It was roughly one year ago where the Arizona Wildcats were the defending Pac-12 South champions.
They were coming off a 10-win campaign that led them to the Fiesta Bowl, and with Scooby Wright, Anu Solomon, Nick Wilson and others returning, expectations were fairly modest as the Pac-12 media picked them to finish fourth in their division.
Turns out, the predictions were wrong — albeit not in a good way.
A tough schedule, injuries and an ineffective defense led to Arizona slipping in 2015. Rich Rodriguez’s team finished with a 7-6 record (3-6) in the Pac-12, and ended up fifth in the Pac-12 South. The seven victories were the fewest the Wildcats have posted in any of Rodriguez’s four seasons with the school, and in some peoples’ eyes may be a sign that the program took a step back.
Yet, while the optimism of last year may have been replaced with pessimism — or, at the very least, skepticism — the fact is a new season brings with it new opportunity.
And, perhaps a new quarterback?
Though he entered last season as the unquestioned starter, Solomon’s redshirt sophomore season, in which he threw for 2,667 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions, was not the type of step forward everyone was hoping for.
Meanwhile Brandon Dawkins, a redshirt freshman last year who stepped in to throw for 305 yards and two touchdowns while running for 78 yards and a score against Arizona State, did show considerable improvement.
Most observers still see Solomon as the leader to be the team’s starter, but Rodriguez is rarely one to guarantee a roster spot and seems to have little interest in doing so here.
“I think it’s fashionable to call it a ‘quarterback controversy,’ which is, OK, that’s a common word, but it’s more a quarterback competition, and a true competition,” he told the Pac-12 Network Thursday at Pac-12 Media Day. “A lot of coaches will say that, but for us, we see it as we have two guys that are good enough to win with.
“It’s not because Anu Solomon has gotten worse that there’s a competition; he’s gotten better, but so has Brandon Dawkins. It gives us two guys we feel we can win with, and we may play both of them — I don’t know, whoever is playing the best. But they both have enough skill sets that we can have success with them, and then we have a young guy behind them in Khalil Tate that’s going to have a chance as well, but in Dawkins and Solomon we’ve got two guys we think can do everything we want in our offense.”
Whoever is quarterbacking the Wildcats, chances are the team will have little trouble scoring points. Last year they averaged 37.4 points per game, and their average of 495 total yards per game ranked 18th in FBS. If nothing else, Rodriguez teams know how to move the football.
What they’ve traditionally struggled with, however, is stopping others from doing the same.
The Wildcats surrendered 468 yards 35.8 points per game last season, both of which ranked them 10th in the conference. And in their six losses, Arizona allowed an average of 49 points. Sensing that his defense was on the wrong track, Rodriguez chose to part with coordinator Jeff Casteel as well as a handful of other coaches, and brought in Boise State DC Marcel Yates to lead the group.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do coaching-wise, as a head coach, in 20-some years as a head coach, was making a move like I had to do to the defensive staff, because those guys were really good coaches, good people, but I just felt at the time I needed to blow the whole thing up,” he said. “And when I was hiring a defensive staff, I wasn’t even looking so much at schemes, because I think schemes are overrated, but more of a kind of personality and a type of attitude I wanted to bring to the defense.
“I have some ideas, parameter-wise what we want to do, but I don’t have enough time to coach it and teach it myself; I’m going to be a head coach and call plays on offense and work with special teams.”
Rodriguez added he thinks the defensive coaching staff has really come together with the type of system he is hoping to see, and even joked that they haven’t lost a game yet.
“So far I like the results because I think the players have a renewed sense of enthusiasm, there’s going to be a lot of new guys playing on defense,” he said. “I don’t know how good we’re going to be initially, but I’m really excited about the future of it.”
Yates has earned a reputation for being one of the sport’s rising coaches, but in taking over the Arizona defense, especially after Wright left for the NFL, he certainly has his work cut out for him. Rodriguez has been coy about giving details on the new look, but said there will be some differences from the type of defense that was run in Boise State.
“And I want to be different,” Rodriguez said. “And not different to be different, but be different to be a challenge for our opponents to get ready for and see something they don’t see every week.”
The coach noted how offensively they are not as different as they used to be, as more and more teams have adopted the fast-paced, spread attack, but they’d still “like to be on edge.”
“Defensively is where I think we need to make the biggest strides because there are so many good offensive players nowadays, there are so many good offensive schemes, that for us, if we could just be physically dominant and just line up and ‘here we are, come get us,’ that’s great, but I don’t know if we’re there and I don’t know if we’re ever going to get there,” he said. “So we need to do something a little bit on the edge, something that’s a little bit more different than we’ve ever done before.
“And that makes you nervous; change makes a lot of people nervous, but I’m excited about this change and I think our players have bought it 100 percent.”
The Pac-12 media, as well as the rest of college football, is not quite on board. Arizona was picked to finish fourth in the South by the conference’s media, and a look at some preview publications shows folks are uneasy about the team’s immediate future.
For Rodriguez, who has guided the Wildcats to four bowl games in his four seasons as coach — a program record, by the way — that’s not an issue. Following non-conference games against BYU in Glendale and then Grambling State and Hawaii in Tucson, Arizona will face off with Washington at home before facing UCLA and Utah on the road. After that, they’ll return to Arizona Stadium to take on USC and Stanford.
We’ll know pretty early on if the Wildcats are going to be a factor in the Pac-12 race.
“We’re way under the radar, nobody’s expecting us to do a whole lot, and a lot of times we’re better that way,” Rodriguez said. “Our guys kind of have a chip on their shoulder.
“And I always think you should play with something to prove, you should coach with something to prove. I think our players truly believe that and we have a lot to prove, and we’ve got to prove it in a hurry.”
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