Rich Rodriguez has quickly put his stamp on the Arizona Wildcats and turned them into a consistent winning team during his first two seasons. In 2013, he once again rode the talents of running back Ka’Deem Carey to run his read-option spread attack and the Wildcats finished the season 8-5 for the second straight year with back-to-back bowl wins for the program for the first time since 1997-1998. But the team still struggled to make up ground in the Pac-12 South Division, finishing the year just 4-5 in conference play.
This season, Rodriguez faces his toughest challenge with Carey now gone to the NFL. The Cats will enjoy their deepest roster since Rodriguez took the reins, but they lack proven playmakers at several key positions. Even as the team prepares to open fall camp, there is a severe lack of clarity at quarterback, running back, linebacker and across the defensive line. Can Arizona find difference-makers to step up and lead the Wildcats into Pac-12 contention?
Each of the last two seasons, Rodriguez has plucked a senior quarterback from the depth chart and given them one season to be a dynamic playmaker. Last season, it was B.J. Denker who stepped into the starting role and finished the season with 3,465 total yards of offense with 29 total touchdowns as the team’s second leading rusher. Arizona has a number of options to replace him in 2014, though none of them have yet to attempt a pass in an FBS game.
There are four contenders for the No. 1 quarterback job this season and all of them showed great promise during the spring, which did nothing for clarifying the depth chart heading into the fall. Senior Jesse Scroggins, a big-armed and athletic former USC Trojans transfer, has bounced back from a slow 2013 season where injuries hampered his ability to catch on in the offense. Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, the crown jewel of Arizona’s 2013 recruiting class, has bulked up during his first year on campus and has the ability to be an elite dual-threat quarterback in Rodriguez’s system. Sophomore Connor Brewer, a transfer from the Texas Longhorns, has arguably the best grasp of the offense, but has a weaker arm and less athleticism than his counterparts. The X-factor in this race could be Jarrard Randall, a junior college transfer formerly of the LSU Tigers, who has an “unbelievable” arm, according to Rodriguez and may be the best overall athlete of the group.
Running back has a similar issue trying to replace Carey, a two-time consensus All-American and the program’s leading career rusher. None of the front-runners for reps this fall have recorded a single carry among them. The group’s most experienced option, junior Jared Baker, is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the 2013 regular season finale against the Arizona State Sun Devils after playing as the No. 3 running back last season, accumulating 127 yards on 27 carries.
During the spring, the group took another blow when former four-star redshirt frehsman Pierre Cormier announced he would be retiring from football due to concussions. That paved the way for senior Terris Jones-Grigsby, a prominent special teams contributor up to this point in his career, to take the bulk of the work with the first team this spring. Look for redshirt freshman Zach Green, a big-bodied 220-pound back, to also vie for carries this fall. But both players could be surpassed by incoming freshmen Jonathan Haden and Nick Wilson. Haden is a speedy, multi-purpose back whose versatility will serve him well in the Arizona offense while Wilson appears the best suited to be an every-down back.
The uncertainty at QB and running back for Arizona is offset by the incredible depth of talent the Cats will have at receiver this season. The group was considered a bit of a liability heading into the 2013 season but came on strong late to generate plenty of optimism for this season. After getting major contributions from three freshmen in 2013, led by Nate Phillips and his team-high 51 receptions for 696 yards and seven touchdowns, Arizona adds some serious playmaking to the group for 2014.
Senior Austin Hill returns stronger than ever after missing the 2013 season with an ACL injury and will be looking to build on his incredible 2012 campaign when he recorded 81 receptions for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’ll be joined by a pair of dynamic transfers in Davonte’ Neal, from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and Cayleb Jones, formerly of the Texas Longhorns. The group is so deep this season, that Rodriguez is considering supplementing his running back corps with players like Neal and sophomore Samajie Grant in certain packages in order to maximize the talent on the field.
The Arizona defense made great strides in 2013, moving up from dead last in the Pac-12 in 2012 to No. 8 in total defense last year. The team will have more depth on the defensive side of the ball, but will lose some of their key leaders, particularly in the defensive front. The defensive line does get senior Reggie Gilbert back after he finished 2013 with 34 tackles, including seven tackles for loss and four sacks. They also get an infusion of talent with LSU Tigers graduate transfer Jordan Allen at defensive end after he recorded 16 tackles and two sacks last season as a backup for the Tigers.
At linebacker, the team loses their top two tacklers from 2013 in Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers who combined for 193 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, and two sacks with each recording an interception that they returned for touchdowns. In their place, look for sophomore Scooby Wright to move in to a featured role at linebacker, switching from outside to inside linebacker as the need arises. As a freshman in 2013, Wright made an immediate impact, finishing third on the team with 83 tackles, including nine tackles for loss and an interception. He earned Honorable Mention All-Pac 12 honors for his effort and will be leaned heavily as a leader in 2014.
The other linebacker positions are a little murkier, however. Arizona has a number of options that have flashed potential, including sophomore Derrick Turituri who served as a pass-rush specialist in the team’s third-down defense last season and finished with 2.5 sacks as a freshman. But look for incoming freshman Jamardre Cobb to make his presence felt in fall camp as a physical and aggressive defender with the ability to really make an impact early on.
In the secondary, the team returns plenty of experience with six defensive backs on the roster who recorded at least one interception in 2013. The group will be led by their trio of safeties in seniors Tra’Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis along with junior William Parks at the bandit position. Bondurant led the team last season with four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Tevis was one of the team’s leading tacklers, recording 83 total tackles in 2013 to go with an interception and three forced fumbles. Parks finished the 2013 season strong, earning AdvoCare V100 Bowl Defensive MVP honors last season as he finished the year with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and five pass breakups.
Arizona is one of the most interesting teams to watch heading into the 2014 season because there is so much potential on this roster. With the right quarterback, the team could be a darkhorse in the Pac-12 South and make a serious run at double digit wins. They’ll be helped by a slow start to the season with non-conference games against the UNLV Rebels, UTSA Roadrunners, and Nevada Wolfpack before starting conference play against the Cal Bears who finished just 1-11 last season.
From there, however, the road gets decidedly more difficult. After a bye week, Arizona is on the road to face the Oregon Ducks on a Thursday night game in what begins a stretch that could define their season. After the Oregon game, the team returns home to face the USC Trojans, then goes on the road in back-to-back weeks against what should be an improved Washington State Cougars and Pac-12 South favorite UCLA Bruins. Their schedule eases up a bit after that leading into the regular season finale against Arizona State with Rodriguez looking for his first win in the Territorial Cup.
If the team finds a quarterback and continues to improve defensively, they will be a very dangerous team in the Pac-12 race. But with the amount of inexperience on both sides of the ball and the ever-improving competition in the Pac-12, look for the Wildcats to be right around a third-straight eight-win season in 2014.