COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
Pac-12 South PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Rich Rodriguez, 8-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Calvin Magee, Rod Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Casteel
Three quarterbacks will spend training camp battling to get the keys to Rich Rodriguez’s offense, one that established school records with 526.2 yards and 38.2 points per game in the coach’s first year at Arizona. The rest of the offense, following an 8–5 season, is virtually intact. All-America tailback Ka’Deem Carey led the nation in rushing (1,929 yards) and offensive linemen Mickey Baucus, Chris Putton and Fabbians Ebbele are multi-year starters.
Incoming freshman Anu Solomon is viewed as Arizona’s quarterback of the future, but he starts significantly behind senior B.J. Denker, who ended spring practice at No. 1. Denker knows Rodriguez’s up-tempo offense well, but he’s not as talented as Solomon or Jesse Scroggins, a junior college transfer who began his career at USC. Arizona has some break-in time in the form of three soft non-conference games with which to identify a lead quarterback. Scroggins has the strongest arm but missed much of the 2012 season and almost all of spring camp with a foot injury.
The most troubling news of Arizona’s offseason was the knee injury to junior receiver Austin Hill, who caught 81 passes. He is not expected back any earlier than November. The club’s new go-to receiver is sophomore David Richards, who caught 29 passes in 2012. He’s not a game-breaker like Hill. Carey caught 36 passes out of the backfield and might be more productive as a junior.
To say that Arizona struggled with its uncommon “3-3-5 stack” defense under former West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel would be a mighty understatement. The Wildcats allowed a school-record 499.0 yards per game. Good or bad, starters return at every position. One newcomer likely to break into the lineup is sophomore linebacker Dakota Conwell.
“We’ve got more depth and more size,” Casteel says, “but we’re going to need another year or two to add to our personnel.”
Arizona rotates seven linemen in its front group of three, but none projects as an all-league player. Senior Tevin Hood, a nose tackle, is the leader of the group. Redshirt freshman Kyle Kelley is looked upon as a potential star in a year or two. Senior linebacker Jake Fischer is a three-year starter but is undersized and not known for his speed.
Safety-rover Tra’Mayne Bondurant will start for the third season, as will cornerback Shaquille Richardson. Corner Jonathan McKnight, the club’s leading coverage player, continues to fight injuries.
Arizona’s strong kicking game of 2012 is apt to struggle as it breaks in a new placekicker, likely Syracuse transfer Jake Smith. Walk-on Drew Riggleman won the punting job almost by forfeit in spring drills. The return game will get a significant boost if Notre Dame transfer Davonte Neal, a sophomore, is granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA over the summer.
Somehow Arizona won eight games, including a bowl game, with the worst defense in school history by balancing it with the most prolific offense in school history. Those numbers aren’t likely to be as extreme this year. With Matt Scott gone, the quarterbacking situation is worrisome, but on defense the Wildcats appear to be improved.
Arizona’s most telling advantage is its non-conference schedule; the Wildcats open against Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA. That should allow Rodriguez the time to select a starting quarterback for the Pac-12 season, and replace Hill’s pass-catching load from among a group of five capable receivers. This is a veteran team looking for a quarterback to lead them. By November, when Arizona plays powers UCLA and Oregon in Tucson, the Wildcats could be good enough to upset either.