March came in like a lion, vis a vis Rich Rodriguez’s brutally honest assessment of his Arizona football team’s conditioning.
Spring football is past, and the season did not exactly go out like a lamb. The menagerie that describes UA’s season-before-the-season is…well, let’s let the late John Belushi describe it.
The month-plus in which Rodriguez and staff began molding the new-look Wildcats leave us with some key plotlines to marinate on until August.
- Matt Scott blazing his own trail
It might be difficult enough for quarterback Matt Scott, following two starters in Willie Tuitama and Nick Foles who were each touted the best in Arizona history.
With Rodriguez’s arrival, Scott will also be compared to star signal callers beyond the UA program, like Denard Robinson and Pat White.
Scott will play a much different game from Tuitama and Foles. His ability to move separates him from the purely pocket passers who set the bar for Wildcat quarterbacks.
And while Scott rushed for nearly 1000 yards his senior season at Centennial (Corona, Calif.), he won’t be the same ball carrier threat past Rodriguez protégés Robinson and White were.
His ability to run the Sonny Dykes-implemented spread while also carrying the football makes him unique. Allowing him to become his own player is paramount for the offense finding its identity.
- A crowded backfield
After Nicolas Grigsby’s on-again, off-again availability in 2010 and Greg Nwoko’s torn ACL last spring, multiple options is a decided improvement.
Ka’Deem Carey was forced to contribute as a true freshman with last year’s thin backfield needing a feature back. The reps began to pay dividends late in the season, as Carey began developing into the No. 1 option he was recruited to be down the stretch.
Carey beat out Daniel Jenkins for carries last season, but Jenkins should factor into the offense as an effective option in spot duty. Keola Antolin is gone, but Kylan Butler should assume third down opportunities.
Nwoko showed glimpses of being a capable short yardage back in ’10, but the redshirt junior offers a similar skill set to that of Taimi Tutogi. Neither are prototypes of past Rodriguez offenses, but through spring it’s been apparent that his staff is taking a new approach.
All those options translate into something Scott described as unstoppable to Anthony Gimino:
"It's going to be really hard with the backs we have -- me running and them running -- for the defense to cover that," [Scott] said. "I don't even think it's possible."
- Many to replace one
Juron Criner was UA’s top receiving weapon every season since 2009. His departure leaves a gap in the corps. The Wildcats are deep at this position, but will the efforts of many be enough to compensate for Criner’s production?
Scott will have plenty of options among which to spread the ball: Richard Morrison, Dan Buckner, Austin Hill, Tyler Slavin; the multifaceted group will keep defenses honest and open opposing defenses. The red zone will be the true test, though. Criner was a magnet for touchdown passes within the 10-yard line.
- A thin secondary
UA was notorious for its inability to stop the rush last season, but the Wildcats were often back on their heels in the secondary. Cortez Johnson transferred out of the program late last month. For a secondary already tissue thin, it was like a splash of water.
That leaves Shaq Richardson at cornerback and a lot of *shrugs*. Kevin Zimmerman summed it up well during the spring game.
@kensing45 asked how the defensive backs were doing in the 3-3-5. Connor Sohns and Douglas Samuels are playing corner sooo ...— Azdesertswarm.com (@azdesertswarm) April 14, 2012
Richardson was the team leader in interceptions, but susceptible to over-anticipation and thus getting beat deep.
Safety was looking more stable than corner with Marquis Flowers returning. But Saturday, Adam Hall suffered his second torn ACL in as many years.
Talented Tra’Mayne Bondurant will benefit from the new formation. He is moving to the Spur position, away from linebacker. Spur fits Bondurants skill set, and it frees up spots that will be occupied by some proven talents at linebacker.
- Veteran Additions at Linebacker
The only player in all of the FBS to average more tackles per game than Brian Wagner was Boston College’s Luke Kuechly. Kuechly will go in the first round of this month’s NFL Draft, so that is some elite company.
The transfer from Akron adds instant punch to the linebacking corps as well as veteran savvy. The same is true for Jake Fischer, who was lost to injury a season ago. Fischer was a leading tackler on the 2010 defense, registering 58 tackles and a pair of sacks.
- Pressuring the pocket
Hardly all of the Wildcats’ defensive woes a season ago can be attributed to the secondary. Your rush defense isn’t ranked No. 117 nationally without serious issues off the line. Another piece of evidence exposing how mightily the defensive front struggled is a No. 116 ranked sack production.
The entire Wildcat roster failed to record as many sacks in 2011 (10) as graduated Ricky Elmore made in 2010 (11.5).
There’s no shortage of experience on that side, and that unit could get a boost from moving to a three-man front. Blitzes coming from new locations will change how offensive coordinators must scheme for blocking.
However, establishing a consistent rusher in the middle is critical. Justin Washington struggled through injuries and regressed after a productive 2010. Washington was also one of the players involved in a March arrest for a fight at a Tucson house.
Willie Mobley is coming off his own injury, and lacks Washington’s experience.