No. 71: Arizona
By Paul Myerberg // Jun 27, 2012
This time, Rich Rodriguez isn’t tiptoeing through the front door. There was never a comfort level at Michigan, where Rodriguez was pressured by the idea that he had to prove himself not just on Saturday but from Sunday to Friday, living up to the standard expected from the Wolverines’ head coach. Unlike Michigan, which warily accepted Rodriguez late in 2007 and held him at arm’s length throughout his three-year tenure, Arizona has rolled out the red carpet — come on in, make yourself comfortable, make yourself at home — what do you need? The Wildcats see in their new head coach what everyone else has forgotten: Rodriguez is unorthodox; his offense needs time to develop; he needs a steady, proven, experienced defensive coordinator to control that side of the ball; but when the pieces are in place, there aren’t many better head coaches in college football. That’s what Arizona is banking on, this idea that Rodriguez’s turn in Ann Arbor was the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. Smart move: This is going to be exciting.
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
S. Carolina St.
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 23
Last year’s prediction
So who’s going to win the Pac-12 South? I’m not convinced that it’s going to be the Wildcats. Can the Wildcats gather together and keep this train rolling along towards a fourth straight bowl trip? It’s going to take a large degree of mental fortitude to do so. That’s an intangible I really can’t quantify, and I definitely can’t do that until Arizona takes the field in September. What I can say is this: in terms of talent, I do think the Wildcats can get back into bowl play. It also stands to reason that this team will get better each week, as the offensive line rounds into form and a young defense, especially in the secondary, gets more and more game experience. Following that logic, I think Arizona will struggle early but do enough late in the year to get into bowl play. But even in a wide-open South division, I don’t think the Wildcats have what it takes to reach the Pac-12’s inaugural title game.
In a nutshell A season that ran off the rails early — very, very early. The most striking aspect of a dreadful conclusion to Mike Stoops’ stay in Tucson was the steep decline of a defense that had shown no signs of impending doom. This was one area where Stoops and his staff made a distinct impact from day one: Arizona turned the corner defensively in 2005, his debut campaign, and remained one of the most consistent defensive teams in the Pac-12 throughout the next five seasons. The bottom dropped out in 2011. The Wildcats allowed at least 34 points in each of their seven Pac-12 losses, including 48 points in an embarrassing loss at Colorado in November. There was nothing cheap about it: five Pac-12 opponents gained at least 500 yards of total offense, six averaged at least 6.2 yards per play — U.S.C. averaged 9.1 yards, which is nearly unheard of — and most simply toyed with U.A., either pounding away with the run, like Oregon, or throwing the ball with ease for 60 minutes. Stoops was dismissed after a 1-5 start, following a loss to Oregon State, and while the Wildcats won two straight to end the season, the program was clearly in a position where it needed to rebuild from the ground up. One positive note: Despite playing so terribly, Arizona still beat Arizona State.
High point The 31-27 win over Arizona State. Even when scraping along rock bottom, the Wildcats had enough in the tank to knock off the Sun Devils. That reflected well on last year’s seniors, who played with some fire down the stretch, and also bodes well for the future. If U.A. can beat A.S.U. with an interim head coach and an epically inept defense, what can the program do to its in-state rival with Rodriguez running the show?
Low point Any number of conference losses. A 48-29 loss to Colorado stands out, of course. Beyond serving as the Buffaloes’ first Pac-12 win, the 48-point total was a program-high for C.U. since dropping 65 on Nebraska in the 2007 regular season finale. Teams like Stanford and Oregon just batted Arizona around like a pinata.
Tidbit Only three head coaches in Arizona’s modern era — again, since 1936 — have posted a winning record in their first season. Two are in the College Football Hall of Fame: Warren Woodson went 6-4 in 1952 and Jim Young went 8-3 in 1973. The third coach isn’t remembered by many, but his name should ring a bell, in a way: Miles Casteel went 6-4 in 1939. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no relation between Casteel and Arizona’s new defensive coordinator.
Tidbit (325 yards edition) Arizona is 21-2 over the last four years when allowing less than 325 yards of total offense. The Wildcats were 2-0 in such games last fall — Northern Arizona and U.C.L.A. — and 7-1 in 2010, 6-1 in 2009 and 6-0 in 2008. The lone blemishes came in the 2010 Alamo Bowl, when the Wildcats suffered a 36-10 loss to Oklahoma State despite allowing only 312 yards of offense, and in a stunning, 36-33 loss to Washington in 2009; the Huskies scored two touchdowns late, including on a 37-interception return with less than three minutes left.
Tidbit (comebacks edition) Arizona needed 14 unanswered points to beat Arizona State in November. According to the university, this marked the program’s largest fourth quarter comeback since Oct. 27, 2007, when it turned a 41-26 deficit against Washington with 13 minutes left into a 48-41 victory. Arizona has netted three two-possession comebacks in the fourth quarter since 2007: Arizona State last fall, U.W. in 2007 and Stanford in 2009 — trailing by nine points early in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats scored 14 unanswered points in a 43-38 win.
Former players in the N.F.L.
23 C Colin Baxter (San Diego), LB Lance Briggs (Chicago), OG Eben Britton (Jacksonville), CB Antoine Cason (San Diego), WR Juron Criner (Oakland), WR Gino Crump (Arizona), DT Lionel Dotson (Buffalo), WR David Douglas (New York Giants), LB Ricky Elmore (San Diego), QB Nick Foles (Philadelphia), K Nick Folk (New York Jets), CB Robert Golden (Pittsburgh), OT Adam Grant (Denver), TE Rob Gronkowski (New England), RB Chris Gronkowski (Denver), FB Spencer Larsen (New England), DT Earl Mitchell (Houston), CB Nate Ness (St. Louis), LB Brooks Reed (Houston), DE D’Aundre Reed (Minnesota), WR Mike Thomas (Jacksonville), LB Paul Vassallo (Arizona), CB Trevin Wade (Cleveland).
Arbitrary top five list
Arizona’s best wins under Mike Stoops
1. 2009: Arizona 21, U.S.C. 17.
2. 2008: Arizona 31, Arizona State 10.
3. 2010: Arizona 34, Iowa 27.
4. 2008: Arizona 31, B.Y.U. 21.
5. 2007: Arizona 34, Oregon 24.
Rich Rodriguez (West Virginia ‘86), entering his first season. The first thought that enters your mind when thinking about Rodriguez is, of course, Michigan. He went 15-22 over three years with the Wolverines, leading the program into bowl play in his final season but, from top to bottom, failing to fulfill the promise that accompanied his arrival. His debut season, 2008, could not have gone much worse for Rodriguez and the Wolverines, though with the gift of hindsight, it seems relatively easy to see why it happened: Michigan simply lacked the personnel to implement the spread offense. While the Wolverines made significant growth offensively over Rodriguez’s three years, the defense never caught up; when looking back on his tenure, this defense and Rodriguez’s own missteps — he was never embraced by the fan base, for one reason or another — were the primary causes of his dreadful tenure. What you need to remember about Rodriguez is simple: Michigan looms large, but with West Virginia as our evidence, there aren’t many coaches who can do more when given time, support and the opportunity. After going 3-8 in his first season in Morgantown, West Virginia made a rapid climb to the top of the Big East. Rodriguez’s accomplishments while leading the Mountaineers speak for themselves: a 60-26 overall record, four Big East championships (2003-5, 2007) and three straight seasons with at least 10 victories (2005-7). Before his time with the Mountaineers, Rodriguez’s previous B.C.S. conference coaching experience involved two stops as offensive coordinator under Tommy Bowden: two years at Tulane (1997-98) and two years at Clemson (1999-2000). The 1998 Tulane team finished the season 12-0, one of only two teams in the F.B.S. to finish undefeated that year. At West Virginia, Rodriguez showed an ability to take a team unaccustomed to his offense and quickly move it into the conference and national title conversation. No, it didn’t work at Michigan. His offense, his coaching style, his unorthodox nature — on the field and off — and his overall blueprint will work like gangbusters at Arizona. This is exciting.
Tidbit (coaching edition) You know the names. Calvin Magee and Rod Smith, two loyal Rodriguez assistants at both W.V.U. and Michigan, will serve as co-offensive coordinators; Magee will also work with the running backs and Smith with the quarterbacks, as expected. Another longtime assistant, Tony Dews, will coach the wide receivers. While tight ends coach Spencer Leftwich has never worked with Rodriguez, he’s been an offensive line coach in the F.B.S. since 1992: New Mexico State, North Texas — from 1994-2002 — Tulsa and, last fall, Pittsburgh. The one coaching holdover from the previous staff is offensive line coach Robert Anae. Good move by Rodriguez: Anae is a very good line coach with a familiarity with spread systems — he was once Mike Leach’s line coach — who has also called plays in the past.
The biggest addition, of course, is the one who didn’t come along in 2008: Jeff Casteel. Most have suggested that Rodriguez’s turn at Michigan would have gone differently had Casteel come along four years ago; I don’t totally subscribe to that idea, since his 3-3-5 look might have struggled against bigger Big Ten offenses, but Casteel’s system is tailor-made for the Pac-12. As at West Virginia, Tony Gipson will coach the safeties, Bill Kirlewach the defensive line and David Lockwood the cornerbacks. One other note: To underline just what value Rodriguez places on special teams, consider the fact that he has two special teams coordinators, with Gipson coaching the defensive teams and Leftwich the offensive teams.
Players to watch
Never before has Rodriguez been blessed with a quarterback capable of running his entire offensive system from the start. At West Virginia in 2001, Rodriguez inherited a pass-first quarterback in Brad Lewis, to sour results. Remember Michigan in 2008? Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan gave it their all, but neither could throw the ball consistently, let alone provide the sort of running threat Rodriguez’s offense demands. So, what does Rodriguez want from his quarterback – better yet, what does he want from this offense? In brief: Rodriguez wants to confuse the defense pre-snap with motion; he wants to shuffle personnel onto the field and force the defense to react, and not vice versa; he wants to get up to line immediately, rarely if ever huddling; he wants to put his skill players in a mismatch, plain and simple.
More often than not, he achieves this feat. That’s the goal of motion, to gauge what the defense is bringing to the table, and it’s after Rodriguez sees what is available that he’ll send a final play in to his quarterback – you remember all the bells and whistles, the yelling and gesticulation, the color-coded cards and the like. What this offense does is take the fight to the defense; it’s rare in this sense, though Rodriguez’s full-throttle style has spread nationwide since his heyday with the Mountaineers.
That’s the offense, in brief: attacking, motion-based, aimed on taking advantage of the defense, predicated on speed, speed and speed. What Rodriguez has in Matt Scott, a senior, is a quarterback suited to control the flow of this system. It’s ironic, in a way: Arizona’s pass-first system under Stoops didn’t fit under Scott’s skill set, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if Scott had opted to transfer as an underclassmen – to a place like Michigan, for example. Scott hung around, taking a redshirt last fall, and his patience paid off once Rodriguez signed on the dotted line.
Scott is a true dual-threat quarterback, but that he spent so many years in a passing offense is actually a positive, seeing that he does not need a complete overhaul of his mechanics. He played in 22 games from 2008-10, starting five times, and threw for 1,301 yards and 6 touchdowns while completing 64.7 percent of his attempts. At his best, Scott can play like he did against Washington in 2010: 18 of 22 for 233 yards, 65 yards on the ground. At his worst under the previous staff, Scott was an inconsistent passer wasted in the wrong offense.
So we look at both parties – Scott and Rodriguez – and see, on paper, a wonderful marriage. Scott has the arm and legs to fit this offense to the letter. After stumbling out of the gate from the start at each of his last two stops, Rodriguez has a first-year quarterback who can carry the water. Is the relationship going to be perfect? No, because Scott is still relatively inexperienced – and U.A. isn’t quite going forward with a full deck across the offense. But Rodriguez couldn’t ask for much more from his new starting quarterback.
I think that the Wildcats are going to be able to run the ball effectively. Rephrased: Arizona has the pieces to run the ball effectively if the offensive line can gel in this new system by September. While you didn’t see much from Scott in the running game during the spring – U.A. wasn’t taking a chance with injuries – the Wildcats did showcase a handful of running backs. One is sophomore Ka’Deem Carey (425 yards, 6 touchdowns), the team’s leading returning rusher. A second is junior Daniel Jenkins (176 yards), who might have held a bigger role last fall if not for lingering injuries. The Wildcats also return a pair of larger backs in seniors Taimi Tutogi and Greg Nwoko; the team’s leading rusher in 2010, Nwokwo missed all of last season due to a knee injury. There’s a nice blend here: Carey’s the best of the bunch, but there’s a role for tougher runners like Nwoko and Tutogi. Add in Scott to another handful of younger backs and you have the weapons to make things happen on the ground.
Three good signs for Arizona’s offensive line: one, after breaking in a brand-new cast last fall the Wildcats return all five starters; two, bringing back Anae helps provide further continuity; and three, the line as a whole has already started the process of cutting weight to play in Rodriguez’s system. These are good things. But don’t think that returning starters, the same coach and some lost tonnage is going to mean that U.A. is going to excel in its first season under Rodriguez – it’s not as easy as that, and it’s going to take the line most of this coming season to grow comfortable in this offense.
New year, same story: sophomore Mickey Baucus at left tackle, junior Chris Putton at left guard, senior Kyle Quinn at center – he’s the line’s best – senior Trace Biskin at right guard and sophomore Fabbians Ebbele at right tackle. If the Wildcats had remained in the same offense you’d project major improvement across the board. Instead, I think you’ll see growth, but growth tinged by unsteady progress in the new system. Consider how long it took Florida State to grasp Rick Trickett’s system – and the Seminoles weren’t making such a full-bore scheme change as Arizona is heading into this season. It could certainly be worse; U.A. could have no returning experience. But the line is going to hit a few speed bumps throughout the season.
Despite some concerns over line play and questions regarding the receiver corps – more on that below – it’s safe to say that Arizona’s offense is ahead of its defense. This is true for several reasons, none more important than these two: one, the offense has the pieces to hit the ground running; and two, this defense needs so much work, needs to rebuilt nearly from the ground up, that it’s impossible to see even a coordinator with Casteel’s track record turning things around from the start. There was nothing that this defense did well last fall, from stopping the run to getting to the quarterback to slowing down the pass; this defense needs more work than the offense, which again stands in direct contrast to Rodriguez’s debut season with the Wolverines.
Before moving on to Arizona’s personnel, a few notes on Casteel’s 3-3-5 defense. Like Rodriguez’s system, Casteel stresses speed at each level. Think of how West Virginia utilized defenders over the last few seasons: skinny outside linebackers at end; bigger ends inside; quick-twitch athletes at linebackers; safeties who can run; cornerbacks who are physical yet capable of turning and running with opposing receivers. Does Arizona have this sort of personnel? Not yet, no. But there is enough talent to make some things happen in 2012, though I do think that this defense is not quite ready to hang tough with teams like U.S.C., Oregon and Washington.
Now, another big-picture take: Can Casteel’s defense work in the Pac-12? You better believe it. This defense is made to work in the Pac-12, in my mind: it’s made to run, hit and play aggressively, to match up speed with speed, and that makes it a perfect fit to match up against the league’s premier offenses. Again, it’s important to keep that in mind even when U.A. struggles through an inevitable learning curve defensively in 2012.
One problem on Arizona’s plate is a lack of prototypical defensive ends – prototypical in this system, rather. The Wildcats’ options at the position include seniors Lamar De Rego and Dominique Austin, sophomores Dan Pettinato (16 tackles) and Reggie Gilbert and three incoming freshmen. Not one is going to strike fear into opposing offensive tackles; not one is going to be the pure edge rusher this defense needs at end. What this means for Casteel is that he’s going to need to cobble together a pass rush through other means, likely by bringing pressure at linebacker, which in turn could have a negative impact on Arizona’s pass defense. It’s one thing to consider.
What the Wildcats do have is bodies at tackle, both because a few former ends can move inside and because after needing two starting tackles for years, this defense now needs only one. When it comes to a starter, Casteel can pick from a group of experienced alternatives: Jowyn Ward, Justin Washington (18 tackles), Sione Tuihalamaka (19 tackles) and Kirifi Taula (21 tackles, 4.0 for loss) – the latter an end that’s shifting to tackle. One thing these tackles provide for Casteel is the option, should he so choose, to spend more time in a four-lineman set than during his years at West Virginia. That Taula can play end in a 4-3 set increases his value.
So the line needs work. The linebacker corps, on the other hand, has the pieces to click from day one. And the group could have been even better: Arizona landed a one-year rental in former Akron linebacker Brian Wagner, a first-team all-MAC pick last fall, but Wagner opted not to play for Rodriguez and the Wildcats in 2012. This loss – if you can call it a loss – hurts U.A., but Casteel will have three players with starting experience at his disposal. One is junior Jake Fischer, who was one of the team’s leading tacklers in 2010 but missed all of last season due to a knee injury. A pair of sophomores earned starts last fall: Rob Hankins started three times and Hank Hobson once. The Wildcats also welcome in three true freshmen, including one, C.J. Dozier, who enrolled early. A lot is riding on Fischer, who is an all-conference contender when healthy, and U.A. is also relying on steady play from two fairly untested sophomores. But on the whole, Casteel inherits a nice group.
It’s in the secondary that Arizona is going to see the greatest improvement. Throwing all the blame for last year’s defensive struggles on the secondary is idiotic: Arizona couldn’t sniff the quarterback nor stop the run up front, taxing this talented but uneven starting group. In Casteel, Gipson and Lockwood, the Wildcats have a threesome more than capable of helping this secondary make a night-and-day improvement against the pass.
Even after losing a potential contributor in Cortez Johnson midway through the spring, Arizona has adequate depth at cornerback. If he’s recovered from his own knee injury, sophomore Jonathan McKnight will be the Wildcats’ stopper. While U.A. returns junior Shaq Richardson (47 tackles, 4 interceptions), a 10-game starter last fall, he was pushed for a top role during the spring by junior Derrick Rainey – both started while McKnight was sidelined in April, but Rainey played well enough to carry his head-to-head battle with Richardson over into August. Richardson’s experience, even if he’s been unsteady, might give him an edge, however. As with Fischer, Arizona needs a full season out of McKnight.
Speaking of knee injuries: Adam Hall suffered another A.C.L. tear. Poor guy. A projected starter had he recovered from last season’s A.C.L. injury, Hall’s future with the program is now in serious doubt. It’s looking more and more likely that Arizona is going to start a former walk-on, Adam Tevis, at free safety. Rodriguez and Casteel love his physicality, but there’s no question his head will be spinning come September; heading into the sprint, Tevis was looked at as a special teams contributor and little more. He would join returning starter Marquis Flowers (68 tackles) at safety, with sophomore Tra’Mayne Bondurant (45 tackles) at Arizona’s hybrid spot – the fifth defensive back.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver Juron Criner was Arizona’s big-play threat, its red zone threat, its third down threat and its only real threat of consequence, so losing him does impact a receiver corps short on a healthy amount of depth. Losing Criner doubles the painful steps involved in moving into this system – one that has outside receivers and inside receivers, as you know. And it’s not just Criner: Arizona must replace three of its top four receivers, including David Douglas, who made 117 catches over his final two seasons.
When the year begins, you’ll see former Texas transfer Dan Buckner (42 catches for 606 yards) and sophomore Austin Hill (21 for 311) outside and sophomores Gharic Wharton and Tyler Slavin inside. With his speed – probably the fast skill player on the team – Wharton’s a nice fit on the inside. That’s your top four. Is it good enough? Well, that depends on what U.A. needs from its receivers. Big plays? Yes, but in a different way: Arizona needs big plays via the catch-and-run in this offense, not necessarily big plays down the field. That might be trouble for a bigger, lankier receiver like Buckner, who is made to play in a more pro-style system.
And while the Wildcats have numbers, including several pretty nice incoming freshmen, depth is a concern. Outside of junior Richard Morrison (22 receptions), no reserve receiver played much of a role in 2011; this means that the Wildcats are going to need some snaps from some untested targets, if not one or two of the rookies. Technically, the lack of depth won’t keep the passing game from rolling along – if the Wildcats do struggle, it’ll be due to the fact that the talent simply isn’t quite there.
Game(s) to watch
The Toledo game is huge, not only because it’s the debut for Rodriguez and his staff but because U.A. needs to go to 2-1 during non-conference play in order to reach bowl eligibility. Despite having some very nice pieces in place, the Wildcats remain two big steps behind teams like U.S.C., Oregon and Stanford — and one full step behind divisional rival Utah, a road date in late November. What Arizona needs to do in 2012 is take advantage of the winnable games throughout the season: Toledo, South Carolina State, Oregon State, U.C.L.A., Colorado and Arizona State. Taking care of business against this group would either cement bowl eligibility or leave U.A. in a place where it would need only one upset to reach six wins. Don’t sleep on the Wildcats’ ability to beat anyone, but I do see four clear losses on this schedule.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell It’ll take two years for people to remember how good a coach Rodriguez really is. Most shouldn’t have forgotten – everyone minus those in Ann Arbor – but you’ll begin to recall just what he brings to the table in 2012, when Rodriguez sneaks a beaten-down program into the back end of bowl play. Yes, despite a nasty conference schedule, the Wildcats have the leadership on the coaching staff to land six wins during the regular season. Just don’t get greedy: U.A. has a long ways to go before reaching its potential, and despite the feel-good tenor surrounding this program, it would not be wise to expect anything more than increased competitiveness and a lesser bowl. Why? Because of the issues that dot the depth chart. The receiver corps needs work, even if you trust the top quartet. The backfield is still waiting for one rusher to step up and grab the top role. The defensive line is very weak. While the back eight is better, Arizona is relying heavily on two players coming off season-ending knee injuries. The good news is that the Wildcats have several pieces that should fit right into the new schemes: Scott, for example, gives Rodriguez a major weapon at quarterback. The running game should be the team’s strongest weapon offensively. While the offensive line will struggle acclimating itself to the new system, it is far more experienced than at this time a year ago. The linebacker corps is strong; if healthy, the secondary is going to make a substantial improvement. So why not get fully on board? Because the growing pains are going to hurt. The team you see in September won’t be the same team you see in November; the team you see in November will not be the same team you see the following season. Arizona isn’t yet ready to run with the Pac-12’s big dogs, but the program is pointed in the right direction. At some point over the next 24 months, we’re all going to be reminded of how good a coach Rodriguez really is.
Dream season One of Arizona’s eight wins is a 48-10 destruction of Arizona State. The seven remaining wins include a program-making victory over Oklahoma State, a home win over Washington and a road win against Utah, with the latter clinching second place in the Pac-12 South.
Nightmare season The offense isn’t as ready for prime time as some think, but it’s the defense that fails to improve in a 3-9 regular season. Two of those wins come in conference play: Oregon State and Colorado. Todd Graham gets the better of Rodriguez and the Wildcats, 27-13.
In case you were wondering
Where do Arizona fans congregate? Start with GoAZCats.com and Wildcat Scoop, the two big boys among Arizona fan sites. Don’t sleep on UASports.net, a fine independent Web site. For a blog’s take, check out Arizona Desert Swarm and Wildcat Sports Report. Ryan Finley covers all the bases — including Arizona’s title-winning baseball team — over on the Web site of the Arizona Daily Star.
Arizona’s all-name nominee LB Sir Thomas Jackson.
Through 54 teams 206,079.
Who is No. 70? Tomorrow’s programmed schedule an F.C.S. foe for its homecoming game, and not just any F.C.S. foe: this team has had not a winning season since 2001, and over the last decade has gone 34-79.
Tags: Adam Tevis, Arizona, Austin Hill, C.J. Dozier, Calvin Magee, Dan Buckner, Dan Pettinato, Daniel Jenkins, Gharic Wharton, Greg Nwoko, Jake Fischer, Jeff Casteel, Jonathan McKnight, Ka'Deem Carey, Krifi Taula, Kyle Quinn, Matt Scott, Pac-12, Rich Rodriguez, Rod Smith, Shaq Richardson, Sione Tuihalamaka, Tony Gipson, Tra'Mayne Bondurant
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