Like many others on his team and around the country, Christian Young opted out of the 2020 football season.
The veteran Arizona defender had injured his ankle during training camp. He appeared in the season opener, but the ankle wasn’t getting any better. So Young went home to Houston to focus on his schoolwork and rehab his injury.
“I watched the rest of the games with my Pops,” Young said Saturday after the Wildcats’ first full scrimmage of spring. “It was hard not being on the sideline. I was cheering my team from the couch.”
The time away made Young appreciate “just how much I missed football. It’s just an itch. I love football. ... It made me realize I need to be here.”
Young knew Arizona would be changing coaches after an 0-5 season capped by a 70-7 loss to rival Arizona State. He resolved to give the new staff a chance.
Thus far, it has turned out to be a perfect pairing. Don Brown’s defense features a position called the “Viper” that’s essentially a cross between a safety and a linebacker. It’s ideally suited to Young’s skill set.
“We just really liked his athleticism,” said Keith Dudzinski, who coaches the Vipers and “Sam” linebackers. “The thing we didn’t know is how physical he would be up at the line of scrimmage. He’s shown he’s definitely physical. He’s covered tight ends. He’s made a lot of plays in spring. So I’m real happy with what he’s done so far.”
Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is probably the most well-known Viper to have worked in Brown’s system. Peppers notched 66 tackles, including 13 stops for losses, and an interception in 2016 under Brown. Peppers was the 25th pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
Young (6-2, 214) is a big longer than Peppers (5-11, 215) but fits the mold that Brown and Dudzinski are seeking. Dudzinski, who has worked under Brown off and on for more than 20 years, described the Viper as follows:
“Kind of a hybrid. He’s got to do all three phases. He’s got to be able to rush the passer. He’s got to be able to stop the run. And then he also has the ability to go back on the third level and play some half field, play some middle-field stuff and have some man-coverage skills.”
Young has played the equivalent of strong safety at the UA. He has 39 tackles, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 24 career games. He has nudged ahead of veteran Rourke Freeburg at the Viper spot for the time being.
“Getting another chance to play football, being on the field with my teammates, I can’t be more grateful,” Young said.
Offense, Curry surging
Although the defense was credited with winning the scrimmage, the offense performed better than it had recently. The uptick began toward the end of Thursday’s practice.
“We definitely were better, and we were better today,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said. “That’s what it’s gonna look like. The offense takes a little bit longer. We talked about it earlier: Every block has to be crisp, and every route has to be detailed.
“But I like the way our quarterbacks are throwing the ball downfield ... and I thought our running game has gotten much better over the last two practices as well.”
The breakout offensive player during the scrimmage was third-year receiver Boobie Curry. Curry had had a relatively quiet camp before snatching a short pass from Will Plummer in the middle of the field and pulling away from the defense for a 68-yard touchdown.
Curry later gained 21 yards with a twisting grab on a back-shoulder throw from Plummer up the right sideline. Curry scored another touchdown on a fly sweep.
“We were talking about this ... you could see him taking strides with the more confidence he has in the system,” Fisch said. “Early on in camp it was a lot of thinking and a lot of slow play. Now you can see that he’s very comfortable. He’s working very hard at it.”
Fisch said receivers coach Kevin Cummings “has done an incredible job” getting Curry “from point A to point J. He’s taken a big jump over the course of this camp.”
Curry, who’s also from Houston, has 16 catches for 157 yards in 14 games as a Wildcat. He considered transferring in the offseason after quarterback Grant Gunnell, his teammate in high school and college, left for Memphis.
But Curry decided to return to Arizona, and he’s starting to show the talent that made him a coveted recruit in the class of 2019.
- Plummer has improved considerably over the past two practices after struggling for a stretch. He has closed the gap with QB competitor Gunner Cruz.
- Cruz threw three touchdown passes, including two to tight end Stacey Marshall. On both occasions, Cruz maneuvered out of the pocket, kept his eyes downfield and delivered a strike. He overthrew a handful of deep balls, including one to Stanley Berryhill III that would have been a sure touchdown.
- Freshman tailback Stevie Rocker Jr. continued to flash playmaking ability, breaking into the secondary for an 80-yard run. Walk-on Jashon Butler, who has shifted from receiver to tailback, also showed speed and elusiveness in the open field, including an 18-yard touchdown run that saw him spin away from a defender near the goal line.
- The defensive standouts included end Nahe Sulunga and cornerback Treydan Stukes. Sulunga frequently penetrated the backfield, continuing a strong camp. Stukes broke up a pair of passes in the end zone.
- Fisch on having Dudzinski on staff to work alongside Brown: “It’s like having Coach (Jimmie) Dougherty for me. It’s that binky. It’s that security blanket. It’s that guy that you know you can just rely upon, that other coaches can go to and ask questions like, ‘What does he really want here? What is he really asking for?’ ”
- Dudzinski on whether Brown has changed over the years: “Not a bit. He’s still energetic. He’s the same guy, with maybe a little more gray. That’s about it.”
- Second-year tailback Jalen John got banged up early in the scrimmage after taking a hard hit from linebacker Anthony Pandy and did not return.
- Offensive lineman Donovan Laie, tight end Roberto Miranda and defensive backs Isaiah Mays and Rhedi Short remained limited. Tailback Michael Wiley, safety Gunner Maldonado and defensive linemen Trevon Mason and Dion Wilson Jr. were among the players who did not participate.
- The players wore game uniforms for the scrimmage, and the coaches communicated via headsets as they would during a game.
- Former Arizona coach Jim Young attended practice.
- A mix of DMX songs was played at the start of practice. The popular rapper, 50, died earlier this week.
- Fisch said he’s considering moving next Saturday’s scrimmage from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The later start time likely would draw a bigger crowd than the few hundred who attended Saturday’s midday workout.