2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Rich Rodriguez has done a solid job at the helm for Arizona in his first two seasons, although he has yet to really elevate the program.
The Wildcats finished 8-5 last season, the same record they had in 2012. It also marked the fourth time in the last six years they have had that record at season's end.
Last year began with three straight wins over lesser competition, but Arizona wasn't ready for a showdown at Washington in the Pac-12 opener, losing that one, 31-13. A 38-31 loss to USC the next time out put the Wildcats in an 0-2 hole early in conference play. UA won three straight games after that, although against the dregs of the conference (Utah, Colorado and California), before dropping three of four to close out the season.
Difficult conference slates often breed strong teams come bowl time, and that was certainly the case for Arizona, which steamrolled Boston College in the Advocare V100 Bowl, 42-19. The Wildcats improved to 2-0 in bowl games under Rodriguez with the victory.
OFFENSE: Question marks loom large over the quarterback and running back positions in Tucson.
Running back will be the most difficult to fill, considering the new starter will have the nearly impossible task of replicating the production of two-time All-American Ka'Deem Carey. Making the chore even tougher is the fact that Pierre Cormier decided to leave the team in July due to a medical condition. Jared Baker rushed for 127 yards on 27 carries in 2013, and he is the top returning option, with a few other prospects also likely to get a look.
"We just don't have that one guy in our program right now that can do what Ka'Deem did," Rodriguez said of his running back situation. "But that being said, there is some talent that can do it. And there are three or four, maybe even five different guys carrying the ball as opposed to what Ka'Deem did last year."
The quarterback situation is also rather murky, although last year's starter B.J. Denker did not leave quite the same size hole as did Carey. Jesse Scroggins is a senior, and he probably has the inside track as the starter, but prized recruit Anu Solomon, as well as Connor Brewer and Jerrard Randall, who each began their careers elsewhere, shouldn't be ignored.
Where there are absolutely zero holes to fill is at wide receiver. The Wildcats may have the deepest group in the country. Austin Hill had a monster year in 2012 (81 receptions, 1,364 yards, 11 TDs), but missed last season due to a knee injury. He is back to full health this season. Nate Phillips (51 receptions, 696 yards, 7 TDs) was a solid replacement as the No. 1 target, but he is better suited as a secondary option. Trey Griffey, Samajie Grant and DaVonte' Neal all bring plenty of talent and speed to the table as well.
Also stacked is the offensive line, which features four returning starters. Such a bulk of experience should give the new quarterback and running back time to adapt, and allow Rodriguez to keep his team running at the breakneck speed it always has. In fact, the Wildcats' head coach has been outspoken this past offseason against the idea that the increased speed of many offenses has contributed to growing rates of injuries in college football.
"I call it a farce. That's just my opinion," Rodriguez said. "If you think pace of play has anything to do with injuries, you drank the wrong poison."
Last season the Wildcats ranked among the top-40 nationally in scoring (33.5 ppg) and total offense (458.5 ypg), while finishing seventh in plays per game (83.2).
DEFENSE: Rodriguez's teams are rarely defensive juggernauts, and his two Arizona squads have not broken the trend. The Wildcats allowed 401.1 yards per game last season, although they were solid in points allowed (24.2 ppg).
With just one returning starter along the defensive line in Reggie Gilbert (4.0 sacks), the Wildcats may not improve much on the 23 sacks they logged last season. However, LSU transfer Jordan Allen may help in that regard.
While Scooby Wright is the only returning starter at linebacker, there are plenty of intriguing options at the position. Wright is by no means a bad leader for the group, having accumulated 83 tackles, 9.5 for loss, and an interception last season. Joining him will be Derrick Turituri (11 tackles), DeAndre' Miller and junior college transfer Antonio Smothers.
Certainty lies in the secondary, where the rest of the defense should be taking cues this season. Tra'Mayne Bondurant is on the brink of stardom. He had 72 tackles, a pair of sacks and a team-high 4 interceptions last season. He has plenty of help back there, with Jared Tevis (83 tackles) and Jourdon Grandon (73 tackles, 2 INTs) also returning as starters.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jake Smith was inconsistent at place kicker last season, hitting just 12-of-19 field goal attempts, while missing four attempts inside of 40 yards, including a 28-yarder. Rodriguez would obviously like better production from Smith's replacement, Casey Skowron,
No change really needs to be made in the punting game, as Drew Riggleman averaged 40.1 yards per boot last season. Additionally, with so much speed and depth at receiver, there should be plenty of options in the return game.
OUTLOOK: The Wildcats don't play the most challenging non-conference schedule, hosting Northern Arizona and Nevada, with a trip to face Texas-San Antonio sprinkled in. That is just fine, however, with a run through the Pac-12 being a difficult enough test. Arizona has the misfortune of playing Oregon and UCLA on the road, but it avoids Stanford and gets to host the Territorial Cup with hated rival Arizona State.
Another 8-5 season seems well within reach. If the Wildcats are going to begin to ascend in the Pac-12, and not just remain near the middle of the pack, they will need their improving defense to continue to grow and for one of their prospects at quarterback and running back to really shine. Either way, the receiver group should make for plenty of fireworks in Tucson this fall.