Last year there was a lot of optimism about the wide receiving corps. There were several returning players and the promise of some young talent in the fold. Sadly, the group was inconsistent. Dropped passes were costly in the loss at UCLA and a lack of playmakers hurt the team's chances in several other games.
The unit does not lose a lot. Ricky Williams has graduated and Biren Ealy was dismissed from the team. Other than that the entire unit is back and the Cats add a number of talented newcomers to the mix and hope to gain some consistency.
Last season the most consistent receiver was Syndric Steptoe. Although the junior is on the wrong side of six-feet, he has reliable hands and good speed. He is one of the swiftest players on the team and has some shifty moves in the open field. Though he is better suited as a slot receiver, Steptoe was a big play guy for the Wildcats. He had two touchdowns against Washington State, including a 47-yarder. He also had a 50-yard gain.
All told he had 30 grabs for 446 yards and three scores.
Mike Jefferson could be known as "Mr. Spring". He's a player who has been the team's best receiver each of the last two spring practices, but that did not transfer to the field last year. He was not terrible, averaging 15.6 yards a catch and scoring three times, but he only caught 16 balls.
Jefferson has the size and speed desired in a receiver. He has all the tools to be a prime-time player, but to date has only shown flashes of the talent. He finished the year strong by catching two touchdowns against ASU and also had a 44-yarder for the UA's lone score against the Wisconsin.
How good are his physical gifts? The TFY Draft Preview rated him as one of the top-10 receiver prospects in 2006, regardless of class. The junior has yet to put up what could be described as a star season, but he has turned some heads.
"Jefferson is a big play wideout that possesses a solid burst of speed and does a nice job getting vertical to make the deep reception in stride," the preview wrote. "Possessing outstanding timing, Jefferson has top eye\hand coordination as well at strong hands. Consistently coming up with the important catch during the game's critical moments, Jefferson has a bright future in the NFL if he takes his game to the next level and plays hard for 60 minutes."
One player who is expected to make an instant impact is JC transfer B.J. Vickers. Vickers gives the Wildcats something they have not had before: an intimidating presence. You can't miss him on the field. He's the tallest, thickest receiver. He's the guy who is big, yet fluid. Other teams have had these guys. You know, big, fast, athletic receivers. Washington had Reggie Williams. UCLA had Brian Poly Dixon. USC has had about 15 of these guys.
Arizona has had either small, fast receivers like Dennis Northcutt and Bobby Wade, or bigger receivers who lacked freak athleticism. Vickers has a chance to be the player that Ealy never wanted to work to be. In fact, Vickers brings more to the table. Size is important, but it is nothing without skill, and all those who have seen Vickers feel that he has that in spades.
"He makes us better by 100 yards a game next year," said offensive coordinator Mike Canales. "He is just a special player and a truly special threat. He can take a two-yard hitch route to the house and he can stretch the field in a seam. He can do it all as a wide receiver. He is an amazing addition to our offense."
Vickers had a great start to the spring, but seemed to hit a wall after the first few weeks. Much of that was due to the higher intensity level of D-I football compared to that of junior college.
"It's a big adjustment," Vickers said. "At a JC it is really at your own pace, now it is all business at a fast tempo. It is all about how hard you work."
Anthony Johnson is another kid who passes the eyeball test, but has yet to put it all together. He had an inconsistent season. Although he played in 10 games he had just 13 catches for 90 yards and rarely caught a pass far downfield.
He was more reliable in the spring. He was solid throughout and had one scrimmage where he caught eight passes for 101 yards and a score.
One thing that Johnson has never been afraid of is hard work. His brother is a former NFL wide receiver who was also his high school coach and the older Johnson has instilled a work ethic in the Wildcat sophomore.
"I try to find stuff everyday to make myself better," said Johnson. "I don't ever want become satisfied or complacent. I try to challenge myself everyday, to compete more and just push myself."
Johnson looks like he will be the physical receiver many hoped he could be. He can take short passes and run over smaller defensive backs.
Two redshirt freshmen also have a chance to see the field. Many felt that Bobby McCoy was good enough to play last year, but the coaching staff really wanted the slight receiver to add muscle and have four good years, rather than spend his first year as a little-used reserve.
This year there are high hopes for the speedster from Houston. McCoy had a solid but not spectacular spring, but a lot of that was due to the fact that McCoy is a two-sport standout. McCoy, in addition to spring drills, was a sprinter on the Wildcat track team. He had slimmed down due to the track training regimen, but as fall camp begins he should be much closer to his ideal playing weight. McCoy is a terrific athlete who has incredible speed and should be a guy who can stretch the field.
Gerold Rodriguez may want to make his own name at Arizona, but he keeps getting compared to former Wildcat great Bobby Wade. He's a tad undersized, but has good speed and is shifty. He can do some damage in the open field and is a threat to take any underneath pass a long way. Like Wade, he also has some speed to stretch the field.
"I can see why people compare us, we do a lot of the same things," Rodriguez noted. "But I think I am my own player. We aren't just alike. I do a lot of things my own way."
Rodriguez played well in the spring, but really stood out in the spring game. The redshirt freshman had not done a whole lot in public scrimmages, but made three tough catches in the spring game, two for scores. His hands look great and if the game was a true indication of what he can do then he looks like a target who can make the difficult grab.
One wildcard is incoming freshman Michael Thomas. He may be short, but he is a muscular receiver. He's a versatile player with great speed. He will see the field at wide receiver, but can be used out of the backfield as well. Thomas has the ability to make big plays with his quickness and shifty moves.
Although he is not the most experienced player--his high school team executed a run-based offense--he has a chance to see the field. A redshirt may be optimal but the Cats won't hold him back if he's ready to contribute. They need help at receiver and he could also see time the field early as a kick returner.
Ryan Eidson received a scholarship in January. The former walk-on has the speed to be a contributor, but is a bit on the short side and is not the most physical guy. He has reliable hands and should see some action. Pima transfer Aaron Butler has the athleticism to be a pretty nice receiver, but does not look ready to make an impact this season.
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