The way Rich Rodriguez views it, there are two parts to spring football: evaluation and development.
Both are pretty self-explanatory.
He uses the 15 practices and the spring game to take stock of his roster and improve their fundamentals.
“I cross my fingers and worry about guys getting hurt, but you have to teach some tackling, some blocking, some physical stuff in the spring, just so your young guys get that stuff down,” Rodriguez said Wednesday.
He’ll start his six-week development and evaluation period Monday, when the Wildcats begin spring drills.
This year’s spring is sure to be dramatically different than the coach’s first two at Arizona.
For one, he’s more familiar with his personnel than he’s ever been, and they’re more comfortable with him.
“There are more things in place,” Rodriguez said. “The tempo and how we want to work is all there. The effort part should be ingrained in them by now. Everybody is on the same page. I think we’re getting better. I think we’ll be a faster, stronger team.”
This year also figures to be more productive than the past two years because the Wildcats are healthy.
Last season, Arizona had several key players either limited or out during the spring, recovering from offseason surgeries. This year, the list is much shorter.
Receiver Nate Phillips, who is recovering from a shoulder injury, will be held out of contact drills for the entirety of the spring. Backup safety Anthony Lopez is also recovering from a shoulder injury and will be sidelined. Backup center Carter Wood is still recovering from an in-season foot injury and is out, and reserve defensive lineman Kirifi Taula will miss the first few weeks with a concussion.
Other than that, the UA is healthy, which should help foster more competition throughout the six weeks.
“We’ll have a few more bodies, and we’ll get a little more production out of spring this year,” Rodriguez said.
With more bodies and more competition, Rodriguez can be a little more creative this spring. He hinted that wide receiver DaVonte Neal could also see some time at cornerback.
Rodriguez will also work to get Neal and some of his other receivers the ball more frequently and use their athleticism. With no Ka’Deem Carey roaming the backfield, the coach said he needs to find a way to get his best athletes the ball as much as possible.
“We have a few new things to get other guys the ball,” Rodriguez said. “There are a lot of guys we’re going to try to be more creative with.”
Hill good to go
Wide receiver Austin Hill, who suffered a torn ACL last spring and missed the 2013 season, is 100 percent healthy and will be a full participant in practice this spring, Rodriguez said.
“Austin is still wearing the knee brace, but I think that’s more precautionary than anything,” Rodriguez said. “He’s 100 percent doing everything. He’s actually a little bigger and stronger.
“He should have a big spring, and I know he’s eager to get out there.”
Hill had 81 catches for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. He injured his knee during a routine drill last spring. He rejoined the team in practice later in the season but was never cleared for a game.
Hill will headline a strong receiving corps that will also feature Phillips, Neal, Texas transfer Cayleb Jones, Trey Griffey, Samajie Grant, Garic Wharton, David Richards and others.
“This could be as deep of a receiving crew as I’ve ever coached,” Rodriguez said.
Mitchell on campus
Former Wildcats defensive tackle and current Houston Texans nose tackle Earl Mitchell is back in Tucson, working out at the UA’s facilities.
He was roaming the halls of the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility on Wednesday for the first time.
“It’s bittersweet,” Mitchell said, smiling. “This place is great, but I wish it was here when I played here. We were stuck at McKale.”
Mitchell just completed his fourth season in the NFL — all with the Texans. In 2013, he had 48 tackles and 1½ sacks. He started 14 of the team’s 16 games.
Mitchell said he’ll spend a few weeks on the UA’s campus working out.
In his final season at Arizona in 2009, Mitchell had 12½ tackles-for-loss and 6½ sacks.