TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona’s players were not ready for their first offseason under Rich Rodriguez. Not even close.
Out of shape and out of their element with the then-new coach’s go-all-the-time style, the Wildcats were more concerned about catching their breath than trying to learn plays.
“The first practice we had the first spring, our guys were done by the midway point,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t have enough energy to go over and get Popsicles at the break.”
Three years later, things have changed dramatically.
The players are in much better condition. They know Rodriguez’s system, what the coaches expect from them. They’re confident after one of the best seasons in program history.
So instead of a spring cleaning, the Wildcats had a clean spring, able to focus on getting better on the field, not in better shape.
“I thought we made a lot of progress,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez and the Wildcats have been building since he arrived in 2012.
Arizona won eight games and a bowl in each of his first two seasons, then took a big step last season.
Led by prolific quarterback Anu Solomon on offense and high-motor linebacker Scooby Wright on defense, the Wildcats won the Pac-12 South Division and went on to play in their first upper-tier bowl since 1994. Arizona lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, but still finished with a 10-win season for the second time in program history.
The Wildcats are 26-14 under Rodriguez, the best three-year run in Tucson since Jim Young led Arizona to 26 wins from 1973-75, and hope to continue on the upswing.
“I don’t know if culture is the right word, but the atmosphere where we wanted the program to be is right where we want it to be,” Rodriguez said. “I think our guys expect to win more, they expect to compete for championships and that’s going to be the standard for every year from here on out.”
The Wildcats are in good position to keep it going.
Arizona has loads of skill players coming back on offense for the 2015 season, including Solomon, running back Nick Wilson and what will likely be one of the best receiving corps in the nation. The Wildcats have some questions on the offensive line after losing three starters, but there are some quality replacements ready to move into bigger roles.
Defensively, Arizona still has Wright, a first-team All-American who won the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lombardi awards, and some good players up front, but will have to replace three key players in the secondary.
Rodriguez also has continued to show off his recruiting chops, bringing in another solid class this year.
“I’m worried about where we’re at, that we’re getting better every year,” Rodriguez said. “And we’ve got to get better because the people we’re playing aren’t going backward. Our league is probably as good as it’s been and is probably going to keep getting better.”
The Wildcats got off to a good start during spring practice and now need to keep it going during summer workouts.
Most of Arizona’s players are already back on campus to take a few classes and work out in preparation for preseason camp in early August.
Rodriguez has been pleased with the way the leaders on the team have taken charge of the offseason workouts.
“If guy who are coming back are as good as they were last year, we’re not going to be any better,” Rodriguez said. “The key is that the guys coming back are better than they were the year before.”
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