More than eight months since Arizona beat Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl, it’s time to see what Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez has in store for his second season.
Rodriguez took it relatively easy on his team this fall camp, at least from a physical standpoint.
After a debut 8-5 season with too many injuries and not enough experienced, healthy bodies on the field by the end, the coach toned down the hitting this month to prepare for Friday’s 7 p.m. opener against Northern Arizona at Arizona Stadium.
“This is the (least amount of) hitting I’ve done in 28 years of coaching college football,” said Rodriguez, 50. “You have to be extra cautious and you have to be able to teach a different way, coach a different way than you ever have because you have less live contact.
“Our guys still have to learn how to tackle and block and all that. We have to play that fine line to get them enough (hitting) to get them taught, but not to beat up your team.
“Hopefully we’ll be healthy for that first game and be ready to play.”
Here’s what we’ve learned about the Wildcats after fall camp with the Lumberjacks lurking on Friday.
1. It’s not a done deal, but it sure looks like B.J. Denker is the man at quarterback.
Rodriguez hasn’t said Denker is his starter and he might not before Friday’s game. But, if it’s anyone other than Denker, it would certainly be a surprise.
Despite a rough start, the 6-foot-3-inch, 173-pound Denker worked with the first group for most of camp and improved as the practices went on.
Rodriguez and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith were hard on the senior lefty this camp and told him it was going to be that way.
Denker seems to have done enough to hold off junior Jesse Scroggins, redshirt freshman Javelle Allen, sophomore Nick Isham and other contenders to get the first crack at starting.
“B.J. has been ahead from Day One just because of the experience,” Rodriguez said earlier this week. “But, I’ve challenged him more and B.J. has responded to the challenge.
“I’ve been pleased with the way B.J. has progressed and how Javelle has progressed the last couple of days.”
Denker said a key to his improvement in August was protecting the football more efficiently. He stopped trying to force throws, something he was doing earlier in camp.
“This week I haven’t really forced the ball down field or into coverage, which is one of the main points — one of the main goals,” Denker said this week. “So, I’m trying to be consistent not throwing the football into coverage and making smart reads.”
2. True freshman Anu Solomon isn’t in the quarterback mix right now.
Some thought Solomon would come in and compete for the starting QB job right away. Instead, the Las Vegas product, who was ranked as a four-star recruit by the Scout.com recruiting service, is on the outside looking in so far.
The 6-2, 205-pound Solomon didn’t see a lot of time with the regular playmakers on offense during camp, and it didn’t seem as if he was on Rodriguez’s radar as a starter for Friday’s opener.
Earlier this week, Rodriguez somewhat reinforced that.
“The freshmen aren’t ready to play,” the coach said of Solomon and fellow rookie quarterback Khari McGee. “That part I know.”
With NAU, UNLV and Texas-San Antonio as the UA’s first three opponents this season, Rodriguez certainly has some time before he has to make the final call at QB.
Solomon could work his way into competition, but he doesn’t seem to be in it right now.
3. The defense should get more pressure on the QB this year.
The personnel up front will look similar to last year, which, at first, doesn’t seem like a great thing. The defensive line combined for just 6½ sacks last season and didn’t bother the opposing quarterback much.
But coordinator Jeff Casteel thinks his defense will be better and deeper this season and expects a heavier pass rush.
“Well I hope we can,” said Casteel of getting more pressure on the quarterback. “If we don’t, it’s going to be another long year.
“We obviously have to do a better job. That’s the type of thing that will be answered as we get through the season.”
Look for sophomore Sir Thomas Jackson (6-0, 205) and true freshman Derrick Turituri (6-1, 250) to start the year in a pass-rushing role. Casteel will look to use the two linebackers’ speed and size to get more pressure off the edge on third downs.
Casteel also said it’s important for the back eight of the UA’s defense to get more pressure and be more assignment-sound on all downs to help the defensive line.