Arizona football: Spring game observations - Tucson News Now

Arizona football: Spring game observations

(Source: Anthony Gimino) (Source: Anthony Gimino)
By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

The spring game at Arizona has become more of an event -- with live television, fan interaction and a night-time presentation -- but its importance hasn't changed.

Which is to say, it's not all that important.

But after 15 spring practices, capped by just over 100 plays in a simulated scrimmage at Arizona Stadium on Friday night, there have been notable developments for the defending Pac-12 South champions, so let's note them:.

1. Anu Solomon looks good

The sophomore starting quarterback still carries the burden of taking a sack on the final play of the Fiesta Bowl -- he said in a recent interview that he felt like he had to earn back the coaches' trust -- but that kind of motivation isn't a bad thing. His attention to detail has been good.

Technically, everything is an open competition, but Solomon only further secured his starting role this spring, leading the first-team offense to three consecutive touchdowns against the second-team defense to start the spring game.

Solomon was 19 of 25 for 175 yards and two touchdowns.

"He was pretty sharp," said coach Rich Rodriguez, wrapping up his fourth spring. "There were a couple of times where he could have been a little more decisive in his throws, but Anu is a smart guy. He's gotten better. With a great summer, he'll be even better this fall."

The difference this spring, his teammates have said, is in the details. He doesn't go around just offering general encouragement; he is now specific about what a teammate did right or wrong on a play.

"He's really composed back there," senior safety Will Park said of going against Solomon. "I started to see that this spring. He's just sitting back, relaxing, like he's watching a movie, eating some popcorn."

2. Jerrard Randall made strides, too.

What if Solomon goes down to injury? The next guy up would be Randall, a senior who joined the team last fall after playing at junior college and LSU.

Randall is an amazing athlete -- Solomon calls him the team's best running back -- and he has put in a ton of work on his passing. He throws the ball HARD and can chuck it long; he tossed it 70 yards Friday when Arizona brought a fan down to the field to try to out-throw a quarterback. Good luck with that.

Randall's passing problem always has been accuracy, plus he seemed to spend all of last fall playing catch-up in the mental part of the game.

Randall's biggest improvement this spring?

"More than anything else, not only understanding what we do offensively, but what the defense is doing against us and how to attack it," Rodriguez said. "He had some practices where he showed leaps and bounds above where he was last year."

Redshirt freshman Brandon Dawkins led the third-team unit Friday night.

3. The O-line is pretty stable

Four of the positions are set with veterans. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa, a junior, steps in at left tackle; Cayman Bundage returns at left guard; Jacob Alsadek is back at right guard; jack-of-all-trades senior Lene Maiava has found a permanent home at right tackle.

Tagaloa is 6-foot-8, 316 pounds and, if possible, looks even bigger than that.

"He's a monster size-wise," Rodriguez said.

"He casts a shadow bigger than the stadium. He's one of the hardest workers we've got. That in itself is a great example for our guys. If you want to look like that, get in the weight room."

Rodriguez, who had to replace a pair of four-year starters at tackle, said he is much more comfortable about those spots now than he was a month ago.

Regarding Tagaloa, center Carter Wood said: "The biggest thing is he's just a dominant guy in the run game. He's a big, strong guy and he's going to be big in the run for us. I'm excited."

4. About that center spot …

That remains the biggest question mark on offense. Wood, a senior, has a slight edge, but this is going to stay wide-open until fall camp.

"Carter has played a little bit and he's a really competitive guy," Rodriguez said. "We'll see if he takes hold of it this summer."

Junior Zach Hemmila worked with the second-team Friday night, as redshirt freshman Levi Walton, who was the second-team center earlier this spring, moved out to guard. Senior David Catalano, a CDO grad and San Jose State transfer, is in the mix, too, after joining the team this spring.

Rodriguez has lamented too many off-kilter shotgun snaps this spring, and there were a few Friday night that forced the quarterback to reach out and take time to secure the ball. So, at least these guys know what to work on this summer.

5. How about those tight ends?

Rodriguez has talked this spring about using the tight end more, but he's said similar things before, so nobody really believed him. But on Friday night, the UA quarterbacks targeted Josh Kern several times (five catches) and Randall connected with Trevor Wood on a touchdown pass.

The tight end has been mostly forgotten as a weapon in the passing game since Rob Gronkowski last roamed Arizona Stadium in 2008.

"I think that was more catches for tight ends in the history of Arizona football, maybe even when Gronk was here," Rodriguez said of the action Friday night. "I think maybe even Gronk would look at that and say, 'Whoa, what's happening?' Yeah, we may throw the ball to the tight end once or twice."

6. A backup running back has emerged

Sophomore Nick Wilson was held out of contact this spring, and senior Jared Baker took advantage of the increased opportunity to solidify his backup role, including scoring twice Friday night, once when he fought his way out of an attempted tackle by linebacker Cody Ippolito.

"Jared has had a great spring," Rodriguez said. "He's put himself in a position where we are going to put him in the regular rotation."

One to watch for the fall: Incoming freshman Orlando Bradford.

7. Still waiting on some young guys

Linebackers Marquis Ware and Jamardre Cobb, high school teammates and four-star recruits in Arizona's 2014 class, are still trying to crack the second team. Same goes for another touted member of that class -- 300-pound defensive lineman Marcus Griffin. Patience.

8. Remember this name

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Tony Ellison didn't have a lot of buzz when he signed in 2014, following a senior season cut short because of a knee injury. He's a speedster who had a couple of catches Friday night.

"He has a lot of good releases," Parks said. "He definitely has made a lot of good strides. He's a good player."

Arizona still overflows with receivers.

9. Multi-task with those receivers

Sophomore slow receiver Tyrell Johnson, the team's fastest player, also lined up in the backfield as a running back Friday night. However, Arizona can get him the ball is a good idea. Jonathan Haden is a former slot receiver who worked at running back this spring. Even junior receiver Samajie Grant could take some direct handoffs, Rodriguez said.

Bottom line: The offense has a lot of weapons and can get creative.

10. The DaVonte Neal experiment looks good

The junior asked to move from receiver to cornerback after last season, and he worked with the second-team unit Friday night. Cam Denson and Devin Holiday were the first-team corners. Jarvis McCall, a sophomore who was a starter for most of last season, was sidelined this spring because of a shoulder injury.

"He's really gotten better every day," Rodriguez said of Neal. "He's more confident than he was a month ago. He moved over there to help us at that position immediately, and I think he'll do that."

Redshirt freshman Devon Brewer is an under-the-radar possibility at corner -- a position where Arizona definitely needs competition and depth.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

Copyright 2015 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.
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