Arizona will be returning the nucleus of the team, putting them in great position to repeat as Pac-12 South Champs. Although, they're stuck in the most competitive division in college football (looking at you, SEC West), so how can Arizona keep the crown? Here are three keys for Arizona this season.
For whatever reason, Arizona hasn't had a great return game over the last few years. Arizona has had one kick return go the distance in the Rich Rodriguez era and that was Cayleb Jones with a return of 44-yards, courtesy of an onside kick by Wazzu. Arizona has the speed, but just maybe not the blocking or reads to really put themselves in good field position to start a drive. But with Tyrell Johnson another year wiser, there's no reason why he shouldn't be the main kick return man, especially considering his speed in the open field.
DaVonte' Neal has the speed and shiftiness to return kicks, but sometimes he just makes you shake your head on the punts he decides to field, or stay dangerously close to after the first bounce. Johnny Jackson and Nate Phillips are also viable options to help in the punt return game, which might help ease the nerves on 4th down.
Arizona is going to be playing through 12 straight games this season. We're going to need a healthy Anu Solomon, a Heisman hopeful, to lead the offense. That also includes keeping Nick Wilson involved, yet mindful of his touches and workload. Having Jared Baker and either Jonathan Haden or incoming freshman Orlando Bradford as the second and third options will help relieve the pressure.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona is going to need some younger guys to step up on the defensive line and make big time plays. With Jeff Worthy, Parker Zellers, and Reggie Gilbert holding the most experience, JuCo transfer Anthony Fotu, redshirt freshman Marcus Griffin and redshirt sohpomore Calvin Allen will have to contribute.
The linebacker situation isn't a concern with Scooby Wright III, Jake Matthews, Derrick Turituri and Cody Ippolito returning. DeAndre' Miller should also find a role, and we're still waiting on Jamardre Cobb and Marquis Ware to make a splash.
But when you take it to the next level, there might be a lack of depth at corner. Jarvis McCall will most likely hold down one corner spot, which leaves DaVonte' Neal and Cam Denson up to the last spot. But with former Michigan corner Blake Countess visiting campus this week, he could easily slide into the second spot, should he decide to transfer.
This incoming recruiting class is also loaded with corners that can see the field early, including Dane Cruikshank, Antonio Parks, and Sam Morrison.
Arizona's safety depth took the biggest hit this season, with Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Jourdan Grandon and Jared Tevis all graduating. It's up to William Parks to continue his leadership role in the secondary. He'll have Tellas Jones and Jamar Allah backing him, with great depth including Arizona Western College transfer Paul Magloire and senior Anthony Lopez.
Arizona ran just over 84 plays a game last season, ranked 6th in the nation. But there were times were the offense completely stalled out for long periods of time, giving the defense no break.
We saw this against California, where Arizona had to score 36 points in the fourth quarter to come back and win on a Hail Mary. A few weeks later, Arizona was held to just six points at the half vs USC, which is even more painful considering Arizona outscored USC 13-0 in the 4th quarter. And quite possibly the worst offensive performance was at UCLA, where Arizona was held scoreless for the final 57 minutes of the game. And most recently, the Fiesta Bowl, where Arizona scored just six points on five possessions inside Boise State territory in the second half.
Yes, sometimes the play call has you scratching your head. Now, with Rich Rodriguez and his offensive mindset, you have to believe it's called for a reason, whether it may be him thinking it's the best play call in that situation, or a setup to bait the defense later in the game.
But with the games listed above, the defense did all that it could to keep Arizona in the game. But when you have consecutive three-and-outs, that can gas the defense and create some issues.
Arizona has a relatively favorable schedule this season, but it will be no easy task to repeat as Pac-12 South Champs, especially considering the target on their back.