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the Gekko Files: Arizona Wildcats 2015 Preview

The reigning PAC 12 South champs had a long offseason. You don't want to see Rich Rod after a long offseason.

If RichRod were a baseball manager, he'd be Lou Pinella.
If RichRod were a baseball manager, he'd be Lou Pinella.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you are an Arizona Wildcat fan, 2014 was the most bittersweet experience you'll ever have had as a football fan.  Or ever will have, for that matter.

The Arizona Wildcats won the Pac 12 South last season.  To do that, some crazy stuff had to happen and some unusual things had to occur.  Freshmen at QB and RB had to turn in ridiculously productive seasons.  An unlikely star had to emerge on defense.  An upset over Oregon ... for the second straight year ... had to happen.  Along the way, you had to get creative to find ways to beat powerhouses like Nevada and University of Texas at San Antonio.  Oh, you also had to pull out a Hail Mary victory over Cal after being down by 22 points at the half.

But, the 'Cats did all of that.  That earned them the right to get crushed in each of their last two games - once to Oregon in the Pac 12 Championship and the other to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.  While it seemed the program had come so far, the season ended as if the ulitmate goals were still so far away.  Will 2015 bring with it the proverbial step forward?

The Gekko knows.

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 4th
Actual Div Finish 1st
Predicted P12 Record 4-5
Actual P12 Record 6-3

Here were some of my verbatims:

While the O-Line really looks solid, the strength of the Arizona offense is its receiving corps...

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...

Like last year, I can see the 'Cats pulling some upsets. However, they will struggle more with their consistency.

At first blush, my predictions about Arizona don't look too good.  However, once you take into account that the near-death experiences that they had with UW, Cal, UTSA and Nevada along with the rather unusual upset that they had over Oregon, the predictions put forth look a little bit better.

Arizona had a great season in 2014.  They managed to win the early games on their schedule while they were still breaking in a young backfield and then they pulled off the big Oregon upset.  That they still posted losses to both the LA schools and got trounced in their last two games is a concern that I'm sure has fueled the offseason efforts of both the staff and the players.

Previewing 2015: The Arizona Wildcats

The Offense

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Calvin Magee Pace of Play 
WR Depth
OLine Experience
QB Depth
QB Anu Solomon
RB Nick Wilson
WR Cayleb Jones
OT Freddie Tagaloa (txr)
RB Orlando Bradford

Anu Solomon knows how to improvise.

Anu Solomon is one of just three scholarship QBs on the Arizona roster.

Let's start with the strength of this Arizona team:  their wide receivers.  The Wildcats, along with maybe Oregon, boast a cadre of receivers that would stack up with the best units of any team in the country.  Junior Cayleb Jones is a 6'3" 215lb monster out of Texas and is probably pound-for-pound the best all-around receiver returning to the Pac 12 in 2015.  He's joined by compatriots junior Trey Griffey, junior Samaje Grant, senior David Richards and junior Nate Philips.  These guys are experienced, talented and loaded.

The backfield returns the dynamic duo of QB Anu Solomon and RB Nick Wilson.  Both players had breakout campaigns as first year starters in 2014 with Wilson playing at a level that, in my mind, made him the rightful Pac 12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year (an award that went to Oregon's Royce Freeman).  Solomon was the key to the season.  He won the competition to replace BJ Denker with a certain amount of charisma, guts and core talent.  All of those attributes were on display during the season, but I was surprised to see that he didn't really improve as the season wore on.  In fact, I think he got a little less accurate and a little more careless later in the season than he was in the beginning.  If Solomon fails to develop or can't go for any reason, the young and athletic Jerrard Randall waits in the wings.

If you want to find the real question on this Arizona offense, it all happens on the offensive line.  A year ago, Arizona returned their entire starting unit.  This year, they are returning just a couple of those players.  It will be a mix and mash of transfers, young players and reserves from a year ago, some of whom will be playing new positions.  The starting LT will certainly be Freddie Tagaloa - a Cal transfer who played sparingly in Berkeley.  Sophomore Jacob Alsadek is an OG with a lot of upside, but still pretty young.  Beyond that, the 'Cats are going to be looking at guys who either weren't good last year (OG Cayman Bundage) or who are young (OG/OT Layth Friekh) or who might be nothing more than the best option available (the diminutive OC Carter Wood).  This is the kryptonite in the Arizona offense to be sure.

The Defense

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Jeff Casteel Blitz Capability
Zone Coverage
Rush Defense
Secondary Depth
LB Scooby Wright
DE Reggie Gilbert
S Tellas Jones
DB Paul Magloire (JC)
DL Anthony Fotu

Scooby Wright wears much makeup when he plays football.

Scooby Wright wears much makeup when he plays football.

If you were to believe the pundits, you would think that Arizona boasted one of the top defenses in the Pac 12 a year ago.  After all, they featured the Bednarik Award and Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year in Scooby Wright, found a way to upset Oregon and won the Pac 12 South.  In reality, it is hard to find any objective measurement that highlights the Arizona D as a key enabler to their W-L record.  This was a team that won on offense and just barely hung on with defense all season.

Don't believe me?  Consider that Arizona ranked 10th in the PAC in total D last season, just ahead of Colorado and Colorado.  They were pretty decent at generating plays, but not spectacular as they finished fifth in both TO Margin and Sacks.  Their FEI of -.3 (the more negative this stat, the more positive impact that the D had) was pretty good, but still middle of PAC overall.

The Wildcats don't lean on their defense to win them games, but they do lean on them to make the occasional play and to provide their offense with extra possessions.  This year's defense is one that is rebuilding to be sure, but still features enough returning playmakers that no major dropoff should be anticipated.

Scooby Wright is the featured guy at the Mike.  He's a bit undersized for the position, but he plays with a big motor and is constantly in opponent's backfields.  The media love him based on his nickname and the fact that he was a 2-star recruit.  He is, however, far from a finished product.  While a sure tackler, Wright is prone to over-playing the ball and is very blockable if a lineman gets his hands on him.  Still, he's a fantastic linebacker who will garner the attention of offensive coordinators and create opportunities for other guys.  One guy that I think will explode playing alongside Wright is OLB Derrick Turituri.

The defensive line features a lot of guys with skills but no standout stars.  The guy to watch is senior DE Reggie Gilbert.  He recorded 31 tackles and 3 sacks a year ago and is considered the most reliable player on that Wildcat frontline.  He'll likely be joined by sophomore DT Parker Zellers and senior 3T Jeff Worthy as starters.  It will be interesting to see what role standout true freshman Anthony Fotu carves for himself.

If you are looking for something to sweat over, focus on the secondary, particularly at CB.  The Wildcats are replacing a lot of pieces and are getting creative in doing so.  Davonte' Neal, who played WR a year ago, is almost assuredly going to be a starting CB this season.  Ditto that for the young Cam Denson.  A name to watch in that secondary is Tellas Jones.  The junior has been a reserve the last few seasons, but is getting the chance to start in 2015.  He'll play in that "Bandit" role for Rich Rod and will get plenty of chances to make some plays.

Three Questions and a Comment: Jason Bartel, Arizona Desert Swarm

1. Nick Wilson had an amazing season in 2014 and was, in my mind, the most deserving of the Pac 12 Freshman OPOY award. What are the expectations that Wildcats fans have for Wilson in 2015?

Jason:  I think the overwhelming expectation for Wilson this year is that he'll turn into kind of what Ka'Deem Carey was his sophomore season. Wilson's a bit quicker than Ka'Deem was, which makes him such a scary weapon in this conference. There's two things that kind of hamper expectations a little bit though. The big one is injury concerns. Wilson suffered several injuries in 2014, including at least two concussions. So it makes you wonder if he'll be injury prone and missing snaps or even games at some point, especially in a schedule without a bye week. The other concern would be the turnover on the offensive line. Only two full-time starters are back from last season, but there is some experience coming in, so that might turn out ok. But it's something to keep an eye on, especially early in the year.

2. Defensively, the Wildcats became a known entity despite some pedestrian outputs thanks in large part to the emergence of Scooby Wright as a national awards recipient. How does the Arizona defense look going into 2015?

Jason:  The secondary lost a lot of key pieces, but the emergence of safeties Jamar Allah and Tellas Jones in the spring is lowering my concerns there. Also, former WR DaVonte' Neal made the move to corner, which gives Arizona another playmaker on that side of the ball. But yeah, the defense will still be all about Scooby. He generates more pressure on the quarterback than the defensive linemen, he makes plays everywhere. It'll be the Scooby show again I would imagine.

3. Despite the disappointing close to last season (losses to Oregon and Boise State), UA had a great year with a relatively young team. Do Wildcats fans have any concerns that other schools may come calling on their coach should RichRod turn in an equally successful 2015?

Jason:  There's probably always going to be that little bit of concern that RichRod takes off for a more traditional football school, but there's a couple things at play going against that. The main one is how his contract is structured. Both he and Sean Miller are set to bring in a huge amount of money in the future because of an equity program set up by the donors. All they have to do is stay at Arizona long-term to collect that. The second one is the fact that Arizona just built the new football facilities, and are among the best in not just the Pac-12, but the country at this point. And the third one is that I think he just loves Tucson too much. He's always talking about how much he loves the weather, and the city, and now his daughter goes to U of A. I really believe that he's truly happy in Tucson, and trying to create a Pac-12 power here.

In order for Arizona to repeat as Pac 12 South champions, they must ...

Jason:  ...avoid the injury bug. Almost all of the key pieces from last year's team are back, and now they'll have a second-year quarterback in Anu Solomon that's seen what college defenses will throw at him, and a group of receivers that have a year of experience with him as well. I honestly think the biggest challenge this year is the schedule, and having to play 12 consecutive weeks without a bye. There won't be any time for guys to rest and recover if they do get injured, so this will be a season where the training staff may be the most crucial people on the ridiculous as that sounds. These guys have already shown they can win the South. It's just a matter of if they'll be able to play in every single game to have the chance to do it again. I don't think this team has the depth to withstand two or three major injuries.

Predicting 2015: The Wildcats

This won't be the sexiest prediction ever, but I think the Wildcats feel a lot like the team that they had a season ago.  I like the fact that they are returning all of the key parts of their offense - particularly that receiving corps, Solomon and Wilson.  I also think that they have depth to survive any attrition at their skill positions.  Defensively, they feel much like the same team as last year, even with all of the swapping out of pieces in their defensive secondary.  The Rich Rod formula doesn't really have to change to fit the personnel that the 'Cats will roll out in 2015 versus what they had in 2014.

The schedule is also a relative non-factor.  Arizona has lined up yet another ridiculously easy out-of-conference schedule with UTSA, @Nevada and Northern Arizona.  Once they get into conference play, they'll have to endure a four-game home schedule, but they get to miss the explosive offenses of both Oregon and Cal.  The worst stretch that they'll have to endure is their last four games when they are @UW, @USC, vs Utah and @Arizona State.

In all, I think Arizona can challenge for the Pac 12 South again.  I like the fact that last season they were able to win it without too much dependence on luck (at least as it relates to turnovers and the like) and that they have experience in key positions on both sides of the ball.  However, that offensive line does not project well and I can't help but to think that Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson might both suffer some steps backward as a result.  As such, this feels like a five or six win Pac 12 campaign for RichRod and a middle of the South kind of finish.