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Arizona football: Practice to start; plenty is unknown

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Arizona football: Fifth-year senior Chris Merrill expects 2nd career start Saturday

UA fifth-year senior Chris Merrill, center, has made just 10 tackles in his career but is expected to play significant snaps in Saturday's opener.

Rich Rodriguez spent July moving into his new Catalina Foothills home and enrolling his two children, Raquel and Rhett, in school.

The Arizona Wildcats' first-year football coach is seeing more and more of his new city - and not nearly enough of his new players.

NCAA rules limit the amount of time coaches can spend with their players during the offseason, though it makes a few exceptions depending on travel. It's one of the reasons why UA basketball coach Sean Miller can watch his players practice in July, but Rodriguez can't.

"Their first game is (November), and ours is in September," Rodriguez said. "It's ridiculous that we can't have more interaction with our kids. I think it's silly."

So forgive Rodriguez for not knowing what to expect when Arizona holds its first practice of training camp on Thursday. Like the rest of us, he's concerned about Arizona's defense and excited about the unknown, but the rest is - well - a question mark.

Here are the five biggest ones:

1. How different will this team look? Forget everything you knew about Arizona football under former coach Mike Stoops.

This year's team will debut new schemes (the spread-option offense and 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense), new starters and - depending on Rodriguez's fashion sense - as many as two new helmets. The team wearing the copper (and maybe red) lids will be a bit of an unknown leading up to its Sept. 1 season opener against Toledo.

Rodriguez has closed the team's practices to the public and media, and turned the annual meet-the-team night into a McKale Center function. The isolation will make Arizona a bit of an unknown commodity heading into the opening weekend.

2. Can Matt Scott take a hit? The fifth-year quarterback will be limited to noncontact drills with hopes of keeping him healthy enough for the team's opener.

There's a reason behind the precaution: Scott is the only player on the roster who has taken a snap at the college level, and remains the team's best true dual-threat QB. The other quarterbacks include a converted wide receiver, two junior college transfers and three true freshmen. Nick Isham, a transfer from Louisiana Tech, will practice with the team but must sit out the season.

Scott is capable of taking a pounding, Rodriguez said, though he won't absorb his first real hit until September.

"That's why I'm nervous," Rod-riguez said.

3. Can the Wildcats stay healthy? A rash of injuries ruined the UA's 2011 training camp, sealing Stoops' fate two months before he was fired. Linebacker Jake Fischer, running back Greg Nwoko, defensive tackle Willie Mobley and cornerback Jonathan McKnight are all expected to be in the lineup in time for the season opener. The same can't be said for safety Adam Hall, who - after missing the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL - reinjured his surgically repaired knee last spring and likely won't play in 2012.

4. Has the UA landed a recruit since you started reading this story? It's possible. The Wildcats have already secured 23 verbal commitments for their 2013 recruiting class. The group includes one four-star player - Poway, Calif. defensive back Derek Babiash - and 14 three-star recruits, though their rankings may improve heading as the season nears. Las Vegas Bishop Gorman product Anu Solomon, the state of Nevada's all-time leading passer, might have the highest ceiling of the bunch.

Even Rodriguez has been impressed - and a bit frightened - by the recruiting run; those who make verbal commitments can sign national letters of intent starting in February.

"I thought if we had 15 by the end of the summer, it'd be a lot. We have to slow down a little bit," he said with a chuckle. "I think you can take too many (recruits) too soon, if you're not careful. The key is taking the right guys. I think we've taken the right guys."

5. Will the 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense keep Arizona from getting even worse? The Wildcats' 2011 defense was the worst in program history, statistically: The team gave up 460.5 yards and 35.4 points per game and finished second-to-last in the country in pass defense. The Wildcats' sacks-per-game were the worst in the Pac-12 Conference by a long shot.

First-year defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel brings the "odd stack" scheme that has little in common with Stoops' old 4-3 scheme. Still, "all defenses are basically the same - it's just that we have more ways to dial up blitzes," Fischer said.

Defense remains Rodriguez's No. 1 concern heading into camp, though he knows it's too late for a complete overhaul. What Rod-riguez sees - well, when he's allowed to see it - is what he'll get.

"The problem's not going to be solved overnight," Rodriguez said. "We have to get some help in the back-seven in a hurry, and we can do that through recruiting."

key dates

All training camp practices are closed to the public.

• Wednesday: Players report.

• Thursday: First practice at Kindall/Sancet Stadium.

• Aug. 8: Team leaves for Fort Huachuca.

• Aug. 9-11: Workouts at Fort Huachuca.

• Aug. 19: Meet-the-team function inside McKale Center (no scrimmage), time TBA.

• Sept. 1: Season opener against Toledo at Arizona Stadium.

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