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the Gekko Files: Arizona 2014 Preview

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RichRod continues his quest to break through the Los Angeles duopoly in the Pac 12 South.

Rich Rod likes the sound of his own voice.
Rich Rod likes the sound of his own voice.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Dear Arizona Fans,

First, my condolences.  It must be difficult, as a fan, to watch a hype video called "Hard Edge" that contains neither hype nor an edge.  I, of course, am referencing this little diddy (be careful if you hit play ... you'll never get those two minutes back again).

On a more upbeat note, as a fanbase, you should be feeling pretty good.  Not only is your basketball the cat's meow in the Pac 12 (yeah, I did that), but your football team is starting to populate itself with actual, real world talent.  Rich Rod, who is the anti-Sean Miller if there were ever one, has meticulously cultivated a recruiting approach that is starting to pay off in terms of recruits with more than two stars next to their names contributing on the field.

The future is bright in Tuscon.  Almost as bright as the sun shining down upon the old Tuscon desert.  The question is whether or not 2014 could be the year that the 'Cats make a break for a South Division title run.  If you don't know, then read on and let the Gekko drop some knowledge on you.

2013 Recap - What I Said

If you want to know the brilliance that is the Gekko, check out these stats on how I projected Arizona:

Predicted Div Finish 4th
Actual Div Finish 4th
Predicted P12 Record 4-5
Actual P12 Record 4-5

Here were some of my verbatims:

...the loss to graduation of Matt Scott, the loss to injury of Austin Hill, and the ongoing off field struggles of Ka'Deem Carey represent true barriers for RichRod to overcome...In the end, the Wildcats could end up going anywhere between 1st and 4th in the South. They have the talent and a few breaks in the schedule that will make the journey navigable. But, no team among the true contenders of the South have more questions

As you can tell I was a little, uhhhhh, non-committal when it came to my forecast of the Wildcats in 2013 (at least before I did my game-by-game picks).  While you can hardly call "anywhere between first and fourth" a precise forecast, I think it pretty fairly represents what the talented-but-imbalanced 2013 Wildcats showed in the Pac.

When the dust settled coming out of camp, the Wildcats had designated B.J. Denker as their QB and inserted him into a lineup that was always going to feature a heavy dose of star RB Ka'Deem Carey.  A ridiculously easy out of conference schedule - even by the standards set by this year's UW team - was a good warm-up act.  However, their first two Pac 12 games - both on the road - against UW and USC proved that the Wildcats were going to experience some growing pains.  While Denker had his struggles throwing the ball, the manner in which the 'Zona D was overwhelmed in those games opened some eyes in Tuscon.

It was pretty much "Jekyll and Hyde" for Rich Rod and co the remainder of the way as they finished their Pac 12 schedule at 4-5 on the season.  There was no better example of this incongruity than the back to back games on Nov 16 and 23.  Both of them home games, the first one featured one of the lowest points in the Rich Rod era when WSU came into town and out-physicaled the 'Cats on their way to a 24-17 win.  The second, of course, was the amazing thrashing of Oregon by that very same Wildcats squad.  In that one, Carey and Denker absolutely exposed a weaker-than-we've-seen-in-a-while Oregon Ducks rush D on their way to a crushing 42-16 win - a win that knocked the Ducks out of BCS bowl consideration.  True to form, the 'Cats got crushed in their rivalry game the following week before going on to a win over Boston College in something called the Advocare V100 Bowl.

Both Denker and Carey, along with 10 other starters, all moved on in the offseason.  The exodus of such a big chunk of the starting lineup from a 4-5 P12 team left 'Zona fans debating whether or not it was addition by subtraction in terms of creating space for young talent to emerge or if the prospects for 2014 are, indeed, dim.

Previewing 2014: The Wildcats

Arizona is much like Washington in that they are the only school in the Pac 12 replacing their starting QB.  The parallels continue once you consider that they are also replacing a record-breaking, multi-year, 1000+ rusher at tailback. and a starting TE.  On the other side of the ball, key contributors like CB Shaquille Richardson, DT Tevin Hood, LB Jake Fischer and LB Marquis Flowers have all moved on.  That is a lot of talent gone from last year and reason to give Rich Rod the stink eye.  However, recruiting has gone well in Tuscon the last few years and there are certainly reasons to have an optimistic outlook in certain areas.

Let's start with the offense and yet another area where UW and UA have similar stories.  The Wildcats return all of their offensive linemen from a year ago - a year where they averaged over 5 yards rushing per carry and surrendered only 17 sacks all season.  While the Wildcats O-Linemen have fewer career starts than both Oregon and UW in the Pac, this unit leads the South which, given Rich Rod's unique run-oriented take on the spread offense, is extremely critical to what they want to get accomplished.

While the O-Line really looks solid, the strength of the Arizona offense is its receiving corps.  The 'Cats welcome back Austin Hill after he missed last season with a leg injury.  Hill, who was an elite receiver prior to the injury joins a corps that includes Notre Dame transfer Davonte Neal, Trey Griffey and the leading receiver from last season Nate Phillips.  This group has a good blend of skills sets and is multifaceted.  If they can find somebody to get them them ball, they will be a dangerous group.

The backfield will be a transition one for the 'Cats.  While replacing one-year starter Denker isn't quite the challenge as replacing one of the most efficient QBs in program history with Keith Price, it is still a key story line.  The contenders are Sr. Jesse Scroggins (yes, the man is still around), RS Fr. Anu Solomon, and Texas transfer Connor Brewer.  I have no idea how the competition is going to go (my money is on the electric Solomon), but that is a pretty good cadre of candidates to choose from.  Whomever gets the nod will be handing off to a new feature back.  Sr. Terris Jones-Grigsby is a familiar name based on his special teams play, but has never carried the ball in a game.  He's a versatile back but may not be able to stand up to the constant pounding.  The other main candidates are RS Fr. Zach Green and True Fr. Jonathan Haden.  If none of these emerge, there are other bodies.  However, one key candidate, RS Fr. Pierre Cormier, had to take a medical retirement following a productive spring.  This unit will be a critical question mark.

Defensively, the Wildcats run a full-time (well, as full-time as anybody can get) 3-3-5 scheme.  This approach allows not only flexibility on the field, but gives Rich Rod an opportunity to recruit a little differently than his Pac 12 colleagues.  The key elements of a 3-3-5?  Multi-tool athletes at Safety, an anchor at MLB and one big-mutha at NT.  The Wildcats have some of what they need, but not all.

The great news here is that Arizona has loaded up on Safety in their recruiting and return some serious athletes.  A three-man rotation of Jared Tevis, Tre'mayne Bondurant and Jourdan Grandon is more than enough to build on.  Tevis is the beast of this group having shown up on all of the preseason award watch lists.  The CB situation isn't quite as strong given that the need to replace Richardson and the lack of developed depth that the Wildcats currently have (again, not terribly unlike UW).  There is talent here and, at least, they return Jonathan McNight full-time on one side.

The front seven for the Wildcats is where the season will be won or lost.  In summary, the Wildcats are replacing just about anybody that mattered from a unit that was a pretty respectable 25th rated D according to the F/+ metric.  I mentioned the losses of the two big LBs in Fischer and Flowers.  Rich Rod called this "the thinnest I've been at LB in my career".  Scooby Wright, a dynamic talent who played all last year as a true frosh, will be the featured playmaker and is expected to live in opponents' backfields.  Beyond that, the Wildcats are going to need some young players to step up.  If you want a name to watch, I'm curious to see what the athletic Jamadre Cobb can do in his first year in the program.

Forward of the LBs is yet another transition story.  The 'Cats have been struggling with D-Line play for years.  While they definitely have bodies, they don't have much experience or accomplishment.  Sr. Reggie Gilbert is the most experienced starter, but he's not been much more than an average contributor.  Transfer Sr. DL Jordan Allen is also an interesting name to watch.  He didn't get much run in Baton Rouge, but the LSU grad has the size to be able to shift from End to Tackle in Rich Rod's three man front.  I'd also keep an eye out on a couple of players returning from Mormon missions, in particular Sani Fuimaono who had a few starts in the middle as a freshman.  Keep in mind that Rich Rod needs players who will hold up the point of attack more so than rush the passer and that he definitely has big bodies to work with.  It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Three Questions and a Comment: Kevin Zimmerman, Arizona Desert Swarm

1. Arizona has the only other open QB battle going in the P12.  Who will win it and why?

I think I can whittle this mystery down to four players, take a wild stab to get it to two and then pin down a winner as a wild guess. Jerrard Randall, a transfer from LSU, is in the mix, possibly the biggest talent but probably outside the top-3. Those three are Texas transfer Connor Brewer, USC transfer Jesse Scroggins and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. I'm go with Solomon, who is the most prototypical RichRod quarterback with legs. Brewer is a decent athlete and a solid bet, Scroggins has the arm, but Solomon was thought to be challenging for the gig last year despite being a true freshman.

2. What advantages do the Wildcats have that make them a sleeper in the South?

A defense that has enough known playmakers with added depth and an offense that has a very talented receiving crew will be able to keep pace against The number of quarterbacks vying for the starting job makes an Arizona fan happy that, at the least, Rodriguez has options to find who might be capable of tossing balls to a number of playmakers. We know the receiving group led by Austin Hill will have Nate Phillips, Trey Griffey and Samajie Grant returning. Notre Dame transfer DaVonte' Neal and Texas transfer Cayleb Jones will challenge for snaps as well.

Arizona has momentum that's sustainable. USC will be very good, but it could still be getting comfortable under Sarkisian. ASU is losing too many players off last season's defensive crew for the Sun Devils to feel comfortable. Utah and Colorado and still trying to keep pace. Arguably, Arizona has the least amount of things to overcome -- yes, losing Ka'Deem Carey was big -- after UCLA.

3. Does the buzz from the "Leap by the Lake" make up for the "Immaculate Interception" or what?

Arizona football is weird in that the good memories are a lot easier to hold onto than the bad. I guess that's what happens since UA is a basketball school. People will still get angry about losing to Illinois in the Elite Eight nearly a decade ago, but I'm not sure they'll get wound up about a regular season football game, even as dramatic as that was.

The Wildcats' best player that nobody has yet heard of is...

Jared Tevis.

Arizona's bandit safety is a hometown kid who has quietly become one of the better defenders in the Pac-12. He's undersized but can make a difference stopping the run game or drop back into coverage. He's also one of the tougher guys on the team.

Predicting 2014: The Arizona Wildcats

You have to like what Rich Rod has done with the Wildcats since taking them over, even if you aren't a fan of the man himself.  Similar to Mike Leach, he's instituted a complete and comprehensive culture and playbook change and he's gone about his business totally reconstructing his roster.  Sure, he's used his fair share of JC players, but he's been pursuing, and landing, key young talents in recruiting and in transfers to implement his system.  While the rebuild is clearly not complete, it feels like this is a Rich Rod team.

The question remains as to how good this team can be in an ultra-competitive Pac 12 South.  At first glance, the schedule looks like it will put wind in the Arizona sails (yes, I just used a sailing analogy for a team from the desert).  This is a 5-home game (conference) season for UA.  However, a closer look reveals it may not be so favorable.  Their OOC is typical Rich Rod patty-cake stuff with UNLV, UTSA and Nevada.  However, of their home games, they are sure to be a dog vs USC and pick 'em with both UW and ASU.  Layer on that road games to Oregon and to UCLA and you have what Football Outsiders calls the 21st most difficult schedule in the nation as ranked by their SOS metric (which ranks most P12 teams as "difficult").  So, this won't be a cakewalk for Rich Rod.

On the field, I'm really not all that concerned about QB for the 'Cats.  In fact, if Solomon wins the job, I'd be pretty optimisitc that we'll see the beginnings of a special player emerge.  I'm more concerned about tailback and the lack of game experience on the field.  Defensively, I think that the secondary will be just fine, even with depth issues at CB. However, I'm not so confident in that Linebacking unit and I suspect that Arizona DEs are really going to struggle with teams that run the ball in the outer gaps.  While the talent is there, the experience is not.

Like last year, I can see the 'Cats pulling some upsets - they've got the players and the scheme to compete.  However, they will struggle more with their consistency as Rich Rod continues to lay the ground work for this team in the midst of what is quickly becoming a very difficult Pac 12 South.  This is going to be a good team and soon, but I don't think that their record will reflect it in 2014.  Without going game by game, I'm going to call this a 4 or 5 win team in P12 play and most likely a third or fourth place finisher.  Their easy pre-con schedule will ensure that they get to a bowl game where the extra practices will help Rich Rod prep for a serious run in 2015.