April 11, 2006
Tucson, AZ (CSTV U-WIRE) -- While freshmen Willie Tuitama and Mike Thomas emerged as the Arizona football team's most exciting pass-catch duo in recent memory last season, junior wide receiver Syndric Steptoe seemed to go from the Wildcats' No. 1 option the year before to just another set of hands.
That may have changed in a single play Saturday in the Wildcats' second spring scrimmage at Arizona Stadium.
Steptoe, streaking up the right sideline, dropped just underneath a Tuitama pass in the glaring morning sun and ran it in 78 yards for a score.
It was the offense's longest gain of the day, but more importantly, the performance encompassed all the things - good hands, timing and route running - that Arizona head coach Mike Stoops wants to see out of the position this fall.
"He's always been the most dependable receiver we've had," said redshirt junior quarterback Adam Austin. "We've had a lot of injuries at receiver, so I think he's been the most consistent."
A quick look at the numbers tells that much. As the team's primary kick returner in 2005, Steptoe bested his yards-per-return average by almost three yards, to 25.6. At receiver, he set career highs in yards (493) and receptions (37).
Yet when it came to the big play, the diminutive Steptoe (listed at 5-foot-9) fell short.
His overall numbers virtually mirrored those of unheralded sophomore Anthony Johnson (32 receptions, 419 yards), who bested Steptoe in both scores (three to one) and longest gain (68 to 37). Obviously, it didn't help that Johnson played one more game than Steptoe. But a bigger influence was Thomas' breakthrough rookie season, in which he set freshman team records for receptions (52) and yards (771).
Should those trends repeat again, Steptoe said, he won't be worried about the competition.
"We know what each one of us can do in our receiving groups, so we just got to go out and support each other," he said. "If I have a good game, I expect them to back me up, and if they have a good game, I expect to back them up."
Backups are already plentiful at receiver this spring, to say nothing of the potential impacts of incoming freshmen Terrell Reese, Terrell Turner and DelaShaun Dean.
Stoops said one of the team's most impressive wideouts in the early going has been redshirt freshman Bobby McCoy, a track and field athlete who had four receptions for 82 yards Saturday.
"He needs more reps, but he has great speed," Stoops said. "We just need to keep finding ways to get him the ball. He needs to keep polishing up his route running, and that's something I think he's gotten better at. He's got a chance to play a lot for us this year."
Any receiver looking for a bargaining chip to see more time on the field might follow Steptoe's example and go deep.
It couldn't hurt. The downfield pass has been a sore spot for the offense in its two scrimmages, with Tuitama in particular missing open bodies.
Stoops said developing that dimension of the passing game will be emphasized all the way until the Sept. 2 season opener against Brigham Young.
"We're getting better," Stoops said. "We're trying to get the ball (thrown) more vertically. People want to crowd us at the line of scrimmage. We have to throw the ball down the field."
Despite the struggles to do so thus far, Austin said he's confident he and Tuitama will soon pick up the pace.
"We can definitely make those throws," Austin said. "We just got to get it to the receivers. We've stretched it a little bit from last year."
Any meaningful progress may depend on the health of Thomas, whose stitched and scarred left hand resembles a small baseball glove months after he broke it against Washington Nov. 12.
Despite jamming a finger on that hand in the last couple of days, Thomas said he feels healthy.
"You're going to go through your ups and downs, but everybody goes through that," he said. "You just try to come out here and work."
(C) 2006 Arizona Daily Wildcat via CSTV U-WIRE