Arizona Wildcats 2017
Rich Rodriguez has found ways to win in each of his first three seasons with notable wins in each of them. Arizona found their way to the national radar after knocking off Oklahoma State and Pac-12 powerhouse USC in 2012. Then the Wildcats made a statement by beating a Marcus Mariota led Oregon Ducks team in the 2013 and 2014 seasons as well as winning the Pac-12 South Division for the first time in school history in 2014.
Arizona’s injury struggles have caught up with them over the past two seasons as Quarterback Anu Solomon, whose 28 passing touchdowns in 2014 tied the school record, could not stay healthy and Nick Wilson who looked like a strong replacement for Wildcat great Kadeem Carey also found trouble staying on the field. Since winning the Pac-12 South Division in 2014, the Wildcats would have a 7-6 record in 2015 and a 3-9 record in 2016 giving Rodriguez his first losing record as the Arizona Head Coach.
Arizona started off the 2016 campaign by coming back twelve points against the BYU Cougars only to lose off of a last second field goal. Then in a hard fought game against the playoff-bound Washington Huskies, the Wildcats would receive their second loss of the season in overtime.
After a 2-2 start in which the Wildcats showed promise but a blowout loss to USC in week seven set the stage for the rest of the season. Arizona would be outscored 250-93 in the final five weeks of the season with their only win after week three coming against rival Arizona State in which they amounted a season high 56-points while posting 511 rushing yards as a team and keeping the Sun Devils out of the postseason.
Questions at Quarterback
The big headline for Arizona this offseason is the transfer of Anu Solomon to Baylor after two injury-riddled seasons which leaves the starting job wide open going into the spring. The most notable option is Brandon Dawkins. The dual-threat junior out of Thousand Oaks, California will be looking to build off of the season finale against rival Arizona State in which he threw for 77 yards and a touchdown while running for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns in route to a 56-35 win. Dawkins also started nine of the team’s twelve games last season.
Another player to consider is Khalil Tate. Another dual-threat quarterback out of Gardena, California took over as a starter, in relief and in garbage time last season. Tate was highly touted out of high school and holds a similar skill set to Dawkins. If Tate can show his potential upside and prove to be a more consistent option at the position, then he may take the reigns for the 2017 season.
Return of Wilson and Taylor
Arizona had significant problems in the backfield with Nick Wilson and JJ Taylor sustaining injuries. The Wildcats had to rely on former wide receiver turned halfback Semaje Grant and the legs of Brandon Dawkins to move the ball on the ground. Wilson missed seven games, as well as large portions of others, could not contribute on a consistent basis. JJ Taylor was averaging close to seven yards a carry before getting injured against Washington in week four.
Arizona could be looking at an effective one-two punch with the return of Wilson and Taylor which will help to open up the Arizona passing game that finished 108th in the nation last season.
Another contributor in the backfield in the upcoming season is the 4-star all-purpose back out of Ontario, California Nathan Tilford. Tilford also received offers from Michigan, USC, and UCLA but decides to enroll early at Arizona and could contribute as a freshman.
Fixing the Defense
The defense has been an issue since the departure of former Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Scooby Wright. Rodriguez decided to part ways with Jeff Casteel after the 2015 season. Casteel’s defense finished 101 in rushing defense and 106 in scoring defense.
Rich Rodriguez made a change at defensive coordinator before the 2016 season with the hire of Boise State Defensive Coordinator Marcel Yates. Yates brought a blitz heavy 3-4 system which resulted in an improvement in rushing defense from 2015 moving up to 83rd. Scoring defense took a dip in the 2016 season finishing 117th overall.
The Wildcats are expecting younger guys to step up to improve on defense. Safety-turned-linebacker Gavin Robertson has gotten bigger and looks the part of linebacker and will look to contribute. AU will also expect early-enrollee outside linebacker Jose Ramirez to make a case to start this season and defensive line coach Vince Amey expects defensive end prospects Jalen Harris and My-King Johnson to surprise right away and possibly make an early impact.
Veterans Jack Banda and Luca Bruno will be looked to for leadership on the defensive side of the ball as the young guys step into Yates’ system.
Rich Rod’s Turning Point
However, college football fans and athletic departments aren’t very past oriented and look to the current effectiveness of a coach. The Wildcats have been trending downward over the past few seasons, and although he may not be on the hot seat this season, Rodriguez needs to pull out a winning season if he looks to regain favor in the 2017 season.
What to look for in 2017
Marcel Yates desperately needs to have the Wildcat defense heading in the right direction if they expect to compete with Colorado, USC and Utah. Also, Quarterback play needs to be more consistent. The passing offense has been a disaster after Anu Solomon’s injuries in 2015 and Dawkins or Tate need to step up and turn it around.