Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Wide Receiver – Arizona Wildcats
The first day of fall practice will start on Thursday, August 6th for the Arizona Wildcats, but a familiar face will be missing on offense. The ‘Cats will be without the Pac-10’s all-time leading receiver Mike Thomas.
Thomas, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, finished his spectacular UA career with a conference-record 259 receptions, and accounted for 3,231 receiving yards and 22 TDs as a four-year starter.
Although Thomas was the heartbeat of the receiving corps over the last four years, the Wildcats will now move on with a trio of excellent pass-catching playmakers. Arizona’s innovative offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes will have two of the more experienced receivers in the conference at his disposal, as well as the services of America’s best tight end.
Junior Delashaun Dean was last year’s second leading receiver for UA (behind Mike Thomas). Dean finished 2008 with 53 receptions for 593 yards and four touchdowns, capped off by a great performance in the Las Vegas Bowl against BYU.
Dean totaled seven catches for 88 yards and a score against the Cougars, helping UA win their first bowl game since 1998. For his career, the junior has 90 catches for 1,011 yards and five touchdowns.
At 6-4 202 pounds, Dean possesses excellent size and great hands. He uses his long arms in a similar manner to former USC standout Dwayne Jarrett, catching the ball at its highest point and leaving most defensive backs helpless.
The former two-sport standout at Fairfield High School (CA) uses his basketball instincts and leaping ability very well, which make him especially valuable when he is matched up one on one. He was rated as a 4-star prospect by Scout.com, and recognized as a SuperPrep All-American.
Dean has solid speed (4.5) and can be deceptively good after the catch. Dykes’ playbook features a variety of receiver screens that are designed to put wideouts in space, and Dean should continue to flourish in these schemes as both a pass-catcher and blocker. He will enter the 2009 season as one of the primary targets for the ‘Cats offense.
Joining Dean as a starter at wideout will be senior Terrell Turner. Last season, Turner finished a productive junior campaign with 43 receptions for 580 yards and one touchdown. For his career, Turner has 94 catches for 1,162 yards and five touchdowns. Like Dean, Turner was also a big contributor in the Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU, with four catches for 111 yards (27.8 YPC).
The 6-2 190 pound senior is a superb route-runner, with enough speed and quickness to pile up yards after the catch. He also has some of the best hands on the team, giving Dykes a reliable wideout who can act as the team’s possession receiver. The Garland (TX) native will provide the receiving corps with senior leadership, a role that Mike Thomas occupied last season.
In the spring game, Turner endeared himself to his teammates (half of them at least) by catching the game-winning TD pass from Matt Scott. His clutch reception allowed the White Team to eat a fancy steak dinner later that night, while the Blue Team ate hot dogs and hamburgers. Turner enters fall as a clear starter along with Dean.
One young receiver that will try to breakout for the ‘Cats this season is redshirt sophomore William “Bug” Wright. At 5-9 175 pounds, Wright is built similarly to Mike Thomas, and could take on the same role in this year’s offense.
Many around the Old Pueblo believe “Bug” may be utilized in the slot, on reverses, and in the return game the same way that Thomas was used. His only action during 2008 was in the season opener against Idaho where he caught three passes for 42 yards, but he will see the field a lot more in 2009.
Wright’s skill set is unlike any other player on the UA roster. He has game-breaking speed and rare instincts in the open field. Wright has made remarkable progress at wideout since arriving at Arizona. The Tatum (OK) native was a high school QB at Pauls Valley H.S., and had never played receiver until arriving in Tucson.
Wright enters the fall with a great chance to start as the slot receiver for the Wildcats this season, and could become a primary return man as well.
Fellow sophomore Juron Criner will also have a chance to play often this season. As a true freshman, Criner played in all 13 games and started three. He flashed his ability with 7 receptions for 88 yards and one touchdown.
The 6-4 210 pounds Criner has tremendous upside, and possesses the physical tools to be a difference maker for Arizona. He has greatly improved in one season under the UA coaching staff, and could see his playing time increase dramatically in 2009.
The Las Vegas (NV) native was also a very good basketball player at Canyon Spring High School, and could become a factor in the red zone this season. He will compete for time as the primary backup to Terrell Turner.
Arizona returns arguably the best tight end in all of college football, junior Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is one of the favorites for the Mackey Award (Best Tight End in Nation) this season, and is on numerous pre-season All-American lists.
Last season, he finished first on the team with 10 receiving TDs to go along with 47 receptions for 672 yards. In his two-year career, the junior has 75 receptions for 1,197 yards and 16 TDs, making him the school-record holder for career receptions, yards, and TDs by a tight end. He is also the single-game and single-season school record holder for the same categories.
At 6-6 265 pounds, Gronkowski is one of the most complete tight ends to come out of the conference in years. He possesses a devastating skill set, with equally great blocking and receiving abilities, as well as remarkable speed for a player his size (4.6).
Gronkowski is a dominant force in the intermediate passing game, with the ability to run past linebackers and shrug off defensive backs. He has become a very good route-runner under Dykes, which was thought to be his only real weakness when he entered college. He was also instrumental in the prolific Arizona running game last season, helping to open holes for Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin.
The Amherst (NY) native was a high school football star at Woodland Hills High in Pittsburgh (PA). He garnered PrepStar All-American honors, and was given a 4-star rating by Scout and Rivals.com.
He enters 2009 as the focal point of the Arizona passing attack, and one of the biggest stars in the conference.
There will actually be two Gronkowski’s lining up for the Wildcats this season. Senior Chris Gronkowski is the older brother of Rob, and a good player in his own right. The former Maryland transfer will be Arizona’s H-Back this season because of his versatile skill set. Last season, he caught eight passes for 198 yards and three TDs.
On top of being a solid pass-catcher, the 6-2 235 pound senior is a great lead blocker, and will be involved heavily in the running attack this season. He is an intelligent player, and will give the Wildcats an experienced senior leader. The Amherst (NY) native should contribute in a big way this fall.
Other receivers and tight ends competing for time are: junior A.J. Simmons, sophomores Devin Veal and David Douglas, and freshmen Travis Cobb, DeWayne Peace, Terrence Miller, and Jake Baucus.
You would think that the loss of the conference’s all-time leading receiver would be a lot for Arizona to overcome this year, but the program is doing just fine. In fact, receiver is one of the strongest units on the team and the talent is in place for this group to have a big year even with a new QB.
Dean is more than capable of surpassing his totals from last year, and Turner is as well. I think Wright is the key for the wide receivers this season, and if he turns out to be half as good in the slot as Thomas was last year, the ‘Cats will have another successful passing attack.
There is no doubt in my mind that Rob Gronkowsi is the best tight end in America, and I expect him to prove it all season long. He makes every other player on the Arizona offense better, because the defense must account for him at all times. I would not be surprised to see him win the Mackey Award this year, as long as either Scott or Foles can settle in as the starting QB.
The losses of Willie Tuitama and Mike Thomas may cause a decline in sheer numbers, but expect Sonny Dykes to make great use of these talented pass-catchers in 2009.