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JURON CRINER STOOD ON THE ARIZONA SIDELINE IN NOVEMBER 2007 AS THE CLOCK ticked down on a 34--24 upset of then No. 2 Oregon and fans pushed and shoved behind him in preparation to rush the Arizona Stadium field. But Criner wasn't in uniform or even on the team. As a highly sought-after senior receiver from Canyon Springs High in Las Vegas, Criner attended the game on a recruiting visit. When the clock ran out, he joined thousands of fans in celebration and knew right then that he wanted to be a Wildcat.
"Being part of the college atmosphere and being able to rush the field ... that was the best thing I'd ever done in football," says Criner, who hauled in 25 touchdowns as a senior at Canyon Springs. "The win that night made the city come alive."
In his three years at Arizona the 6' 4", 215-pound Criner has similarly come alive, evolving from a top-flight recruit into an All-America talent. His 82 catches and 1,233 yards last season led the Pac-10, and his school-record-tying 11 touchdown catches helped complete one of the best seasons by a receiver in the program's 112-year history. Unsatisfied after losing the final five games of 2010, Criner opted to stay in Tucson for one more shot at the school's first Rose Bowl berth instead of heading to the NFL. He had been projected as a mid-round pick.
"I think it made [coach Mike Stoops's] day when I told him I was staying," Criner says. "I can only get better. I'm working on my hands. I'm running routes. I took into consideration things that people said I need to work on. I just want to be a better receiver."
In late June, however, news surfaced that Criner could miss the entire 2011 season because of an undisclosed medical condition. (School officials would not comment.) Losing Criner would be a huge blow, but he has already shown the toughness to overcome adversity. Early in training camp before last season, he collided with a teammate and suffered a concussion and facial contusion that forced him to miss much of camp. He didn't return until the week of the season opener, and coaches didn't expect him to be at full strength. Nonetheless Criner played the whole game and had 10 catches for 176 yards and a TD.
If he makes it onto the field, Criner should profit from the addition of Dan Buckner, a transfer from Texas. Buckner averaged 73.5 yards receiving and caught four TDs in his first four games of '09 before his role diminished in the Longhorns' march to the BCS title game. Six days after the loss to Alabama, Buckner was arrested for criminal trespassing and was released from his scholarship. The following day he chose to transfer to Arizona.
"We're going to feed off each other," Criner says. "I can benefit just from his presence. It switches up coverages. We want to be the best receiving corps in the country. We have depth. If I go down, there's someone who can step up and compete."
For all his talent and drive, Criner does his best to stay out of the limelight. He does not go out often, calls himself a "homebody" and loves Tucson for how close it is to his family in Las Vegas—as well as for its weather. "I do not like the cold," he says.
He prefers to be in the summer heat, working toward winning the Pac-12 South. He also wants to avenge last season's defeat to in-state rival Arizona State. "I want the Territorial Cup back," Criner says. "It belongs in Tucson."
If he and the Wildcats can bring it back, he'll have another reason to rush the field.