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Arizona football’s youth gets its first test against Northern Arizona

Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez before an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TUCSON, Ariz.— Arizona has revamped its defense with a host of new players in an attempt to shore up the side of the ball that has always held the Wildcats back.

The new players are talented, but inexperienced, leaving coach Rich Rodriguez unsure of what to expect in Saturday night’s opener against Northern Arizona at Arizona Stadium.

“I wish we had a preseason or exhibition game to better see our problems and know what we have as far as problems go,” Rodriguez said. “The exciting part is that you don’t really know what you’re going to get out of your team until they start playing games.”

Arizona is looking to bounce back from a dismal 2016 season that included an eight-game losing streak that matched the longest in the 117-year history of the program. The 3-9 finish, sparked in part by a second straight season of major injuries, was the Wildcats’ first losing record in five seasons under Rodriguez and a big fall from the 10-win season in 2014.

To get the program turned around, Arizona will need to play better defense. The Wildcats were one of the worst FBS teams in scoring and total defense in their first season under defensive coordinator Marcel Yates in 2016.

Arizona added an extra dose of athleticism to the defense for this season, but they are young and inexperienced.

Arizona’s two-deep depth chart includes 10 freshmen and five sophomores, with the potential of six freshmen playing at the same time.

“I think our coaches have done a good job and the players deserve a lot of credit for learning so quickly,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t have to scale back, in terms of plays, as I had originally thought, because they were such quick learners.”

A few more things to look for when Arizona hosts Northern Arizona on Saturday:

ARIZONA’S RUN GAME

Injuries the past two seasons limited Arizona’s ability to rack up yards on the ground as it had in the past. That won’t be a problem this season, at least heading into the opener. Powerful senior Nick Wilson is back after battling injuries the past two seasons and speedy J.J. Henry returns after showing flashes of brilliance last year before a season-ending injury. Talented freshman Nathan Tilford also could see playing time.

COOKUS RETURNS

Northern Arizona quarterback Chase Cookus was the Big Sky freshman of the year in 2015 after ranking second nationally in the FCS for passer efficiency, but he broke his collarbone in Northern Arizona’s conference opener in 2016 and missed the rest of the season. The sophomore used his time out to study the game more and is healthy headed into Saturday’s game.

ARIZONA UNDER CENTER

Arizona QB Brandon Dawkins emerged from camp as the starter over Khalil Tate, though both could play against NAU. Dawkins has proven to be an explosive runner and has worked to be a better pocket passer. Tate, who was forced to burn his redshirt when Dawkins was injured last season, has a strong arm and is an adept runner.

LAST MEETING

Northern Arizona’s last trip to Tucson did not go well. Arizona set a school record in points during the 77-13 rout in 2015, also breaking records for total yards (792) and rushing yards (499). The Wildcats scored 11 touchdowns, matching another school mark.

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