Week five is over and the Arizona Wildcats are sitting on a 2-2 record coming off their bye week. There are some really good things about this team, mainly the defense. And then there are some really bad things, like the offense.
Is Arizona exceeding expectations by playing Houston and Utah so close? Or are they underperforming given the frustrating results from both games? The status of the program is really unclear, and could really be spun either way.
But for now, here are five things we do know about this team as we come off the bye week.
Quarterback play and play calling are an issue
The offense has been completely frustrating to watch, to say the least. Brandon Dawkins has been making poor decisions, including throwing into traffic, throwing the ball away after the defense jumps offside, and running the ball well short of the first down marker on third down, to name a few.
While I do think it’s time to give Khalil Tate a whirl, I don’t think he’s the immediate answer to Arizona’s offensive woes. His upside certainly brings the appeal, and his athleticism and flashes of accuracy are certainly promising.
Over the past few years, Rich Rodriguez hasn’t exactly put his quarterbacks in the best situation. Whether it’s designed rollouts that take away half the field and result in a wasted play or opening up drives with passing plays that ultimately force a third and 10, it hasn’t been great play calling. Even worse are the situations that Tate has been forced into almost every time he’s entered a game.
I don’t think any quarterbacks on the roster are the long-term answer for Arizona, and the offense isn’t just going to suddenly kick into high gear. So with that, it’s going to be up to Rodriguez to “re-evaluate”, something he loves to do every offseason and bye week, and start putting his offense, and quarterbacks, into a playmaking situation.
Injuries are still a problem
We've seen a lot of injuries during the Rich Rodriguez era and this season is no different. With the exception of maybe Shun Brown and J.J. Taylor, no one on this roster is really deemed invaluable. Still, the injuries piled up before the season even began and have kept a lot of experienced guys out.
DeAndre’ Miller has yet to play after having foot surgery prior to the season. While Kylan Wilborn has been an extremely pleasant surprise at stud, Miller is by far the most experienced linebacker on the roster.
Cam Denson has had high expectations since he entered the program, didn’t work out on defense and is struggling to get stay healthy and lineup as Arizona’s top outside receiver.
Arizona added some massive size this recruiting cycle with Sione Taufahema, who came into the program overweight, and out of shape, battling an injury suffered sometime after spring practice. He’s listed at 6-foot-1, 330 pounds, and is the size Arizona wants.
Scottie Young Jr. has started all four games at free safety in place of Isaiah Hayes, who is coming off should surgery. I love what Young brings, but Hayes is another promising young piece in the secondary to have out there. Now with Young’s pending punishment, it could very well be redshirt freshman Jarrius Wallace coming in at free safety.
The tight end depth is depleted after Brion Anduze medically retired this summer, and both Trevor Wood and Jamie Nunley have had injuries limit their time on the field this season. All summer Rodriguez has raved about Wood and his health, but he’s had several setbacks. True freshman Bryce Wolma has taken advantage, and now leads the team in receptions.
Rodriguez says that Khalil Tate is banged up and dealing with a shoulder injury, which has kept him out the past two games. I’m not entirely sure how much I buy that, but it is what it is.
And one of the more quiet, yet impactful injuries was to long snapper Nick Reinhardt, who suffered a torn ACL. The field goal unit has not quite the same since he went down, and might have been the difference in Arizona’s two losses.
The good news here is that Nick Wilson and Tyrell Johnson are both healthy. Wilson has missed one game, Houston, but has still been able to share a decent workload in the backfield.
Johnson already has nine receptions on the season, compared to his 13 career receptions heading into 2017. If he can get the ball, he can create some explosive plays for Arizona.
3. Special teams has ups and downs
As I mentioned above, I think the injury to Reinhardt, and the impact it has had, isn’t getting enough attention.
Arizona has allowed three blocked field goals, and the blame has been sent straight to Josh Pollack and Lucas Havrisik. Now, maybe the trajectory was a little low on those kicks, but the snaps have been errant.
Reinhardt has been handling most long snapping duties since 2015 and having Donald Reiter and Nathan Eldridge come in isn’t nearly the same.
I’m not necessarily saying that Arizona is 4-0 if Nick Reinhardt is healthy, but they’re a few field goals (or turnovers) away from being undefeated.
On the bright side, the punt return teams looks tremendously better, and getting Shun Brown more touches is what Arizona needs.
Arizona is also averaging just over 25 yards on kick return this season. Compare that to 2016, where they averaged 17 yards a return.
Jake Glatting has taken over punting duties and is averaging under 40 yards a punt, so there’s room to improve there. Havrisik has been ridiculous on kickoffs, forcing 19 touchbacks on 28 kicks.
4. The future is bright for the defense
There are really about five true freshmen that are playing a majority of the snaps on defense.
Kylan Wilborn, Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II more or less are the starting linebackers. At free safety Scottie Young has taken over for the injured Isaiah Hayes. And Kurtis Brown seems to be playing more and more reps as the season goes on.
Jalen Harris is also rotating in, and over the course of the season we’ll probably see more of JB Brown and Anthony Pandy, who have already made the most of their limited playing time.
The secondary is having some growing pains, and Lorenzo Burns has constantly been attacked on his side, which leads to his 16 solo tackles, which is tied for first. He has 21 total tackles on the season, just two behind the leader, Tony Fields.
Justin Belknap is still a redshirt sophomore, giving him two more years in the program. Finton Connolly is also growing into a bigger role, and also has two years remaining.
Jacob Colacion was another athletic linebacker coming out of high school, and it’s impressive to see what he’s done coming off a devastating injury prior to his freshman season. He’s even beat out Gavin Robertson for reps, who received so much high praise this spring.
The defense is keeping Arizona in games. And with a Rich Rodriguez offense, that’s kind of sad to say. Over the past two years, Arizona has been giving up at least 35 points a game. Now, they’re allowing less than 23 per game and are giving up an average of six points in the second half.
5. Still more freshmen to play
There are a lot freshmen that have already played, but there are still a handful of guys that still have the chance to play and can make sizeable contributions in their first year.
We don’t know when DeAndre’ Miller will come back, nor how long he will last. But I’d expect Jose Ramirez to rotate with Kylan Wilborn and Jalen Harris at stud. The staff still has a hybrid guy in My-King Johnson, who can play off the edge as well.
A couple of safeties can still make their way up with Rhedi Short and Xavier Bell. I’m not sure where exactly they fit in at the moment, but both have the opportunity to see action at some point. But with Isaiah Hayes undergoing shoulder surgery, and Scottie Young Jr.’s future potentially in jeopardy, there’s going to be room at safety.
This offseason we heard a lot about Gary Brightwell, one of Arizona’s surprise additions in the class on National Signing Day. He’s seen some garbage time, but has not been thrown to thus far.
Tyrell Johnson is still healthy and Devaughn Cooper has made his way back to the rotation, but you figure Brightwell adds more depth to a not-so-great pass catching group compared to years past.
I still like a few other options, including Brian Casteel. Casteel is going to be a long-term production guy for Arizona who I have always seen as a Nate Phillips type.
There are a couple of guys who have slowly started making appearances, and we’ll likely see a lot more of them we hit the stretch. I like Tony Wallace to eventually step into a bigger role at cornerback.
Whether Rich Rodriguez is here for the long run, we don’t know. The problem with him is that he hasn’t been able to develop his talent. He has a good group now, but you wonder how far he can truly take them. But if someone new is coming in, they’ll have a decent amount of young guys to work with in the future.