Bray said. “Those guys were dominant, dominant players.”