Gimino: Solomon sharp in scrimmage

Gimino: Solomon sharp in scrimmage
(Source: University of Arizona)

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - At various times in Arizona's fall camp, we've heard that sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon has more zip on his throws, is more of a leader, is smarter diagnosing a play.

All of those traits -- and more -- looked good in the Wildcats' fall scrimmage on a steamy Saturday morning at their practice facility on campus.

With the first-team offense working against the second-team defense, Solomon threw five touchdown passes, including a pair that covered about 50 yards -- a deep throw to Cayleb Jones, who made an over-the-shoulder catch, and a strong seam pass to slot receiver Nate Phillips.

"Anu was pretty sharp," said coach Rich Rodriguez.

"I think his arm is a little stronger, but I think it's also that maybe he's more decisive, too, because he's more sure of what everyone is doing so it looks crisper at times. I think his grasp of the offense is about exactly where we want it to be at this point in camp."

The Cats ran about 100 plays and didn't have any apparent injuries, so that was all good with the opener against UTSA -- on Thursday, Sept. 3 -- less than two weeks away. The scrimmage ended the "camp" portion of fall, as Arizona will get more into game-week mode after classes start Monday.

There hasn't been much movement during camp in terms of the first-stringers. The season-ending injury to Carter Wood, the frontrunner at center, forced left guard Cayman Bundage to center. There were no problems with his shotgun snaps Saturday. Zach Hemmila came out with the first team at left guard, but T.D. Gross also saw some time with the 1s.

On defense, true freshman cornerback Sammy Morrison continued to work with the first team, as did DaVonte' Neal at the other corner. Neal, while on his back, intercepted a tipped pass from Jerrard Randall on Saturday. Sani Fuimaono took first-team reps at nose guard, with Parker Zellers on the second unit. Luca Bruno has emerged as the starting defensive tackle.

Depth on the offensive line and in the secondary are the foremost reasons to keep fingers crossed about Arizona's chances of winning a second consecutive Pac-12 South title.

"We still have to get better at the 2s -- the 2s on offense and the 2s on defense," Rodriguez said. "We still have to get more guys ready to play. We can't play just 11 on either side with our schedule and expect to last."

Phillips, whose 2014 season was cut short by a foot injury, caught two touchdown passes Saturday, looking very much like he did in 2013, when he led the team in receptions (51), receiving yards (696) and receiving touchdowns (seven).

The receiver position (Phillips, Cayleb Jones, Samajie Grant, David Richards, etc.) is still one of the great strengths of the team, especially with Solomon having a year of seasoning and able to maximize the pass-catching talent.

"His control is his biggest improvement," Phillips said. "If he sees something, he will check out of it and get us in a better play, or he's changing the run direction to where it's a better matchup for us. It's just experience."

Senior Johnny Jackson, once lost in the numbers of the defensive backfield, has emerged as a player at his old position wide receiver. He caught one of Solomon's five touchdown passes.

Free safety Jamar Allah said Solomon has even been helping coach up the defense by offering tips on how to better disguise its coverages.

"He makes better decisions," Allah said, offering a scouting report on Solomon. "He's not just going to throw a pick. He's going to roll out or throw it to the ground or throw it out of bounds. I think he's gotten a lot smarter and a lot more aware."

Solomon wasn't made available to the media after the scrimmage, but earlier in camp he talked about having more oomph on his passes.

"This year, I challenged myself to throw in the middle," he said. "Last year, I wasn't very good at throwing in the middle. This year, I'm putting more mustard on the ball in the middle."

He also found top target Jones, who beat sophomore cornerback Kwesi Mashack in man-to-man coverage, on a 68-yard sideline deep ball.

Some of the team's biggest stars -- such as linebacker Scooby Wright and running back Nick Wilson -- didn't need to play much Saturday. Freshmen that continue to push for playing time are Morrison, slot receiver Shun Brown, free safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and running back Orlando Bradford (who appears to be fighting for third-team reps behind Wilson and Jared Baker).

Bradford, while working with the 1st team, scored on a 22-yard run up the middle.

Freshman running back Branden Leon also showed promise. Leon had a 34-yard run, followed that with a punishing carry up the middle and finished the drive with a two-yard inside touchdown run on 4th down.

The season-opener is rapidly approaching.

"It seems too far away," Allah said. "I want to get it up and going."

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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.

David Kelly contributed to this story.