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Arizona Wildcats 2016 Spring Practice Preview

Anu Solomon

Anu Solomon

Disappointment followed breakthrough for Arizona football, which won 10 games and the Pac-12 South in 2014, only to scrape to bowl eligibility last season.

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Though the Wildcats finished on the right side of .500 for a fourth straight season — the first time that's happened in Tucson since 1992-95 — their seven victories were the fewest under head coach Rich Rodriguez. Arizona also limped to a 3-5 finish in Pac-12 Conference play, suffering lopsided losses to Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington, and coughing up a two-touchdown lead at USC.

The disappointment of 2015 begat changes for '16, the first glimpses of which can be seen in Arizona's spring practices. The Wildcats are the first team to open their offseason workouts, kicking off Friday. Rodriguez also has opted to eschew the customary spring game and instead use the spring to focus on basics.

5 Storylines to Watch in Arizona Spring Practice

1. A Revamped Defense

Arizona's backslide in 2015 can be attributed in large part to the regression of former coordinator Jeff Casteel's defense. Arizona had one of the nation's most porous defenses in 2012, the result of implementing a new 3-3-5 scheme and lacking depth at key positions.

Despite positive progress in 2013 and '14, the Wildcats ranked No. 101 nationally against the run last season, and No. 106 in points allowed. Dismal play in the front seven, in part due to a bevy of injuries at linebacker, exposed glaring issues, prompting an overhaul in the coaching staff.

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Casteel is out, and Marcel Yates is in. The former Boise State defensive coordinator oversaw one of the nation' most aggressive pass-rushing units, an element missing at Arizona.

Yates alluded to the great Desert Swarm defenses of the 1990s in his introductory address. The Wildcats won't regain that form in one offseason, but Yates will plant the seeds over the next few weeks.

2. The Right Man to Replace Wright

While one player may not have been enough to salvage Arizona's defense in 2015, linebacker Scooby Wright's absence for much of the season certainly put the Wildcats in a tough spot. No one defensive player in college football did more in 2014, and for his efforts, Wright swept the national awards.

Though Wright's production was an outlier, recent Arizona defenses relied on playmakers who could cover certain deficiencies. Jake Fischer and Jared Tevis were two such standouts who played all over the field and could generate turnovers before Wright did so at an All-American clip.

Arizona's new-look defense needs someone — or a few someones, ideally — to emerge as prolific playmakers.

3. The Quarterback Outlook 

Anu Solomon generated some modest Heisman Trophy chatter in his redshirt freshman 2014 season, but suffered through an injury-plagued sophomore slump. Struggles last year aside, Solomon enters spring practices firmly entrenched as the starter.

However, Brandon Dawkins, who showed flashes of brilliance in an appearance against Arizona State, will use the spring to prep in case his number's called. Talented newcomer Khalil Tate is an early enrollee and will get a jump on his college career. Arizona should have options in the fall if Solomon gets hurt again.

Related: College Football's Pre-Spring 1-128 Starting Quarterback Rankings for 2016

4. Nick Wilson's Return

The injury bug that ravaged Arizona's locker room didn't spare its talented running back, who lost four games in 2015. Wilson is working his way back to 100 percent, Rodriguez told reporters Wednesday.

Wilson was a worthy heir to program record-setter Ka'Deem Carey in 2014, rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns, with another score via reception. When healthy, Wilson has All-American potential. Spring previews his progression towards regaining that potential in his junior campaign.

Related: College Football's Pre-Spring Top 75 Running Back Rankings for 2016

5. Replacing Cayleb Jones

Jones (6-3) stood tall in the Arizona wide receiver corps each of the last two seasons, figuratively and literally. He caught 129 passes for 1,926 yards with 14 touchdowns, leading the Wildcats in each category in 2014 and '15.

Arizona returns proven playmakers Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant and Trey Griffey, while former defensive back Cam Denson makes the switch to offense. One of these needs to fill Jones' void as the reliable target Solomon can depend on regardless of situation.  

Pre-Spring Arizona Outlook in the Pac-12

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The parity in the Pac-12 leaves little room for regression. Arizona experienced that firsthand in 2015, plummeting from first place in the South to fifth and just ahead of perennial cellar-dweller Colorado. The conference doesn't get any easier, and the Wildcats face myriad uncertainties ahead of 2016.

The good news for the Wildcats, however, is that the entire South is shrouded in mystery. None of the division's six teams stands out as a clear favorite. On paper, Arizona looks like one of the weaker candidates, but recent seasons have proven assuming anything about the Pac-12 is a fool's errand.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.