Spring ball is in full effect, and playmakers from Arizona State, Arizona and Northern Arizona are gearing up for the fall. Here are players from each side of the ball that could help their teams make the jump and become household names on the national landscape:
Arizona State Sun Devils
WR Tim White
With Devin Lucien and D.J. Foster moving on, White is far and away the team’s leading receiver. There are so many questions swirling around who will take the reigns at quarterback. Whoever earns the starting job will have a reliable target who hauled in eight touchdowns in his first season with the Sun Devils. The redshirt senior will have the luxury of having deep threat Cam Smith on the field with him, who was out last year due to injury. White also brings a dynamic that Todd Graham teams lacked over the years: a reliable option as a kick returner. White averaged 29 yards per return last year including this one he brought back for a touchdown against Utah.
LBs Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam
With a high roster turnover in the secondary, the front seven will need to pack a punch until the unit gets their feet under them. Enter Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam. The two leading tacklers from 2015 return and combined for 26.5 tackles for loss last year.
RB Nick Wilson
The Arizona running back burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2014, rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. He followed that up with a solid sophomore campaign where he ran for 725 yards and eight scores. He had injury issues in the second half of the season that knocked him out of four games completely and was limited in three others. Wilson is looking to come back in a big way in 2016 as he tries to keep that average yards per carry close to six yards per touch. Having a workhorse like Wilson in the backfield can help quarterback Anu Solomon, who is also coming off an injury-plagued 2015.
LBs Jake Matthews and Cody Ippolito, DB Davonte’ Neal
Three guys who will try to help improve the Wildcats defense, which was 10th in the Pac-12 in yards allowed in 2015, are linebackers Jake Matthews and Cody Ippolito, who both had their seasons end prematurely due to injury (sensing a pattern here?) and defensive back Davonte’ Neal. Going into 2015, the tandem of Matthews, Ippolito and NFL-bound Scooby Wright was deemed one of the best linebacking units in the Pac-12. Two-thirds of the group return to the Wildcats and hope to find the field for a full season. Ippolito has participated in spring workouts, and Matthews has yet to find the field. Neal was one of the few Wildcat contributors who didn’t miss significant time in 2015 and ended the year with the third-most tackles on the team.
Northern Arizona University
QB Case Cookus and WR Emmanuel Butler
Northern Arizona had a bit of a youth movement in 2015. Freshman quarterback Case Cookus tossed 33 touchdowns with 15 of those going to sophomore wide receiver Emannuel Butler. Butler is a punishing 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds who moves very well when there is some green in front of him. The Lumberjacks continue to build great recruiting classes filled with local talent, including plenty of offensive lineman to give Cookus time to get the ball to his favorite receiver.
Replacing Defensive Back Eddie Horn
The ‘Jacks have a tall task of replacing Eddie Horn. The defensive back was the team’s leading tackler and also added three interceptions. Moving forward, the defense is headlined by linebacker Jake Thomas, who was a force in the backfield, and the Lumberjacks have established starters in the secondary in LeAndre Vaughn and Delvin Batiste.
They say champion teams are built in the offseason, and each team is working to see what talent they have, the adjustments they need to make and who will shine when the real lights come on.