FOOTBALL

UA spring football learning curve full of talking points

2012-03-05T00:01:00Z 2014-09-15T10:26:33Z UA spring football learning curve full of talking pointsRyan Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 05, 2012 12:01 am  • 

If each football season is a journey, then spring drills mark a time for baby steps, complete with tottering and face-plants into the floor.

When it's the first year installing new offensive and defensive systems, well, the learning curve is considerably steeper.

Consider Arizona Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez's previous stops.

"At Glenville (State), there were 25 guys on the team. I was bigger than all of them," Rodriguez said. "At Tulane, if there was an NCAA record for sacks allowed in the spring game - and (former NFL starter) Shaun King was our quarterback - we would have set it. Clemson wasn't real pretty. West Virginia was ugly. Michigan was ugly.

"If it gets too pretty this spring, then we have more problems on defense than I ever imagined."

The Arizona Wildcats will open the Rodriguez era today with new schemes to learn and routines to master - and the bar set understandably low. Here are five questions to consider as the Cats learn to crawl:

1. Can QB Matt Scott stay healthy? Scott enters his final spring camp as both the UA's presumptive starter and the only scholarship quarterback on the roster. Luckily, the senior's reputation precedes him.

"I know Matt's a competitive guy," Rodriguez said. "I know he's taken some shots before."

Playing it safe, while not an ideal situation, is necessary: Rodriguez's spread-option offense takes a physical toll on quarterbacks, and Scott can't afford to get hurt. His backups include a converted wide receiver, Richard Morrison, and a pair of walk-on junior college transfers (Tyler D'Amore and Alex Cappellini) who have been on campus since January.

2. Will LB Brian Wagner's stats translate? There wasn't a better offseason addition than Wagner, a 6-foot, 235-pound linebacker who ranks among the nation's top tacklers.

Wagner led Akron in tackles in each of the last three seasons; his 13.4 stops per game in 2011 ranked third nationally. Wagner, who will be able to play immediately due to graduate-transfer rules, enters the 2012 season as the nation's top returning tackler.

The Wildcats need him: They must replace starters Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo from a team that went 4-8 a year ago. New defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel will spend the spring installing his 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense, a hybrid scheme that emphasizes speed.

3. Can PK John Bonano keep his form? The place-kicker was a pleasant surprise in 2011, connecting on 8 of 12 field goals and all 24 of his PAT attempts. Emboldened by his big year, he petitioned for - and received - an extra year of eligibility.

He enters the spring as Arizona's No. 1 kicker and kickoff specialist, though Jaime Salazar - a junior college transfer who started a handful of games in 2011 - will push him at both spots.

4. Will WR Dan Buckner get his touches? Arizona's top returning wide receiver is learning his third offense in four years - though, for the first time, he won't have to compete with more accomplished players for time and touches.

Buckner caught 42 passes for 606 yards and two touchdowns last fall, his first season at the UA after transferring from the University of Texas. Scott will undoubtedly target him in spring ball, but it's unclear how much the Wildcats can - or will - pass.

Rodriguez's offense ran the ball on 556 of its 941 plays during his final season at Michigan in 2010; a year before, the Wolverines ran the ball 60 percent of the time. Arizona, by comparison, threw the ball on 64 percent of its plays a year ago.

5. Is this Ka'Deem's team? Ka'Deem Carey rushed for 425 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman in 2011. With Keola Antolin gone, Carey - a Canyon del Oro High School graduate - figures to take over the No. 1 running back's spot. That's assuming he's ready: Carey served a suspension at the end of last season for violating team rules related to maturity.

The Wildcats have surprising depth at tailback this spring: Carey, Daniel Jenkins and Taimi Tutogi have all received big-game snaps; Greg Nwoko missed all of 2011 with a knee injury, but has been cleared for contact.

Carey, by default, is listed first on the spring depth chart. Not that Rodriguez is paying attention.

"To list a first or second team at this point? How do I know?" Rodriguez said. "I don't know if I'll be able to give you one after the spring."

Key dates

• Today: First spring practice

• Thursday: Team leaves for spring break

• March 19: Pro day for draft-eligible seniors

• March 21: Practices resume

• March 24: Open scrimmage in Phoenix, noon (location to be announced)

• April 14: Spring game in Tucson, 1 p.m. (location to be announced)

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