To enter the Kindall/Sancet Stadium practice field, the Arizona Wildcats must cross two blue lines connected at a 90-degree angle.
Two words, painted next to the lines, deliver a blunt message: Hard Edge.
There's no telling how good, bad or mediocre the Wildcats will be tonight, when they open the Rich Rodriguez era with a 7:30 p.m. game against Toledo at Arizona Stadium.
Few people, even those close to the program, know whether the team's sieve-like defense will hold against the Mid-American Conference team, or whether quarterback Matt Scott and tailback Ka'Deem Carey can handle the physical pounding that comes with being reliable regulars.
For all the uncertainty, however, the Wildcats' players have vowed not to be intimidated. Reminders are everywhere, from the matching "Hard Edge" and "Spot the Football" signs on the walls of Kindall/Sancet to the old-school "board" drills that the team runs in practice every day.
The "Hard Edge" mantra "is going to be the background and the environment we have in our program," Rodriguez said.
"We're going to play as hard as possibly can, whether its first quarter or fourth quarter, home or away, ahead or behind. That sometimes takes a while to develop that environment in your program. And, frankly, we've got to get better at that."
Toughness was forged during the summer, when voluntary workouts turned into savage sprint sessions. (Arizona's new spread-option offense and 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense demand conditioning.)
The message has been sent through music - the Wildcats purchased an ear-splitting sound system to replicate game noise in practice - and dance. The team will perform the Haka, a Maori war dance, on the home sideline just minutes before tonight's kickoff.
The approach is a change from last year, when Mike Stoops' veteran-led team mostly policed itself. The result was an often-relaxed atmosphere in practice.
Stoops was fired in October with his team mired in a five-game losing streak; Rodriguez, former coach at Michigan and West Virginia, was hired Nov. 22 to replace him.
As Rodriguez learned more about the Cats' blue-collar football history, including the 1990s' "Desert Swarm," the idea of developing toughness in a conference of usually finesse teams became clear.
"Probably (the UA's) best teams ... have had that hard edge," Rodriguez said. "Chuck Cecil and Tedy Bruschi and Ricky Hunley - those guys probably exuded that probably better than anybody in college football at the time. That's what we have to develop, recruit to and think about every day."
The adjustment to Rodriguez's way - "culture change," he calls it - has been, as expected, uneven.
Arizona was sloppy in its one public scrimmage, held at Fort Huachuca. Injuries to an already thin defense forced walk-ons and underclassmen onto the field.
Toledo, 9-4 in 2011, should provide a tough first test. The Rockets, picked to finish first in the MAC's West Division, boast two quarterbacks - Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens - capable of picking apart unprepared defenses. The UA will need to be disciplined and tough on both sides of the ball to avoid an opening-night upset.
Carey and Scott figure to benefit the most from the Wildcats' new no-huddle offense, which emphasizes deception on rushing plays. They'll be judged by more than just their stats; the hard edge applies to everyone.
"If I put somebody on their butt," Carey said, "I feel like I scored a touchdown."
• What: Toledo at Arizona
• When: 7:30 p.m.
• TV: ESPNU
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)
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