Each of Rich Rodriguez's first three seasons as University of Arizona head football coach produced at least one signature win.
In 2012, defeats of Oklahoma State and USC established Arizona Stadium as a perilous venue for visitors. The 2013 campaign brought a blowout of Oregon, after which Rodriguez promised even greater things in the future. His team delivered in 2014, beating the Ducks in Autzen Stadium and sealing a Pac-12 South divisional title with a dramatic win over rival Arizona State.
But struggle marked the past two seasons. Injuries piled up, and so did losses. Arizona scrapped to a disappointing 7-6 finish in 2015, and endured an eight-game skid en route to a 3-9 mark last season. Forget the worst mark of the Rodriguez era; 3-9 was the worst final record of any Arizona team since Mark Stoops' 2004 debut.
However, the Wildcats closed an otherwise dismal season with a silver lining – literally. Arizona ran circles around Arizona State to claim the silver-plated Territorial Cup for the second time in Rodriguez's tenure, denying the Sun Devils a bowl bid and giving some cause for optimism heading into the offseason.
Arizona opened its spring practices on Feb. 16, aiming to build off the promise of a season-saving win.
5 Storylines to Watch in Arizona Spring Practice
1. Building the Faith
Arizona's 2016 didn't derail immediately. The Wildcats were just a late-game field goal against BYU and an overtime loss to Washington in their Pac-12 opener from opening 4-0.
Add a lead at Utah in Week 6, and Arizona showed promised in a 2-4 start. That eroded with a blowout loss Week 7 against USC. The ensuing weeks brought lopsided beatdowns against Stanford, Colorado Oregon State and a 69-7 rout at Washington State that signified rock bottom for the Rodriguez era.
Despite the brutal final month Arizona endured, Rodriguez and his staff need to use the finale against Arizona State as a building block for a new season. Spring sets the tone.
2. Brandon Dawkins in the Driver's Seat
Injuries derailed the once-promising Arizona career of quarterback Anu Solomon. A series of starts-and-stops in the lineup gave way to Dawkins, who showed flashes of brilliance behind center.
Solomon opted to transfer to Baylor in the offseason, leaving the offense firmly in Dawkins' hands heading into 2017.
The dual-threat Dawkins will face competition from Khalil Tate, a highly touted prospect out of Southern California who saw significant playing time midway through the 2016 campaign before sustaining his own injury. The two provide similar skills sets, though Dawkins' passing touch proved more refined a season ago.
3. A Replenished Running Back Corps
To call Arizona's running back situation a season ago dire would be a vast understatement. Talented but snake-bitten Nick Wilson missed all of seven games and significant portions of more contests. J.J. Taylor wowed early, averaging nearly seven yards per carry, but went down in the first month.
Both return in time for the spring at 100 percent, providing Arizona with a thunder-and-lightning combination not unlike successful running back platoons of Rodriguez's past. If both are healthy, they could be comparable to the Steve Slaton-Noel Devine one-two punch from West Virginia.
Look for early enrolled, 4-star prospect Nathan Tilford to also establish himself in the rotation during spring practices.
4. Year 2 of Marcel Yates
Former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 stack struggled mightily in 2015 without All-American linebacker Scooby Wright there to mask from deficiencies. The Wildcats ranked No. 101 nationally in rushing defense in 2015, and No. 106 in scoring defense.
Rodriguez made the switch to Yates, a former Boise State assistant with a more aggressive scheme. Arizona actually dipped to No. 117 in scoring defense last season, but Yates' system showed promise. Playing personnel better suited for the blitz-heavy 3-4 base will be crucial in the scheme's development.
Youngsters and newcomers will see ample opportunity to work into the lineup over spring practices. That includes 3-star freshman Jose Ramirez, one of five early enrollees. Veterans like Jack Banda and Luca Bruno have the spring to establish the tone.
5. Rodriguez Approaching a Pivotal Season
Rodriguez saw measurable improvement through his first three seasons at Arizona, peaking in 2014 with the program's first 10-win campaign since ‘98. However, college football coaching can be a thankless profession, and the pressure is on Rodriguez to lead Arizona to marked improvement over last season's dismal showing.
The ante upped further just last month, when athletic director Greg Byrne left for the same job at Alabama. A new regime will evaluate the state of the athletics programs, including the most profitable of them all (even in basketball-mad Tucson), football.
Arizona’s Pre-Spring Outlook in the Pac-12
Arizona enters a season of uncertainty. How much improvement can Marcel Yates' defense show with more experience? Will a clearer quarterback situation stabilize a volatile offense? And, after the last two seasons, the big question: Can Arizona stay healthy throughout the fall?
While the Wildcats address lingering questions, Rich Rodriguez and Co. can take some solace in the general upheaval ongoing around the Pac-12 South.
USC has a legitimate national title contender, but otherwise, none of the other five teams show significant separation ahead of 2017. Utah should remain its dependable self, but defending divisional champion Colorado faces turnover. Arizona State and UCLA face similarly murky futures as Arizona. The opportunity for considerable improvement exists.