The Arizona Wildcats concluded their earlier-than-usual spring practice Friday. After 15 Fifteen workouts laterworkouts, UA coach Rich Rodriguez still has questions about his squad — questions he probably won’t be able to answer until September.

The two biggest unknowns in Rodriguez’s view are defense and depth. The former has been a focal point since December, when Rodriguez began the process of overhauling the defensive coaching staff. He described spring ball as an “introductory” course for the players on that side of the ball. In other words, they have a lot of work ahead.

“It’s been a good learning experience for every single person on the defense,” senior linebacker Cody Ippolito said. “Getting to know the coaches, getting to know how they coach, getting to know what they expect out of you.”

Rodriguez expects improvement after Arizona had one of the worst defenses in the nation during a disappointing 7-6 season. The question is how much better the Wildcats can get, and how quickly.

“It’s not going to be easy,” safeties coach Jahmile Addae said. “It hasn’t been easy. But we’re plugging and plugging, and eventually it’s going to come around the way we want it.”

Rodriguez made it clear Friday that newcomers will be counted on to beef up the talent and enhance the competition on defense. Three freshman defenders — safety Isaiah Hayes, linebacker Kahi Neves and cornerback Antonio Parks — enrolled in January and participated in spring practice. Ten more are on the way, including three safeties.

“We’ve got to get more people,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not convinced right now that we’ve got a lot of people we can win with.”

The situation isn’t as dire on offense. But Rodriguez still wants to boost the offensive line and the outside receiver positions, among other spots.

Asked which positions he feels best about, Rodriguez cited known quantities at slot receiver (Samajie Grant, Nate Phillips), defensive line (Sani Fuimaono, Parker Zellers) and offensive line (Jacob Alsadek, Layth Friekh).

He also likes the talent at running back (Nick Wilson, Orlando Bradford) and quarterback (Anu Solomon, Brandon Dawkins).

“Our team will be better,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll be better when we get a few guys healthy. We’ll look a little different in … August when school starts than we do right now. We’ll be a little more athletic.

“But we’ve still got a lot of unknowns. Until they play in a game and win some games for us, I won’t know for sure.”

Scary Scooby

Ippolito received a special greeting from pal Scooby Wright when he returned to Tucson for Arizona’s pro day. Wright arrived about 1:30 a.m. from the Bay Area. Tight end Trevor Wood, a roommate of Ippolito’s, picked up Wright at the airport. Ippolito explained what happened next.

“He wanted to surprise me,” Ippolito said. “At like 2:30 in the morning my door opens. It’s pitch black. I woke up. I grabbed the remote, because I thought it was a burglar or something.

“He flicks on the lights. It’s Scooby. He came in and tackled me. Scared the living hell out of me. I thought I was going to die.”

Said Wright: “He thought he was getting robbed! He’s freaking out. I’m yelling at him. Just going crazy. It was a good time.”

Extra points

* Rodriguez said running back Jared Baker ran at least a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash at pro day Thursday. Baker was the fastest among the UA players who ran. That performance could get Baker, who led the Wildcats in rushing last season, into an NFL camp.

* Arizona scrimmaged for 25 minutes Friday, up from the usual 15. “Some of it was good,” Rodriguez said. “Some of it was like a pillow fight.” He wants to see more physical play come August.

* Rodriguez said having another recruiting specialist — new recruiting director Chris Singletary — has enabled Arizona to get more recruits on campus for unofficial visits. “Unofficial visits are the key,” Rodriguez said. “Official visits are way overrated nowadays, because they’ve already decided.” Arizona was expected to have 10-12 recruits on campus this week.

* Arizona will begin a five-week weightlifting cycle next week, take time off in May, then resume lifting for seven to eight weeks in the summer, Rodriguez said.

* Rodriguez made a joke about not breaking NCAA rules regarding “student-athlete welfare” and sticking to the 20-hour weekly limit. That was an obvious reference to his time at Michigan, where he and his staff got into trouble for exceeding it.

* Rodriguez let the upperclassmen leave the field earlier than the rest of the team to shower and grab food from the post-practice pizza buffet.


Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.