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Arizona notes: Johnson's speed; Tate update; key freshmen

Published: Aug. 17, 2016 at 1:12 AM MST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 at 4:24 PM MST
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Arizona linebacker Paul Magloire interrupted an interview with receiver Tyrell Johnson and asked the pertinent question.

"Do you think you're faster than Usain Bolt?"

Johnson was quick on the reply.

"Yes."

Well ...

Let's just say that Johnson is faster than 99.999 percent of the earth's humans, is brimming with typical sprinter's confidence, and he remains the unchallenged fastest player on the Wildcats.

"Just born with speed, I guess," he said after Tuesday morning's practice.

Now, the trick is to turn that speed into production.

All that alacrity -- he ran the 100 meters in 10.41 seconds for Arizona in the spring of 2015 -- has been tantalizing UA football fans for the past couple of seasons. But Johnson never had much of a chance to use those fleet feet last season.

A foot injury kept him out for the first five games, and a hamstring injury cost him two later games to further sully his sophomore season. He caught four passes for 40 yards and a touchdown, ran five times for 21 yards and was the team's primary kick returner when healthy, averaging 25.5 yards on 16 attempts.

"Just a down season with injuries," said Johnson, who did not compete in track this spring. "I kept care of my body through the spring and summer. I'm healthy now. Really good shape. Feel good."

He says nobody, not even hot-shot freshmen, challenge him much, even when guys get together on the field and see who runs faster.

"I haven't gotten any call-outs," Johnson said. "I don't think they are going to mess with me."

Johnson figures to provide depth at slot receiver behind Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant, and he is ready to reprise his kick-returning role. He had a career-long 56-yarder against USC last season, when he was caught -- pretty much from behind -- by John Plattenburg. Johnson explains.

"I broke out and I didn't see him," he said.

"If I had seen him, I would have crossed the field and out-ran him, but he got me. It definitely haunts me to this day. My teammates mess with me all the time and say he caught me, but he didn't catch me."

But Johnson isn't all about going fast and seeking glory.

His offseason focus was on the grunt work -- watching film to better understand the combination of routes and coverages and how to get open. When he envisions big plays, he doesn't necessarily picture the ball in his hands.

"If I can just make a good block to make a big play, that's good for us," Johnson said.

* * *

I asked coach Rich Rodriguez last Friday about the progress of former four-star linebackers Jamardre Cobb and Marquis Ware.

"They're not on the two-deep," Rodriguez said.

And, now, Cobb isn't even on defense.

Cobb did some good work as a blocking fullback last season before moving back to linebacker in the spring. Cobb, who began fall camp dealing with a minor injury, is back on offense.

Cobb and Ware were teammates at Los Angeles Salesian High School, helping to headline Arizona's 2014 recruiting class.

"They have some talent, but everybody makes judgments based on where recruiting pundits put them," Rodriguez said. "We still think they are good players, but they have some work to do."

* * *

True freshman quarterback Khalil Tate is working behind Anu Solomon and Brandon Dawkins, and could very well redshirt, assuming the top two stay healthy.

Rodriguez said there are no plans to use the Tate as an all-purpose kind of offensive weapon.

"His only purpose right now is to try to learn quarterback," Rodriguez said. "He's not ready for all-purpose. He's ready for one purpose -- learn quarterback."

As for the competition between Solomon and Dawkins, Rodriguez might be getting tired of those questions, but at least he maintains a sense of humor about it:

* * *

Four random Arizona football observations:

1. One freshman whose name keeps popping up is safety Isaiah Hayes, a three-star recruit from Calabasas, Calif. He could time at free safety or as an extra defensive back in passing situations. His father, Chris Hayes, was a defensive back at Washington State and played seven seasons in the NFL.

2. Rodriguez said he is still looking for more depth on the offensive line. One name you should definitely know is redshirt freshman Nathan Eldridge, who could step into the starting center spot.

3. There have been plenty of raves for true freshman J.J. Taylor, a 5-6, 155-pound running back from Centennial High in Corona, Calif. He was the L.A. Times Back of the Year after he rushed for 2,149 yards and 41 touchdowns against some of the best competition in the state.

Taylor could supplement Nick Wilson and Orlando Bradford in the backfield, while also helping Tyrell Johnson return kicks. Johnson might be fast, but Johnson is quick, using superior footwork to juke past defenders.

"You're not going to tackle him one-on-one," Bradford said. "It's like almost impossible with the way he can get around you and make you miss."

4. When people from other parts of the country aren't calling Arizona the "Sun Devils" and referring to Arizona State as the "Wildcats," they might not be paying much attention at all. Check out this clip from Sunday night's episode of Sports Jeopardy!.

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