Arizona Wildcats 2016 Preview and Prediction
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#50 Arizona Wildcats
Pac-12 South PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Rich Rodriguez, 33-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Calvin Magee, Rod Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marcel Yates
As usual, offense will once again be carrying the weight for Arizona. The Wildcats return seven starters on offense and are led by two players who need to get back to their 2014 form - quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson. Defensively, nobody knows what to expect with a new staff in Tucson. Both sides are going to have to live up and exceed expectations for Arizona to make it to another bowl under coach Rich Rodriguez.
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Previewing Arizona’s Offense
Junior Anu Solomon, twice sidelined with concussion issues, dropped from 3,793 passing yards as a freshman to 2,667 and is no longer considered the team’s quarterback of the future. But the Wildcats haven’t had time to make full evaluations of his challengers, sophomore Brandon Dawkins and freshman Khalil Tate. There is similar uncertainly at tailback, where junior Nick Wilson, a revelation as a freshman in 2014 (gaining 1,375 yards), has been frequently injured. He rushed for just 729 yards as a sophomore. Sophomore Orlando Bradford emerged as a possible starter in spring practice.
The receiving group is Arizona’s most experienced position but not necessarily its most skilled. Seniors Trey Griffey, Samajie Grant and Nate Phillips have combined for 299 career receptions, but they aren’t game-breaking, down-the-field receivers who can outrun coverage. Junior Cam Denson was used as a cornerback in 2014 and 2015 to help with depth issues on defense. He has returned to his original position and could emerge as the only deep threat of the group.
The Wildcats might be improved on the offensive line. Junior tackles Layth Friekh and Gerhard de Beer both played extensively last season and now project as starters, if not stars. The leader of the group is junior guard Jacob Alsadek, who emerged as the club’s most reliable lineman.
Previewing Arizona’s Defense
Rich Rodriguez fired his entire defensive staff and hired former Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates to remake this unit. If, as expected, Arizona abandons its old 3-3-5 formation, former nose guard Sani Fuimaono will play tackle. He seemed overmatched at nose guard for two seasons. It will also give undersized junior Parker Zellers better matchups against offensive linemen; Zellers might be the team’s most fundamentally sound defensive lineman. The rest of the line is untested and probably the league’s smallest.
Arizona has few game-ready linebackers. One of the few is senior graduate transfer Michael Barton, who made 80 tackles at Cal in 2014 and is expected to be eligible immediately. Junior DeAndre Miller recorded 50 tackles last season, but he has been injured frequently. Senior Paul Magloire was forced to move to linebacker because of injuries, not his normal position. He was overpowered and out of position much of the year but is the returning leader in tackles with 72.
About the only certainty in the secondary is that senior DaVonte Neal will start again at cornerback. He is adequate. Everything else is up for grabs. Senior Tellas Jones, who made 55 tackles a year ago, will likely reclaim his free safety job, although he was suspended for off-field disciplinary infractions in spring practice. One-time starting corner Jarvis McCall has been moved to safety, perhaps because junior Dane Cruikshank, who has not played previously, appears to be good enough to start at the other corner.
Previewing Arizona’s Specialists
Arizona is starting over in the kicking game. Freshman Josh Pollack became the clear leader as its field goal kicker in spring practice. He was also its best punter, although the Wildcats don’t want to use him both ways. Kickoff returner Tyrell Johnson is probably as fast as any returner in the Pac-12. Phillips has been outstanding returning punts.
Rodriguez’s decision to start over on defense, with an entirely new staff and system, suggests the Wildcats will struggle to avoid their first losing season since 2011. Arizona’s only all-conference player in 2015 was a punter. This year’s club might not have any all-conference players. The defense lacks a go-to player and is undersized based on Pac-12 standards. Much spins on whether Solomon will be healthy enough to start every week, or if the Wildcats will have to start over at quarterback, as they are doing on defense.