By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Arizona Wildcats 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 4-8, 2-7 Pac-12
Spring practice: March 5-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 4
Passing: Matt Scott, 66 of 93, 776 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT (2010)
Rushing: Ka'Deem Carey, 91 att., 425 yards, 6 TD
Receiving: Dan Buckner, 42 rec., 606 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: Marquis Flowers, 68
Sacks: Four tied with one
Interceptions: Shaquille Richardson, 4
Redshirts to watch: DE Dame Ndiaye, RB Jared Baker, WR Patrick Onwasor, WR David Richards
Back From Injury: LB Jake Fischer, S Adam Hall, CB Jonathan McKnight
Transfer to watch: LB Brian Wagner (Akron)
Sept. 1 Toledo
Sept. 8 Oklahoma State
Sept. 15 South Carolina State
Sept. 22 at Oregon
Sept. 29 Oregon State
Oct. 6 at Stanford
Oct. 12 Bye Week
Oct. 20 Washington
Oct. 27 USC
Nov. 3 at UCLA
Nov. 10 Colorado
Nov. 17 at Utah
Nov. 23 Arizona State
Offensive Strength: Is Rich Rodriguez an eligible answer? His ability to out-scheme most defensive coordinators is a game-changer in and of itself. His spread-zone-read-option attack has leveled many-a-playing field in the past and should do so once again in the defensively challenged Pac-12. Aside from their new scheme, Zona fans have to be excited about 55 starts from 2011 returning to the offensive line. But they must run the ball better this fall.
Offensive Weakness: Offensive skill depth. Since the running game — which ranked 114th in the nation last fall — will be vastly improved under the tutelage of Rich Rod, the depth on the outside and in the backfield has to be the biggest concern. Quarterback Matt Scott, tailback Ka'Deem Carey and wideout Dan Buckner are the only proven options on the entire roster after leading rusher Keola Antolin, passer Nick Foles and receiver Juron Criner all graduated. Look for RichRod to give his skill players plenty of opportunity to prove themselves this spring.
Defensive Strength: It is tough to find a strength for a unit that lost one third of its starting line-up to injury and ranked 10th or worst in the Pac-12 in nearly every major statistical category. But the secondary, bouyed by the return of safety Adam Hall and corner Jonathan McKnight, offers some talent and versatility. Shaquille Richardson and Marquis Flowers have all-league potential and Tra'Mayne Bondurant earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention a year ago. Replacing Robert Golden and Trevin Wade won't be easy, but this unit has plenty of depth and should fit perfectly into the new 3-3-5 scheme.
Defensive Weakness: The defensive front seven. This unit was downright atrocious last fall. The Wildcats finished last in the league with only 10 quarterback sacks a year ago, were 102nd nationally in tackles for a loss and allowed a Pac-12 worst 298.9 yards passing per game. Improving the front line will be priority No. 1 for a defense that says goodbye to its top sackmaster in C.J. Parish and top two tacklers in linebackers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo.
Spring Storylines Facing the Wildcats:
1. Can Matt Scott survive the season and excel as the starting quarterback? Rich Rod enters spring camp with only one quarterback on scholarship and will actually use wide receiver Richard Morrison under center to take the load off the redshirt senior. Scott appears to be a perfect fit for the zone read attack Rodriguez perfected at West Virginia and Michigan. Scott has played in 18 games in which he received at least one rushing attempt and posted 632 yards rushing and two scores in those games. He has the tools needed to succeed in this offensive system, but keeping him healthy throughout spring practice will be important.
2. A successful rushing attack, something Rich Rod has had at every stop, will go a long way to protect Scott. This unit ranked 114th in the nation and 11th in the Pac-12 last fall at only 94.5 yards per game. Leading rusher Antolin has moved on and left very little depth at running back. The good news is the lone returning ball carrier is rising sophomore star Ka'Deem Carey. Additionally, Carey and Scott will be running behind one of the more veteran offensive lines in the league. All five starters return to this group, including all-league center Kyle Quinn and tackle tandem Mickey Baucus (who is dealing with his own injury issues) and Fabbians Ebble. It raises the age old question about a unit that returns most of its experience but struggled mightily the previous year: Is it a good thing that all of those guys are back? This should be the strength of the Arionza offense in 2012, so keep an eye on how the ground game develops over the course of spring camp.
3. The defense has to improve as a whole if Arizona expects to compete in the South. This group finished last in Pac-12 in total defense, pass defense and sacks. So finding someone who can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be huge for new defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. This team returns a total of four quarterback sacks from a year ago. It falls to end Kirifi Taula and tackle Justin Washington to lead an inexperienced group along the D-Line. Of course, staying healthy will go a long way to fixing some of the Wildcats defensive woes. Injuries were such a well-documented aspect of this team's struggles a year ago and getting safety Adam Hall, corner Jonathan McKnight, linebacker Jake Fischer and defensive tackle Willie Mobley back to form in 2012 will be paramount for Casteel.
4. Defensive Injury Update from Rich Rod. Here is how the head coach has explained each's progress at the start of camp:
Fischer: “Jake Fischer is a full go. He’s worked so hard, without question (he) is going to be one of our leaders defensively and I can see why the coaching staff missed him so much last year. He’s a tough guy.”
McKnight: “(He) is on schedule, will be limited this spring. He’s doing most of the workouts though.”
Hall: “Adam is doing everything now, he had a foot issue but he’s doing everything.”
Mobley: “He’s limping around but he should be doing everything this spring.”
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College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early Pac-12 Predictions