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Arizona Wildcats notebook: Freshman receiver makes early impression

Nate Phillips Basha High

Nate Phillips, who played at Basha High, is giving his new teammates something to clap about. Photo by Pat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic

The Arizona Wildcats played nine true freshmen last season, and coach Rich Rodriguez could use a similar number — if not more — this season as he is still trying to patch holes in the two deep and on special teams.

And especially at receiver.

Even with the bulk of fall camp still ahead and Rodriguez notoriously reluctant to give too many details about personnel, he did divulge the name of one freshman who has impressed him so far: Slot receiver Nate Phillips.

Phillips (5-7, 171) made 76 receptions for 1,223 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior at Chandler Basha High School last season, when he also earned All-Arizona honors from the Arizona Republic as a kick returner.

“He’s a quick learner, very conscientious,” Rodriguez said. “Doesn’t look like he is going to be redshirting.”

Wide receiver is a position of need for the Wildcats, so the opportunity is there for true freshmen and walk-ons.

Austin Hill is out with a torn ACL, Tyler Slavin was dismissed from the team, and David Richards is out right now after foot surgery. He might be able to make it back for the start of the season, Rodriguez said.

And then a trio of incoming freshmen who could have been in the mix in the slot — T.J. Johnson, Mauriece Lee and Lee Walker — were academic casualties.

Senior Terrence Miller and junior Garic Wharton were projected to be working mostly as slot receivers, but this is why Rodriguez likes to cross-train his pass-catchers. Miller and Wharton have been practicing at the outside spots (Miller’s size and Wharton’s straight-line speed are both useful out there) early in camp, further opening the door for someone like Phillips.

“He has a lot of speed,” said safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant, often matched up against Phillips in practice drills. “Nice shifty moves. His speed, his quickness and moves will definitely help him play.”

Phillips, by the way, is listed as “James Phillips” on the Arizona roster, because that’s the name he put down on his questionnaire for the athletic department’s communication services department. Nate is his middle name, and the name he was known by in high school football.

“We call him Nate,” Rodriguez said.

* * *

The Wildcats practiced on their new FieldTurf CoolPlay surface at Arizona Stadium for the first time Monday night. The team will use the stadium and the revamped Kindall/Sancet baseball stadium as its practice homes during the season.

“The players probably like it because it’s a confined space and they probably don’t have to run as far,” Rodriguez said of practicing at the stadium.

“It worked out all right. I like practicing in the stadium on occasion just from an atmosphere standpoint and to kind of change the look.”

Safety Jared Tevis said he prefers playing on turf because he’s able to make quick cuts in pass coverage.

“It’s incredible with the turf and stadium being done,” Tevis said of practicing in Arizona Stadium with the new Lowell-Stevens Football Facility that encloses the north end.

“We can’t wait to go out there and play. We feel like nobody should be able to beat us on our practice field, you know?”

* * *

Junior quarterback Jesse Scroggins, who missed the first two practices because of a concussion, participated Monday night.

He missed virtually all of spring because of toe surgery following his transfer from junior college, so he’ll have to quickly show the coaches what he can do in camp as he competes, mainly, with senior B.J. Denker and true freshman Anu Solomon.

“Jesse did all right,” Rodriguez said. “He’s still learning what’s going on. I think his footwork was rushed a little bit just because he’s excited to be out there.”

The coaches likely will pare a six-deep QB race to three by the end of next week, Rodriguez said.

The coach has kept all the quarterbacks off limits to the media so far.

“I just don’t want to throw one out there,” he said, “and then you guys assume that guy is the guy. I am being honest with you; I don’t know who the guy is. Every day it changes.”

* * *

No word Monday on the eligibility status of Notre Dame transfer receiver Davonte’ Neal; we’ll check again Tuesday. … Arizona’s first practice in full pads will be Wednesday morning before the team leaves for four days of camp at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista. … Senior Jake Smith, the presumptive starter at kicker (although the fall competition has really yet to begin), is also making the coaches take notice of his punting skills. Rodriguez said he is not opposed to someone handling both jobs, but sophomore Drew Riggleman has been considered the man to beat at punter.

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