The sting of two losses to close an otherwise dream 2014 season left members of the Arizona football team with a lingering, bad taste in the offseason. The Wildcats finally get a chaser with kickoff of the 2015 campaign Thursday at Arizona Stadium.
Arizona opens with the final leg of a three-game series against fledgling Conference USA program, UTSA. The Wildcats won the first big in 2013, but had to sweat out a 26-23 nail-biter last September in San Antonio. Their season launched into the stratosphere from there, while the Roadrunners faded to a 4-8 finish — the worst mark in the program's very brief history.
Last season's UTSA roster was among the most veteran in college football. The first wave of recruits in program history departed, making the 2015 edition of Roadrunner football especially young. Head coach Larry Coker is starting nine new players on offense and eight on defense.
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez was in a similar position last year, starting a bevy of youngsters. Pac-12 Networks' J.B. Long astutely noted just how young on Twitter.
If the Wildcats' inexperience showed against the veteran savvy of UTSA last year, the roles are reversed this time around.
UTSA at Arizona
Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona -31.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Anu Solomon A Year Older
Chief among the new starters in the Arizona lineup last season was quarterback Anu Solomon. Entering his redshirt sophomore campaign, Solomon is the first two-year starter Rodriguez has had since arrival in 2012. Another year more familiar with the system and another year wiser have set high expectations for the quarterback.
Thursday is the nation's first look at Solomon with another eight months of refinement. For Solomon, it's his first chance to exorcize the bad memory of taking a sack just yards from the goal line and Arizona driving late in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State. Expect the now-veteran Solomon to take out his frustrations on UTSA early and often.
2. DaVonte' Neal's Defensive Transition
Former 5-star recruit and Notre Dame transfer Neal was effective in Arizona's deep wide receiving corps, catching 27 passes for 214 yards, but hardly a standout. To make a bigger impact, Neal went to the Arizona coaching staff with a pitch: Put him on a defense, Rodriguez said Neal asked. So far, the coach is loving the idea.
"It's been a really good move for him," Rodriguez said, adding that Neal's "energy" brought a needed element to the Wildcat secondary.
Arizona needs that energy to translate into big plays. The Wildcats lost several key contributors in the secondary, including Jourdan Grandon and Tra'Mayne Bondurant. Neal takes over a cornerback spot capably manned by Jonathan McKnight for the duration of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's tenure at Arizona.
3. Scooby Snacks
The Arizona sports information department launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for linebacker Scooby Wright last season, which included weekly emails to remind awards voters to watch for #ScoobySnacks. Wright enters 2015 in that rare position as a defense-only player with a legitimate Heisman buzz, but he'll have to replicate his monster numbers from a year ago to remain in the conversation.
If all goes according to plan for the Wildcats Thursday, Wright won't have to play long. That means packing as many Scooby Snacks — those are tackles, tackles for a loss, sacks and forced fumbles, by the way — in early as he can.
Arizona and UTSA are in much different positions than when they met a year ago. Coker is overseeing his first rebuild after the initial building project, while Rodriguez has the Wildcats positioned to be a player on the national landscape.
Solomon's first pass against the Roadrunners last year went more than 80 yards for a touchdown. It was the last time the quarterback threw a score on the night. Expect him to do much more damage against a completely new secondary, and with the Wildcats returning one of the deepest receiving corps in college football. The counter-punch of running back Nick Wilson, who rushed for 174 yards on the Roadrunners last season, should sufficiently stagger UTSA.