After four straight winning seasons under Rich Rodriguez, Arizona cratered in 2016, going 3-9 overall and winning just one game in Pac-12 play. The Wildcats couldn’t score (24.8 ppg, 100th in the FBS) and couldn’t stop opponents from scoring either (38.3 ppg, 118th). Not surprisingly, the defensive coaching staff was revamped but that won’t change the talent and depth issues on that side of the ball. The offense isn’t without questions either so it could be another difficult season for Rodriguez and company.
Previewing Arizona Football’s Offense for 2017
The Wildcats were last in the Pac-12 in scoring last year, and that ineptitude has to change for Arizona to improve a 1–8 conference record. Quarterbacks Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate ended spring practice in a too-close-to-call battle. Dawkins is an explosive runner but an erratic passer. Unfortunately for Arizona, Tate has similar tendencies. Dawkins rushed for 183 yards in a victory over Arizona State but completed only three passes in that game. He has also been sidelined by injuries three times in two seasons.
Sophomore tailback J.J. Taylor might be the club’s top player. He missed eight games with a broken ankle last year but left an impression that he could be a game-changer. He’ll likely share time with senior Nick Wilson, who gained 1,375 yards in 2014 but has since been limited by injuries. Freshman Nathan Tilford, who was impressive in spring camp, makes running back the team’s deepest position.
The Wildcats are thin at receiver. The only returning receiver to contribute significantly is diminutive Shun Brown, a 5'8", 175-pound junior. Behind him, things are troublesome.
Tackles Layth Friekh and Michael Eletise, guards Jacob Alsadek and Gerhard de Beer and center Nathan Eldridge have the size and experience to maintain Arizona’s running game productivity; the Wildcats led the Pac-12 in rushing with 235.0 yards per game a year ago. This year, however, coach Rich Rodriguez is seeking more balance, which means Dawkins and Tate must complete far more than last year’s combined rate of 55.1 percent of their passes.
Previewing Arizona Football’s Defense for 2017
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After struggling in the secondary for two years, the Wildcats have finally established depth and production in the back end. Starting cornerbacks Jace Whittaker and Dane Cruikshank are now battle-tested. Safeties Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and Isaiah Hayes are considered strengths. If Arizona uses five deep backs, sophomore Tristan Cooper has significant experience.
Arizona’s recruiting failures of the last five years show up most clearly on the defensive line. The Wildcats still don’t have enough size to hold up against quality offenses. Sophomore end Justin Belknap and senior tackle Parker Zellers, both 247 pounds, have been full-time starters even though they are under-sized. Defensive line coach Vince Amey is hopeful that junior Larry Tharpe Jr., who is 6'5", 275 pounds, will be ready for full-time work. Sione Taufahema, a 310-pound junior college transfer, will be given a shot to play regularly on the interior line. Depth is a problem, as is putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
At times during spring drills, it appeared that three freshmen — Jacob Colacion, Jose Ramirez and Tony Fields II — were probable starters at linebacker. They would join oft-injured DeAndre’ Miller.
Previewing Arizona Football’s Specialists for 2017
Junior Josh Pollack was both punter and placekicker last year and was merely adequate. He’ll be challenged by incoming freshman placekicker Lucas Havrisik. Veterans Jake Glatting and Matt Aragon are pushing for time at punter. The return game has not been productive of late.
Arizona allowed 44.8 points per game in its eight Pac-12 losses. Improving the defense is the top priority. Rich Rodriguez hired two new defensive coaches, but the defensive line remains under-sized, and the linebacking group is freshman-laden. Almost as worrisome, Arizona averaged only 22.6 points in Pac-12 games.
Rodriguez’s contract buyout would be $5.1 million if new athletic director Dave Heeke made a change. This roster is not built to shine in 2017, but, if all goes well, 2018 could be promising. Sweeping the three non-conference games against NAU, Houston and UTEP seems imperative for Arizona to have a winning season.