Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Mike Stoops era in Tucson came to an anti-climatic conclusion last season. Enter Rich Rodriguez who will take the helm after a year away from coaching followed up his three-year struggle at Michigan.
"I'm eager to get back to coaching and look forward to becoming part of the Arizona family," Rodriguez said about taking over at Arizona. "It's a great individual opportunity for me and I believe that outstanding success is on the horizon for Arizona Football."
The 2011 season started with a win against FCS foe Northern Arizona but immediately went downhill for the Wildcats. Arizona lost five straight games after the win on opening weekend, including blowout losses to Oklahoma State (37-14), Stanford (37-10) and Oregon (56-31). After the 1-5 start Stoops was sent packing. Under interim head coach Tim Kish, Arizona collected its first Pac-12 win to snap the losing streak, blasting UCLA (48-12), but then reverted back to its losing ways, dropping three straight games. The season ended on a slight improvement as the Wildcats won their final two contests including a 31-27 victory over in-state rival Arizona State.
Still, at 4-8, Arizona missed out on a bowl game after making three straight postseason appearances between 2008-2010.
OFFENSE: The offensive scheme will have a totally different look from the spread offense that the Wildcats employed under Stoops. Rodriguez will be instilling the read-option offense that he developed at Glenville State and then perfected at West Virginia.
The key factor in Rodriguez's offensive gameplan is quarterback play. Filling in at that spot will be Matt Scott. The redshirt senior is the type of dual threat quarterback that can excel in Rodriguez's system, though with only five career starts, he does not have a great deal of experience.
Ka'Deem Carey and Taimi Tutogi will be the two running backs in the backfield for Arizona. Carey had the superior season last year, rushing for 425 yards on 92 carries with a team-high six rushing touchdowns. Tutogi is more of a bruising back and rushed for 73 yards on 25 carries but did score four touchdowns.
The receiving corps will look very different with the team's three best pass-catchers of a year ago gone. Dan Buckner will take over as the top option after he caught 42 passes for 606 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season. Tyler Slavin and Richard Morrison will fall next on the depth chart with the optimism about Slavin the highest.
The offensive line is largely intact, with the return of four starters, including seniors Trace Biskin and Kyle Quinn.
DEFENSE: Arizona will also be shifting schemes on the defensive side of the ball after Rodriguez brought in his former defensive coordinator at West Virginia Jeff Casteel. Under Casteel, the Wildcats will be running the 3-3-5 stack scheme, which like the read-option on offense, may take some getting used too.
Arizona had only 10 sacks last season and will need to get improved pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year. Better play from the defensive line could help, meaning returning starting defensive tackle Sione Tuihalamaka will have to improve from last season when he had only 1.5 tackles for loss. Willie Mobley and Justin Washington should start at the ends.
The linebacking unit lost its lead tackler, but gets back Jake Fischer, who missed the 2011 season with an ACL injury. Fischer was one of the better defensive players for Arizona in 2010, recording 58 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Akron transfer Brian Wagner had 147 total tackles last season and will be in the middle.
The secondary has much more experience with three returning starters. That's a good thing in a scheme that uses five defensive backs. Safety Marquis Flowers is the leader of the group coming off a season where he recorded 68 total tackles which ranked fourth on the squad. Shaquille Richardson is a talented corner who is adept at making plays on the ball after snagging four interceptions last season. Sophomore safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant rounds out the returning starters on a unit that gets thin from there.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker John Bonano was used exclusively on kickoffs to begin last season but took over field goal duties later on. The senior had success knocking in 9-of-12 field goals and going a perfect 24-for-24 on extra points. Kyle Dugandzic is the starting punter after recording a strong 46.0 yards per punt in 2011. Morrison and Carey were the primary returners last season, with Morrison used mainly on punts. Both should return to those roles.
OUTLOOK: The expectations will be a little less daunting for Rodriguez in his first year at Arizona than at Michigan, but that's not to say there aren't high hopes for the future in Tucson.
The new regime will begin with three straight homes games, the biggest of which is a rematch from last season against Oklahoma State. The Wildcats begin Pac-12 play in Week 4 with a stern test on the road against Oregon. Arizona is back in Tucson again to face Oregon State the following week before going on the road again to face Stanford. Back-to-back home games against Washington and USC are next up before the Wildcats trade away and home games over the last four contests. The season ends with the always anticipated showdown for the Territorial Cup against Arizona State, which Arizona hosts this season, on November 23.
The anticipation in Tucson is high with the addition of Rodriguez to the coaching staff. However, with a drastic change in strategy on both sides of the ball, a grueling schedule, and turnover at key positions, the first year of the Rodriguez era will probably be a bumpy one.