There will be a couple of new faces on the Arizona offense this weekend that weren’t in the spotlight until recently. Injury, dismissal, and some poor play has lead to the arrivals of QB Brandon Dawkins and freshman RB J.J. Taylor. And if last week’s 582-yard offensive performance is any indication, they’re both ready to take the reins of the Wildcat offense.
Arizona runs a spread offense that Coach Rich Rodriguez made famous during his days at West Virginia with players like Pat White and Steve Slayton. What began as an up-tempo, pass-first, run-and-shoot style offense in his early years at Glenville State has evolved to incorporate more running, and can morph further depending on personnel. The offense in its purest form lines up in a shotgun formation with a single running back. There’ll be three wide receivers split out wide and a TE/H-back, though they’ll often have four- and five-receiver sets while running no-huddle and up-tempo.
So far this year Arizona is averaging about 230 yards per game on the ground and 220 through the air. Let’s take a closer look at Washington’s first conference opponent on offense.
Brandon Dawkins: 458 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 62% completion, 9.16 yds/attempt, 152.1 passer rating. 215 rushing yards, 5 TDs.
Sophomore Brandon Dawkins will likely take the field in place of the injured Anu Solomon this Saturday and attempt to improve to 3-0 as a starter. Even if the divisive Solomon returns healthy, Dawkins may not relinquish the starting job so easily. He’s a run-first QB who is a bit limited as a passer, but he’s completing over 60% of his throws and has yet to throw an interception. Against Hawaii last week he was pretty efficient at 16-21, but 4/5 of his incomplete passes were on 3rd down. Even so, he was able to find open receivers and put the ball on target on 1st and 2nd downs.
Running the ball, he’s averaging 7 yards a carry and has 5 rushing TDs, putting him second in the Pac-12. His explosiveness on the ground will be a big test for the Husky defense. Portland State QB Alex Kuresa is no Dawkins, but the Huskies showed last week they could handle a dual-threat signal caller. While his numbers and passer rating are pretty good, he doesn’t rank in the top 50 nationally in passing efficiency. Against a defense like Washington’s that makes you earn everything, he could struggle to generate big yards on passing plays. However, if there’s nothing downfield, he can and will hurt you with his legs.
Nick Wilson: 43 rushes, 257 yards, 3 TDs, 6 yds/rush.
J.J. Taylor: 19 rushes, 164 yards, 1 TD, 8.6 yds/rush
Nick Wilson came into the season as another in a long line of talented running backs to come through a Rich Rodriguez offense. He was humming along having another strong year before injuring his ankle in the team’s victory against Hawaii. In stepped true freshman J.J. Taylor and he put on a show. He carried the ball 18 times and ripped off a 61-yard TD run to cap his 168-yard day. He’s only 5-6 and 170 pounds, but he’s got moves in the open field.
Taylor is now the man to tote the rock for the Wildcats, as former backup Orlando Bradford was dismissed from the team. He’s got excellent quickness and moves in the open field. He gets vertical quickly and will punish tacklers who don’t arrive at the right spot. Will Rodriguez look to him first, or can Nick Wilson heal up in time for Saturday? If he can’t, backing up Taylor is junior big-back Zach Green. The 227-pound Green has 23 carries in his 3 years at Arizona.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Trey Griffey: 9 catches, 153 yards, 1 TD
Samajie Grant: 10 catches, 126 yards, 0 TDs
Shun Brown: 6 catches, 99 yards, 0 TDs
Nate Phillips: 10 catches, 104 yards, 0 TDs
Josh Kern: 2 catches, 16 yards
Arizona traditionally has had strong pass catchers the past few years and this year continues that trend, as they showcase a deep and experienced group. Senior Trey Griffey is the star of this group, and brings great size and excellent athleticism to the position. He started the season off hot with 8 receptions and a TD in his first two games but was limited to just one catch for 13 yards against Hawaii. Senior Nate Phillips gets targeted a lot on short routes out of slot position and can cause big plays. This season he has two 20+ yard catches and last season turned 8 of his 44 receptions in plays of 25 yards or more, mostly from the slot.
Samajie Grant is another experienced WR who gets a lot of catches, but isn’t as much of a big-play threat as Griffey and Phillips. He did however have a 70-yard TD against Grambling State. Overall this is a deep group that gets catches and yards, but through 3 games this season, hasn’t seen a lot of touchdowns. This offense does not utilize a tight end much, with starter Josh Kern having only having 2 catches on the season.
As has been the case recently with Rich Rod, Arizona sports a strong run game. The big guys up front are helping get it done, to the tune of 228 yards per game and 10 touchdowns, with a very good 5.6 yards per rush. However, they’ve allowed 6 sacks through just three games, against the likes of Grambling State and Hawaii. With running quarterbacks on the roster, that’s not a good sign if you’re still giving up 2 sacks a game. They’re also giving up an average of 6.5 tackles for loss per game, ranking in the 90s nationally.
Overall the offensive line returns 57 starts from a year ago, including 9 starts at LT for former UW recruit Layth Friekh. Redshirt freshman Nathan Eldridge starts at center, the likely spot where Zach Hemmila would have played this season, had he not sadly passed away in the offseason. Overall, this a solid group who can get it done for the offense but doesn’t appear to be in the conference’s upper echelon just yet.
What to make of the Arizona offense? Overall, they seem to have sputtered a bit this season, but may have found some stability and big-play ability with QB Brandon Dawkins and RB J.J. Taylor. Even if the injured players they’re taking over for come back healthy, Arizona may have found a duo it can work with. Things aren’t quite as eye-popping this year on offense because of Dawkins’s limits as a passer, but with a healthy run game to ease the pressure, he can be efficient with the football through the air. This will absolutely be the stiffest test on offense for the Huskies this season, and they won’t have a home crowd to help energize them when they need a stop.
Containing Dawkins on the ground will be huge as there’s no doubt that Washington’s secondary will not make life easy catching the ball downfield, and he’ll look to take off with his legs more often than not. That’s been his calling card this season, and it’ll be up to players like Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching to keep him in the pocket, while Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor will have to track him down if he escapes.
Never doubt that Rich Rodriguez can get an offense going against any team, especially when he has a talented running quarterback and explosive running back. If the Huskies don’t come ready to compete, players like Trey Griffey, J.J. Taylor, and Brandon Dawkins will make them pay. Those three Wildcats will make their plays, but this team, and defense especially, are eager to prove the hype surrounding them and finally sink their teeth into a conference opponent.