By: chalifour.eric | 5/19/12, 11:28 AM EDT
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You can read the entire Arizona Wildcats preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 Pac-12 magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
PAC-12 South PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Rich Rodriguez, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Calvin Magee, Rod Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Casteel
New coach Rich Rodriguez has redesigned Arizona’s offense from a spread passing game to the spread option. The Wildcats will run more, keyed by sophomore tailback Ka’Deem Carey, fifth-year senior quarterback Matt Scott and an offensive line that returns all five starters. If there is a perfect fit for Rodriguez’s speed-option offense, it’s Scott, an athletic, run-first type who led Arizona to victories over UCLA, Washington State and Washington in 2010 starts. Carey, Daniel Jenkins and Greg Nwoko give Arizona three useful runners. But Carey, powerful and explosive, has star power and expects to be the featured back and possibly a 1,000-yard rusher.
Three UA receivers caught more than 60 passes last year. That benchmark could drop to 40 in Rodriguez’s first season even though the talent and experience are there. Senior Dan Buckner, a potential NFL player, will likely be the team’s go-to receiver.
After suffering through a brutal start to the 2011 season with five new starters, the Wildcats are now deep and experienced across the line. The problem is that both tackles, Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele, had troubled offseasons. Baucus required back surgery, and Ebbele was arrested in a domestic violence incident. Their availability won’t be known until August. Center Kyle Quinn is the team’s leader, on and off the field. He has started 13 career games, more than anyone else on offense. Guards Trace Biskin and Chris Putton were starters last year and are dependable Pac-12 linemen.
After 11 years operating the 3-3-5 stack defense at West Virginia, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has rejoined Rodriguez in Tucson and installed a similar scheme. Arizona is so thin at linebacker that junior Jake Fischer, returning from knee surgery, is the lone player at the position with Pac-12 starting experience. Brian Wagner, a fifth-year senior transfer from Akron, was expected to see significant snaps but decided to leave the team in June.
The secondary is similarly stretched. A spring knee injury to safety Adam Hall, the team’s most talented defensive player, was crippling. He’s out for the year. Arizona has a reliable cornerback, junior Shaquille Richardson, and a star-in-the-making in safety/linebacker Tra’Mayne Bondurant, but otherwise the back five is unsettled. Junior safety Marquis Flowers has been inconsistent. Sophomore corner Jonathan McKnight, who missed 2011 with a knee injury, is the team’s top cover cornerback.
Up front, juniors Justin Washington and Sione Tuihalamaka, who have started 29 combined games, have been productive. At issue is sorting out the supporting cast from among Willie Mobley, Jowyn Ward, Kirifi Taula and transfer Tevin Hood.
Arizona’s kicking game cost former coach Mike Stoops his job as much as anything. John Bonano, who was put into use when Stoops left, kicked eight field goals late in the year and is being challenged by former Syracuse and Youngstown State kicker Jake Smith. Kyle Dugandzic, who averaged 46 yards per punt, is steady. On kickoff returns, Carey is elusive and fast.
Although Arizona has little depth, its front-line players are skilled and experienced. If Scott remains healthy, this is a team that projects to be productive offensively and play in a bowl game. Rodriguez said that the Wildcats were out of shape and not strong enough to compete in the Pac-12 when he evaluated the returning players. He changed that with a boot camp-type of offseason. The potential for trouble is in the linebacking crew and in the thin secondary. Eight home games will help.