Arizona opened its full practice to the media for the first time in fall camp, and here is some of what I thought I saw:
1. Trevor Wood looks good like a tight end should
Nobody has ever looked like Rob Gronkowski in an Arizona uniform, but Wood fits the profile as well as any tight end since GRONK! roamed the field for the Wildcats. And considering UA’s receiving corps lacks size and experience, let’s just go ahead and say this — stop us if you’ve heard this before — Arizona needs to throw the dang ball to the tight ends.
“He’s having a really good camp. He’s healthy. This is the best Trevor has looked in his career,” coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Wood, a redshirt junior, was targeted plenty in the 11-on-11 parts of Saturday night’s practice. He is 6-foot-4, 265 pounds and looks capable of matching his seven catches from last year in the season-opener. He sat out the 2015 season because of injury.
“I think he’s more confident because he’s been healthy for a whole year,” Rodriguez said. “That’s been the issue with him before.”
And before you jump on me and say “we hear this every year!” … TE Trevor Wood made some really nice plays tonight. Now can he get the ball? pic.twitter.com/XMd3DGdSZ6
2. The running backs will help in the passing game, too
Arizona’s backfield talent is the strongest area of the team, led by senior Nick Wilson, redshirt freshman J.J. Taylor, true freshman Nathan Tilford, big-back senior Zach Green and true freshman Gary Brightwell.
Taylor is fabulous in space and can line up in the slot. Wilson took some reps there, too, Saturday night. Tilford caught a touchdown pass in team drills.
The more running backs you can get on the field at the same time, the better — especially because this team is not overflowing with proven slot receivers.
“They all have good ball skills. There is not a running back we have that can’t catch the ball well,” Rodriguez said. “Whether we catch it out of the backfield or line them up wide, which we’ll do on occasion, it’s a good group with good ball skills.”
3. Young linebackers look the part
Rodriguez told the Pac-12 Network at the league’s media day last month that this group of freshman linebackers reminds him of his 2013 group, which included Scooby Wright, Jake Matthews, Derrick Turituri and current fifth-year senior DeAndre’ Miller.
This group includes Tony Fields, who enrolled early and earned good reviews in the spring, as well as Colin Schooler, Josh Brown and Anthony Pandy.
“I think Tony has a chance to be really good,” first-year linebackers coach Scott Boone said. “Tony’s biggest strength is how hard he plays and his biggest weakness is how he tries to make every play. He has to learn that his plays will come to him.”
As for Schooler, Boone said, “I think physically, he looks like a linebacker that can play in the Pac-12.”
Beyond the true freshmen, Arizona has redshirt freshmen Gavin Robertson (a converted safety) and Jacob Colacion. The future looks pretty bright.
In the short term, though, Arizona’s is going to be really young at the middle and weak-side linebacker spots, with junior Brandon Rutt (27 career tackles) being the grizzled vet. That youth could keep schemes vanilla and lead to various growing pains.
“Our blessing is we have a bunch of young guys,” Boone said. “Our curse is we have a bunch of young guys.”
4. The young safeties look the part, too
Arizona’s 2016 class produced promising Isaiah Hayes (seven starts, 38 tackles) and Tristan Cooper (five starts, 35 tackles), among others. True freshman safeties earning good reviews in early camp are Troy Young from Mobile, Ala., and Scottie Young Jr. from San Diego’s Helix High.
“Last year was a good group; a lot of those guys played as true freshmen,” Rodriguez said. “This group is comparable. Troy Young, Scottie Young, they are advanced physically as true freshmen. We knew that, but mentally they’ve caught on pretty good.
“They’re going to make mistakes, and that’s why the next couple of weeks are pretty critical. But I like what I see.”
5. Brandon Dawkins is the starting quarterback
There is a lot of camp left, of course, but nothing through the first week of camp indicates that Dawkins, a junior, is going to be overtaken by sophomore Khalil Tate.
Dawkins’ goal in the spring was to — in quarterbacks coach Rod Smith’s words — “tighten down” his throwing motion, which, as far as you tell from a practice setting, looked good. There’s that. And Rodriguez said coaches have been working with all the quarterbacks to “trust the timing of the routes.”
While improvement in the passing game won’t become clear until games begin, it’s nice to have Tate pushing Dawkins and to be a talented Plan B, but a shake-up in the pecking order does not appear imminent.
“There is no throw I can’t make,” Dawkins said last week. “It’s just being able to anticipate a throw and be able to get it there on time to get a completion out of it, that’s going to be the biggest step for me to take.”