Arizona Football Takes A More Tempered Approach to Spring

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 19: Runningback Ka'Deem Carey #25 of the Arizona Wildcats rushes the football against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Tempe, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils 31-27. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

There’s something poetic about sports in the spring. April might be the most optimistic month on the athletic calendar – take it from a Cubs fan.

Football practices coinciding with the start of the Major League Baseball season is appropriate in that regard. The promise that this might be the year that follows first pitch is matched with the hope that, uh…emerges eternal (trying to lay off the obvious pun) in spring football workouts.

Among Rich Rodriguez’s first actions as Arizona football coach was tempering some of the irrational exuberance that spring elicits. His comments about the team's overall strength last month generated some buzz, because it deviated so far from the typical rosy line coaches espouse this time of year.

Like the new regime heading up baseball's Northsiders had, Rodriguez let the public know up front there would be bumps in the road.

The debut season of the Rodriguez era has positives. Matt Scott is a tested quarterback, with a skill set that suits what Rodriguez and his offensive staff are implementing. Tailback Ka’Deem Carey steadily progressed through his freshman campaign, and will factor heavily into next year’s equation. Both are behind an experienced line.

There is no shortage of concern, either. The defense was among the nation’s worst in 2011. Such putrid production doesn’t change overnight, particularly when a new coordinator is introducing a different scheme. Jeff Casteel has taken a wait-and-see approach with the defense's adaptation to the 3-3-5 stack.

Juxtapose what is coming out publicly from Tucson, with the reports wafting from Westwood and a program in a similar situation as UA. UCLA went 6-8 in 2011, including a blowout loss in Arizona Stadium that likely sealed Rick Neuheisel’s fate as head coach.

UCLA welcomed its own new head coach, and initial analysis might lead one to believe Jim L. Mora had led the Bruins to a Rose Bowl.

OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. But discussion of the new look Bruins gleefully exalts their shift in attitude and stockade of talent. Neuheisel's recruiting classes were routinely ranked in the top third among Pac teams. The 2012 season could be the proverbial chickens coming home to roost under Mora's watch.

Then again, this isn't the first time UCLA spring ball has been touted as finally, the shift the program has needed. It happened under Neuheisel, even last spring. But it isn't confined to Westwood. Spring is simply the season of optimism, and without games there are no accurate gauges to dissuade enthusiasm.

In other words, the Cubs typically have their expectations crushed by Memorial Day; football programs cling to theirs for nearly a half-year.

So is Rodriguez’s realistic approach a breath of fresh air amid the myriad hot air blown from camps nationwide? Or is he prematurely apologizing for an impending failure that comes along with a rebuilding project? Three weeks of kudos in April might be a confidence boost, but a stern outlook could ignite a fire to improve.

There won’t be a definitive answer for at least five months, when UA officially kicks off the Rodriguez era against a very good Toledo team. A lot can happen in five months, which is why the sentiment expressed one way or another this time of year is overblown.

Spring practice is important. All practices are vital to establishing the rhythm and chemistry of a team. That's why making a bowl game is so important. That extra month of practice often resonates with returning players. However, spring ball is only the beginning.

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