As expected, the Arizona Wildcats — playing against lesser competition — have more unknowns than knowns through three weeks of the season.
How good is the UA defense really? Will quarterback B.J. Denker hold up through a demanding Pac-12 schedule? Will a wide receiver emerge as Denker’s go-to target? Will the expected returns of wideouts David Richards and Dan Pettinato from injury in the next game or two make a big impact?
And the questions obviously don’t stop there.
But we have learned some about this year’s Wildcats, notably that they’ve gotten through the nonconference portion of their schedule perfect for the second straight year under coach Rich Rodriguez.
“Three and 0, that’s the biggest thing for me, 3-0,” Denker said. “That’s the most important.”
Here are three more things we know about the UA so far:
1. The quarterback play is moving in the right direction.
At least that’s how Rodriguez and Denker feel.
After going 17 of 34 for 168 yards in the first two games, the quarterback let it fly a little more against UTSA in the Cats’ 38-13 win Saturday. Although 14 for 21 for 158 yards and a touchdown aren’t jaw-dropping numbers, they’re enough to make Denker and the coaching staff feel better for the moment.
“We’re getting more confidence in him,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’ve seen it as much in practice. I would have liked for the execution to be there on the first of August, but we can’t work with them in the summer. The execution has gotten better over the last few weeks in practice and I think it’s gotten better in the games, too.
“But the challenge is going to get even more so when we go into conference play.”
The senior Denker hasn’t thrown an interception in 55 pass attempts this season. He’s also been effective on the ground, rushing for 224 yards and five touchdowns. The QB is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, and Rodriguez said Denker is making the right reads most of the time.
There may have been a quarterback controversy at the beginning of the season, but there isn’t one now as the Wildcats head into conference play.
Denker is Arizona’s man.
“I feel like it’s always been my team whether I was the starter or not,” Denker said. “That’s the mind-set you have to have. I’m not playing every game to see if I’m going to stay the starter. Obviously my play is getting better and that’s what needs to happen every game throughout the season.”
2. Ka’Deem Carey is still Ka’Deem Carey.
It was fair to wonder if Carey would be as effective early in 2013 as he was late in 2012.
The first-team All-American from a year ago had to deal with offseason distractions and discipline from his coach. Plus, defenses were going to load the box and make the UA move the ball through the air.
Carey finished his sophomore season by rushing for at least 172 yards in each of his last four games and had 10 touchdowns during that stretch. The competition vbut his yards per carry is up from 6.4 last season to 7.0 this year and he has four scores in two games.
Carey already has 299 yards on 43 carries.
“I’m getting on a roll and starting to get the cobwebs off,” Carey said. “I’m loving it right now.”
As the UA moves into Pac-12 play, defenses will continue to come after the junior. Not only are teams going to want to beat Arizona, they are going to want to shut down its best player.
Carey knows he needs Denker and the rest of his offensive teammates to be at their best to make things easier on him.
“You guys always asked me in the beginning of the year if (defenses are) going to put eight in the box and stuff it, and that’s exactly what they did,” Carey said of UTSA’s plan Saturday. “B.J. made great decisions with the ball and we went down the field with the ball, and they didn’t know what to do. We have a lot of weapons out there and we’re going to start using them.”
3. The defense has a knack for takeaways.
When you finish 118th out of 120 teams in total defense, as the UA did last season, it’s important to find a niche.
Through three games, it appears Arizona has done that in the form of takeaways. Jeff Casteel’s defense has forced eight turnovers in three games and has at least two in each contest.
“I’d like to say we’re going to be dominant and we’re going to get a whole bunch of three-and-outs, but it’s not going to happen,” Rodriguez said. “We’re getting more than we got last year. …
“But the turnovers … for us to win games in our league, we’ve got to create some turnovers.”
It isn’t a coincidence the Cats are making things happen in the turnover game.
It was a point of emphasis in spring drills and fall camp. With so many offenses running quick schemes in open space, takeaways are there to be had.
Also encouraging for the UA defense: Everyone is getting in on the action.
Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Jake Fischer, Jourdon Grandon and Devin Holiday all have interceptions, and Tevin Hood and Reggie Gilbert have forced fumbles.
The UA had 26 takeaways last season and is on pace for 32 this season.
• Rodriguez and his staff named the players of the game for UTSA on Sunday.
They were: Denker (offense), Grandon (defense), Drew Riggleman (special teams) and Carey (hard edge). The scout team awards went to Connor Brewer (offense), R.J. Morgan (defense) and Tyler Grammar (special teams).