Dec 31, 2013; Shreveport, LA, USA; Arizona Wildcats linebacker Scooby Wright (31) tackles Boston College Eagles running back Andre Williams (44) in the second half at Independence Stadium. Arizona defeated Boston College 42-19. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

A to Z season preview: Is this the season Arizona joins the PAC 12 big boys?

After posting an 8-5 record in his first season at the helm, coach Rich Rodriguez repeated the feat in 2013. While this isn’t particularly impressive, especially based on his West Virginia stint, there are a lot of positives to look at. After having relatively experienced Matt Scott at quarterback in 2012, RichRod had to work with former JUCO BJ Denker, who had limited FBS experience. The Wildcats also lost stud receiver Austin Hill in camp with a busted knee, hampering the passing game even further. There was also a defense that needed a lot of attention after an awful year. Getting Oregon and Washington from the North division didn’t help their cause. Still, an easy early schedule helped Denker find his rhythm, and an impressive win over Oregon helped propel the Wildcats to a 4-5 conference record. A loss to Washington State and a couple of beatdowns at the hands of Washington and Arizona State took some luster off, but it was a year that certainly didn’t lack merit.

 

Offense

Oct 26, 2013; Boulder, CO, USA; Arizona Wildcats wide receiver Nate Phillips (6) scores a forty four yard touchdown as Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Jered Bell (21) defends in the second quarter at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The passing attack was almost a non-entity last season until the light went on for Denker, roughly midway through the USC game. From then on, the offense was a nightmare to defend, as not only could they pass, but defenders had to worry about the immense Ka’Deem Carey. The running back picked up from where he left off in 2012, rushing for 1885 yards and scoring 20 TDs, and was never held to fewer than 119 yards. Denker contributed 3465 total yards and 29 TDs (16 passing), giving the Wildcats one of the best 1-2 punches in the country. A young receiving corps played a big hand in Denker’s success, and a favorable nod must go to Nate Phillips, who led the team in receiving as a freshman. The offensive line maintained the same starting lineup for all but 2 games, and the results certainly showed with the excellent running attack. The unit also allowed just 17 sacks.

There may be trouble ahead, as the offense has to replace Denker, Carey, and his backup Daniel Jenkins in 2014. That’s a combined 5991 offensive yards and 51 TDs from those 3 guys alone. Ouch! There is good news though. For starters, the Wildcats have potentially the deepest receiving corps in the PAC 12. Hill’s return is huge, as many thought he may declare for the NFL. Terrence Miller (40-467-1) is the only receiver leaving who caught a pass last season, while Phillips and fellow freshman Samarjie Grant, who was second in receptions, are only going to get better. Almost anyone from last season’s two-deep is capable of contributing regularly as a starter, so expect plenty of competition in camp. Four members of the offensive line will be back, with only right guard Chris Putton graduating. Lene Maiava started a game for Putton last season (and 1 at right tackle), and will get a shot in camp, but there is no shortage of options. Carey will be the toughest to replace, and a committee approach may be the best bet as there are differing skills sets abound. Jared Baker is the leading returning rusher, but he also tore an ACL in the final regular season game, and could potentially miss both camps. This could open the door for Zach Green, a tough runner who suits the offense. Pierre Cormier and Nick Wilson were recent recruits who weren’t brought in to play special teams. Denker, a 1-year starter, looks to be less of a concern to replace, and Rodriguez has done a good job recruiting the spot. Texas-transfer Connor Brewer and JUCO and former-USC recruit Jesse Scroggins lead a solid bunch of contenders.

 

Defense

The defense still had its concerns last season, but they managed to shave nearly 100 yards per game off their 2012 totals. A remarkable run of good health meant the starting lineup, almost all of whom had started the previous season, were comfortable in their roles. The defensive line didn’t provide much of a pass rush, but did a decent job against the run. It was a team effort, but Sione Tuihalamaka led the unit with 5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. The linebackers were a fine bunch. Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers combined for 193 tackles, while freshman Scooby Wright has a promising future here. The secondary was a tough unit to pass on, with corner Jonathan McKnight and bandit Tra’Mayne Bondurant combining to lead the way.

Just as the defense was building towards something good, they have to compensate for the loss of 5 starters from last season, all of whom made an impact. Tuihalamaka is gone from the defensive line, as is nose tackle Tevin Hood, who had 7.5 tackles for loss, and top backup Justin Washington. Seniors Dan Pettinato and Kirifi Taula backed up Tuihalamaka and Hood last season, and will be first in line to replace them, but JUCOs Jeff Worthy and Jerod Cody will see time. Fischer and Flowers are also gone at linebacker, although Wright could take a big step forward this season. Even so, replacing the 2 veterans won’t be easy. DeAndre Miller didn’t see a lot of action last season as a freshman, but will get a chance to push for playing time in Flowers’ stead. JUCO Antonio Smothers has the size to be a factor against the inside run, something the Wildcats had problems with at times last season. The secondary looks to be in good shape with only corner Shaquille Richardson corner gone, although replacing a multi-year starter is rarely easy. Devin Holiday was Richardson’s backup last season, but lacks his size.

 

Special Teams

Kicker Jake Smith had a strong leg, booting a 53-yard field goal, but he couldn’t be relied upon. He still made 12 of 19 kicks though. Punter Drew Riggleman didn’t have a great gross average, but his placement was good. Neither return unit was particularly good, although Johnny Jackson was okay. However, he muffed a couple of punts against Utah and lost his job to Phillips. Both coverage units were excellent.

Smith is the only loss on special teams, and while he wasn’t spectacular, they’ll be replacing him with an unknown quantity. Casey Skowron, who only started placekicking in his senior year, could be ready to take the job. If not, there are a bunch of freshmen who will happily take over. The return teams do need work, and there’s more than enough talent on the roster for someone to do the job competently.

 

Prediction

With the coming season, we must weigh up the key losses on offense and defense against what it is, at least on paper, a manageable schedule. Rodriguez has done a good job of recruiting the kind of guys he likes for his system, a system that should be close to fully entrenched this season. Still, unless the chosen starter at quarterback turns out to be a superstar, the Wildcats will still remain in the wrong half of the conference. For now, another 8-win season may have to suffice.

 

Dick's Sporting Goods presents "Hell Week":

Tags: Antonio Smothers Arizona Wildcats Casey Skowron Connor Brewer Dan Pettinato DeAndre Miller Devin Holiday Drew Riggleman Jared Baker Jeff Worthy Jerod Cody Jesse Scroggins Johnny Jackson Jonathan McKnight Kirifi Taula Nate Phillips Nick Wilson PAC 12 Football Pierre Cormier Rich Rodriguez Samarjie Grant Scooby Wright Tra'Mayne Bondurant Zach Green

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