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Rich Rodriguez has orchestrated back-to-back 8-5 campaigns in his first two seasons leading the Wildcats
The first two years of the Rich Rodriguez era at Arizona have produced the exact same results. In both 2012 and ’13 the Wildcats have gone 8-5 overall, finished fourth in the Pac-12 South Division with a 4-5 mark and ended the season on a high by winning their bowl game.
If RichRod and his team want to make it three-for-three in Tucson, it will have to be with a lot of new faces stepping up. The Wildcats return just 12 starters, six on each side of the ball, as they are practically starting over on offense and also must replace several key defenders.
There are a bevy of redshirt freshman and JUCO transfers coming in who will vie for the available openings and other spots on the depth chart, which only makes this spring practice period even more critical for Rodriguez and his staff.
Arizona Wildcats 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 8-5 (4-5 Pac-12)
Spring Practice Opens: March 8
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Arizona’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition. In his one and only year as the starter, B.J. Denker produced nearly 3,500 yards of total offense and 29 (16 pass, 13 rush) total touchdowns. Now that he’s graduated, Rich Rodriguez must identify his new starting quarterback from a group of options that didn’t take a single snap for Arizona last season. Jesse Scroggins and Anu Solomon both were part of the team, the former a junior college transfer who did not play in 2013 while the latter sat out as a redshirt freshman. Both were highly touted dual threat quarterback prospects coming out of high school and appear well suited to run Rodriguez’ spread offense. They will be joined in the quarterback competition by Texas transfer Connor Brewer and junior college transfer Jerrard Randall, who started his college career at LSU. It’s entirely too early to tell who the leader is at this point and while there may be some degree of clarity by the time the spring game rolls around, Rodriguez has already said he fully expects this battle to continue into the fall.
2. Starting over in the backfield. Entering spring, the quarterback and running back situations are very similar, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As important as Denker was to Arizona’s success last season, a bigger loss was when Ka’Deem Carey decided to forego his senior year to enter the NFL Draft. An All-American who put together back-to-back 1,800-yard rushing seasons and scored 44 total touchdowns in that span, Carey’s jump to the pros leaves the Wildcats with one player who had more than 100 yards on the ground in 2013. Jared Baker is the leading returning rusher (127 yards), but he won’t be back on the practice field until the fall at the earliest as he’s recovering from a torn ACL. Rodriguez won’t lack for options to carry the ball this spring, with redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier, Zach Green and Myles Smith available as well as true freshman Jonathan Haden, who enrolled in January. Cormier is probably the slight leader in the clubhouse at this point, but with Baker expected to return in the fall along with incoming freshman Nick Wilson, don’t be surprised if the backfield remains a fluid situation leading up to the Aug. 29 season opener against UNLV.
3. More progress on defense? In Rodriguez’ first year at Arizona, the Wildcats’ defense couldn’t stop anyone. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s unit finished 102nd or worse nationally in total, scoring, rushing and passing defense in 2012. It then took a huge leap forward last fall, coming in at 39th in the nation in scoring defense and ranking no worse than 70th in the other three major categories. From a points allowed standpoint alone, Arizona went from 35.3 per game in 2012 to 24.2 last season. If this defense is going to replicate that success in 2014, it will have to do so without the services of its top two tacklers (linebackers Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers), sack leader (defensive end Sione Tuihalamaka) and a three-year starting cornerback (Shaquille Richardson). Linebacker Scooby Wright and safety Jared Tevis, who each picked up Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 recognition last season, return, but replacing the aforementioned five starters will be no easy task. Just like on offense, a host of redshirts and JUCO transfers are coming in to hopefully fill these holes and round out the defensive depth chart. Included in this group is tackle Jeff Worthy, who started his college career at Boise State before transferring to Santa Ana (Calif.) College.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 6-8
Rich Rodriguez and his coaching staff have their work cut out for him this spring. Topping the to do list is finding a quarterback and determining the pecking order in the backfield. While neither of these situations will be completely settled until fall camp, the wide receiving corps should be plenty deep, especially with the return of Austin Hill (above, right), a 2012 first-team All-Pac-12 honoree who missed all of last season after injuring his knee. The offensive line also appears in good shape with four returning starters. The defense made significant improvement in 2013, but now must replace several key contributors.
Schedule-wise, the only thing that changes this season is Nevada replaces FCS member Northern Arizona. Rodriguez has put together back-to-back 8-5 showings in his first two years at Arizona. With all of the uncertainty on this roster, especially at quarterback and running back, a third such finish this fall would be impressive.