Arizona concluded spring practice on March 25 — four days after spring technically began. So it isn’t just this endless string of scalding 100-degree days that has Tucson thirsting for football.
We’re still three weeks away from the Aug. 4 start of training camp, the first time the Wildcats can engage in formal football activities involving coaches and actual footballs. But football talk is in full swing this week via conference media days.
Following Rich Rodriguez’s lead, the Pac-12 is staging its two-day media meet-and-greet earlier than usual: Thursday and Friday in Hollywood, California. Rodriguez will be the first coach to speak, manning the dais at 9:30 a.m.
What will RichRod be asked? Here are five hot topics pertaining to the 2016 Wildcats. Consider them CliffsNotes of what’s already happened this year — and what’s to come.
After the injury-ravaged defense took a giant step backward last season, Rodriguez blew the whole thing up. He turned over the entire defensive coaching staff, constituting the biggest, boldest move of his UA tenure.
The headliner is defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, whom Rodriguez plucked from Boise State to replace longtime colleague Jeff Casteel. Yates and his youthful staff — Jahmile Addae, Vince Amey and Donté Williams — brought new concepts and boundless energy to Arizona’s spring practices.
The question now is: How much of a difference can they make in Year 1? The Wildcats had one of the worst defenses in college football last season. They played most of the campaign without star linebacker Scooby Wright III, who’s now trying to make the Cleveland Browns. Arizona’s leaders in tackles (Will Parks) and stops for losses (Reggie Gilbert) also are gone.
Rodriguez conceded in spring that Arizona’s talent level on the defensive side of the ball isn’t where he wants it to be. Yates, Williams and other staffers already have stocked the 2017 recruiting class with promising prospects — but they won’t be here until next spring at the earliest. In the meantime, it’s up to the new defensive coaches to coach up the players they have.
Rodriguez said it throughout spring practice and reiterated it afterward: Incumbent quarterback Anu Solomon’s job is not secure.
Although Solomon put up big numbers as the starter for most of the past two seasons, Rodriguez is willing to make a change — if he believes redshirt sophomore Brandon Dawkins gives the Wildcats a better chance to win.
Dawkins showed considerable potential — and that he also has a long way to go — in extensive relief work against Arizona State last season. Solomon returned from a concussion to earn Offensive MVP honors in the New Mexico Bowl — but no guarantees for 2016.
Rodriguez’s hope is that opening up the quarterback competition will make the overall QB situation better — that Solomon will raise his game in response to Dawkins’ pursuit of his spot. Training camp will be telling in that regard. Despite throwing 48 touchdown passes the past two seasons — and leading the race after spring — Solomon must respond to the challenge, remain healthy and leave no doubt in the coaches’ minds.
Like every coach managing a roster of more than 100 players, Rodriguez has issues to figure out at multiple positions. They include:
The status of senior safety Tellas Jones. A projected starter after a productive 2015, Jones was suspended for spring practice. He was involved in a traffic stop in Scottsdale on Feb. 7 and later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges (marijuana possession and speeding). He remains on the roster.
The arrival of linebacker Michael Barton. Barton transferred to the UA after graduating from Cal and joined the program this summer. Barton compiled 134 tackles, including 15ƒ stops for losses, in his first two seasons with the Golden Bears before playing a lesser role last season. He will be expected to contribute immediately, especially with the departures of Wright and Derrick Turituri, another veteran linebacker who’s no longer with the program.
The health of senior offensive lineman Freddie Tagaloa. Barton’s buddy and former college teammate preceded him to Arizona, with much greater fanfare. However, Tagaloa has been plagued by injuries, in particular a knee issue that kept him out of spring practice. Will Tagaloa be full go and finally live up to the hype that accompanied his arrival in Tucson?
SORTING OUT THE SPECIALISTS
Filling the voids at kicker and punter presents its own set of challenges.
Special teams were among Arizona’s biggest strengths last season, thanks largely to seniors Casey Skowron and Drew Riggleman. Skowron made 18 of 22 field goal attempts, including 7 of 9 from 40-49 yards. Riggleman averaged 45.3 yards per punt and dropped 21 of his 52 kicks inside the 20-yard line.
Redshirt sophomore Josh Pollack appeared to be the top candidate to succeed Skowron in the spring. Pollack also looked like the Wildcats’ best punter — and therein lies the problem.
The coaching staff doesn’t want Pollack to do both, in addition to kicking off. The UA added Edgar Gastelum, a transfer from Arizona Western College, in the offseason to provide a potential alternative. Gastelum handled placements and punting for the Matadors last year.
Given the transitional state of the defense and the persistent parity in the Pac-12, Arizona must excel on special teams to continue its string of bowl appearances under Rodriguez.
STATE OF THE PROGRAM
The Wildcats were, indisputably, trending upward during Rodriguez’s first three seasons. After a pair of 8-5 campaigns capped by bowl victories, UA won the Pac-12 South in 2014 and finished 10-4.
Then came last year, when injuries crippled the defense and the UA barely qualified for a bowl game. The Wildcats finished 7-6 and lost whatever momentum they had built the previous season.
Rodriguez clearly believed injuries weren’t solely to blame for Arizona’s drop-off; hence the sweeping staff changes.
The problem Rodriguez faces is that those changes probably won’t take full effect right away. In an era of instant gratification, Rodriguez made moves he deemed to be in the best long-term interest of the program. Patience will be required to determine if they’ll produce the desired results.