Arizona fans undoubtedly felt a sense of optimism with the arrival of Rich Rodriguez to Tucson. The Wildcats hoped Rodriguez could do for them what he did for West Virginia in turning a program with pockets of success into one with staying power. Even 2014, though, had to come as a bit of surprise. In only his third season at Arizona, Rodriguez led the Wildcats to the Pac-12 title game and their first 10-win season and ranked season since 1998. Could Arizona be a contender for a second consecutive year? With the backfield of Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson, a Lombardi Award winner in Scooby Wright and RichRod in tow, Arizona can’t be counted out.
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Previewing Arizona’s Offense in 2015
Sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon is the first holdover QB starter at Arizona since Nick Foles in 2010-11. He is not a fast runner, nor notably elusive, and he doesn’t have NFL-type arm strength. But as he was as a Las Vegas prep quarterback — 57–3 with four state championships — he has proved to be a winner at Arizona.
Solomon’s numbers — 3,793 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes — broke school freshman records. Redshirt freshman Brandon Dawkins struggled with passing accuracy in spring practice. Fifth-year senior Jerrard Randall, once an LSU quarterback, is a running threat with explosiveness, but his decision-making and accuracy have kept him on the bench.
Sophomore tailback Nick Wilson required little break-in time, gaining 1,375 yards as a freshman. He is a power runner with what coach Rich Rodriguez calls “good eyes,” adept at hitting openings and making something out of nothing. Fifth-year senior Jared Baker is the clear No. 2.
Cayleb Jones is among the nation’s best receivers. In his first year as a starter, he caught 73 balls for 1,019 yards and was a go-to receiver in clutch situations. He heads a deep and experienced group, which is the strength of Arizona’s offense. Samajie Grant became a big-play receiver with 45 receptions, six for touchdowns.
Losing three-year starting tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele hasn’t been a setback. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa will start at left tackle and is expected to play at an all-conference level. Guards Jacob Alsadek and Cayman Bundage are returning starters, and the new right tackle, Lene Maiava, has started at two positions up front. The uncertainty is at center; two former walk-ons, Carter Wood and David Catalano, are frontrunners.
Previewing Arizona’s Defense in 2015
Senior end Reggie Gilbert was awarded a fifth year by the NCAA, which was one of the triumphs of spring practice for Arizona. He is the rock of Arizona’s three-man front. Junior Sani Fuimaono and sophomore Parker Zellers will likely split the nose guard job; both played extensively, although Zellers, listed at 247 pounds, gets by on instincts rather than strength.
If linebacker Scooby Wright can match his sophomore numbers — 163 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks — the Wildcats will be hard to beat. The Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year has considerable experience beside him: Juniors Cody Ippolito, Jake Matthews and Derrick Turituri all started at least six games.
Arizona didn’t pause long to replace three starters in its secondary. Senior safeties Jamar Allah and Tellas Jones combined for 47 tackles last season and are physical players. Sophomore cornerback Jarvis McCall Jr., who started 12 games, might have difficulty reclaiming his job. Junior DaVonte’ Neal, who was a receiver/returner last year, moved to corner in spring ball and appeared to win the job. The Notre Dame transfer likely will be joined at the other corner by sophomore Cam Denson, also a former receiver/returner but now strictly a defensive player.
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Previewing Arizona’s Specialists in 2015
Senior kicker Casey Skowron and senior punter Drew Riggleman were so good last season that Rodriguez awarded both with full scholarships midway through the season. Skowron made 20-of-28 field-goal attempts, including a game-winner against Washington. Riggleman was second in the Pac-12 in punting average, at 46.1.
Arizona has won 26 games in Rodriguez’s first three seasons, the most of any three-year period in school history. “I’m not saying we’re ahead of expectations,” says Rodriguez, “because we need to get deeper and tougher.” This is Rodriguez’s top group at Arizona, but it must play 12 weeks in succession without a bye.