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

Sep 2, 2017, 6:42 AM
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez before an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Saturday, ...
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez before an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(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:


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.


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 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.


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.

Arizona Football

Arizona State University president Michael Crow interviews with Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona'...
Kevin Zimmerman

ASU, Arizona presidents: Not preparing to leave for Big 12

The presidents of Arizona State University and the University of Arizona went on the record reaffirming their commitment to the Pac-12.
7 days ago
Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark speaks to the media during Big 12 NCAA college basketball media d...
Arizona Sports

Report: Big 12 recently contacted ASU, Arizona amid Pac-12 uncertainty

As a Pac-12 media rights deal remains undetermined, the Big 12 has recently had contact with Arizona State and Arizona, according to reports.
16 days ago
From left to right: Jerry Colangelo, Dan Bickley, Michael Bidwill and Vince Marotta on Tuesday, Feb...
Kevin Zimmerman

The Cardinals bring fresh voices and more Newsmaker Week 2023 highlights

Bickley & Marotta welcomed 25 guests representing Arizona's teams and events to their show on Tuesday through Friday. So what did we learn?
26 days ago
TUCSON, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 25: Head coach Jedd Fisch of the Arizona Wildcats looks over his play ca...
Kellan Olson

Arizona football shifts vision of growth from offense to defense for 2023

While the previous regime didn't leave much room for anything but improvement, Arizona football is trending positively.
28 days ago
Arizona Diamondbacks CEO and president Derrick Hall visits the Arizona Sports studios on Tuesday, F...
Arizona Sports

Arizona Sports’ 2023 Newsmakers Week recap

The important figures making the biggest decisions in Arizona sports join Bickley & Marotta throughout a one week span each February.
25 days ago
Arizona Cardinals GM Monti Ossenfort speaks with reporters during his introductory press conference...
Jake Anderson

Arizona’s Jedd Fisch: Cardinals GM Monti Ossenfort will bring an ‘unbelievable attention to detail’

Arizona Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort and Arizona Wildcats football head coach Jedd Fisch go back over 20 years.
2 months ago
Arizona football’s youth gets its first test against Northern Arizona