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the Gekko Files: previewing Arizona football in 2017

Last year was bad. This year? We’ll see.

USC v Arizona
Rich Rod will have his hands full righting the ship in Tucson.
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Have you ever had the sensation of having seen something occur before it actually happens?

Athletes do this routinely. Whether it is a baseball hitter projecting the arc of a curve ball based on the eye’s perception of the spin. Or a tennis player projecting the ricochet of a sliced forehand smash coming his way. Or a basketball player anticipating the defender’s spot as he drives the lane and tries to beat his man there. This kind of visualized anticipation is the result of a convergence between your direct vision, your peripheral vision and the natural process your brain engages in to fill in gaps in its sensory perception. It’s a remarkable evolutionary capability that many living creatures exhibit.

You don’t have to be an athlete to know the feeling. If you’ve ever driven a car, you’ve likely experienced it. Take the example where you are approaching an intersection with a green light but note out of the corner of your eye something amiss. In an instant, you’ve likely already processed that blue Toyota Prius barrelling towards the intersection from your right. You’ve probably already picked up on the profile of the driver - a young, white male aged somewhere between 18 and 21 with retro sunglasses, a patchy attempt at a hipster beard and an Android cell phone in his right hand. Jumbo sized screen.

In your mind’s eye, you’ve already seen the path that this driver is going to take into a contested intersection and determined that the only course of action available is to take proactive steps yourself. You slow your speed and swerve to the right - exactly where that Prius is right now - in order to create an escape path towards the space that you know the offending driver will soon vacate.

You process all of this information and take your action in a fraction of a second without even turning your head.

The ability to anticipate through combining sensory inputs with experience and imagination is a trait we all have to one degree or another. Football coaches are not exceptions to this rule.

Because of this, I wonder just how much trouble Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez realized he was in after his team’s opening week loss to BYU. In that game, he saw his team fall behind 15-3 going into the fourth and then lose a comeback bid with a last second field goal surrendered. He saw his QB struggle with missed throws and poor timing. He saw his offensive line give up sack after sack. And, despite moments of plus play, he saw his defense buckle at the exact moment it needed to stiffen to save the win. Instead, it turned out to be the first opening week loss in Rich Rod’s tenure in Tucson.

In short, it was the proverbial Prius heading into the intersection right in front of Rich Rod’s eyes.

You saw it. I saw it. We all saw it. That Arizona opener was all we needed to see to know that it was going to be a bad, bad season for Rich Rod and his team. The only question most of us had was just how bad.

The Wildcats go into Rich Rod’s sixth season with more questions than any mere mortal fan could possibly answer. Fortunately, it is not a mere mortal fan writing this review. The Gekko is back and today we open the file on the Arizona Wildcats.

Arizona’s Offense

Arizona Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Heisman candidate QB pass blocking QB Khalil Tate WR Drew Dixon (RFr)
short-passing game outside receiving RB JJ Taylor QB Kevin Doyle (TFr)
running game options LT Layth Freikh

The heart of a Rich Rod team is always its rush offense. Since arriving at Arizona, Rich Rod has stayed true to his roots and focused on his unique style of the spread. For the most part it has worked. In fact, his turnaround of the Arizona offense in 2012 - his first in the PAC - was one of the biggest one-year offensive turnarounds that we’ve seen in the conference for any team. Arizona went from 11th to 2nd in rush offense and improved their scoring output by over 10 points a game in just that one offseason.

Unfortunately, 2016 saw a reverse in fortunes that resulted in the Wildcats ending up right back where they started pre-Rich Rod. Worst to first to worst, or something like that. In fact, the Wildcats scored just 297 points on the season ... roughly half of what the conference’s best offense - that would be UW - scored.

Reversing that trend might be difficult in 2017 if the QB situation doesn’t improve. Brandon Dawkins is back but is not assured a job with QBs Khalil Tate and tantalizing true freshman Donovan Tate both in the mix. Since Dawkins was Arizona’s best player a year ago, we’ll just assume that he’s going to be the guy to start. He’s a weapon if you are looking at him from a running point of view, but he’s got serious limitations when it comes to accuracy and the passing game. UW fans might remember him differently because of a couple of big plays he made in our game a year ago, but Dawkins is what he is going into his junior season.

Do keep an eye on Donovan Tate. He’s a 27 year old true frosh who was once the #3 pick overall in the MLB draft. He’s very toolsy, but hasn’t played football in 9 years. Rich Rod expects him to compete right away.

Washington v Arizona
JJ Taylor packs a lot of pop in a small frame.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Wide receiver depth is going to limit any QB in the Arizona system. Three of Arizona’s big four from a year ago, including Trey Griffey and Samaje Grant, need to be replaced. Slot guy Shun Brown - a guy with more bounce than a House of Pain video - will be the main playmaker in the unit.

Otherwise, Arizona is going to be looking at a crop of fresh faces to provide some size and some playmaking. At a lanky 6’5”, true freshman WR Drew Dixon, a former QB and the top player in Arizona last year, looks like the most likely suspect to make an instant impact. That is assuming passing is even a thing in Tucson this year.

It may not be a thing given that the strength of the team looks to be a RB unit featuring breakout star JJ Taylor and seasoned vet Nick Wilson. Together, the two are a spectacular tandem ... if healthy. UW fans saw what the 5’6” Taylor was all about when he shredded what was otherwise a robust rush defense last year. He’s like lightning on steroids with the ball in his hands.

Wilson is a runner who's seen a huge amount of tread get taken off of his tires the last few seasons. Still, he is the conference’s third-leading active rusher behind Royce Freeman and - believe it or not - Myles Gaskin. He’s a classic slasher who is hard to get to the ground on the first hit. He’s a great #2 to have on a team that wants to run the ball three out every four plays. Keeping in mind that both Dawkins and Brown are runners in this offense, it is easy to see Arizona having success in this phase.

The offensive line ought to be an overall positive, even if its depth is a bit questionable. The starting five features three seniors including star LT Layth Freikh, jumbo OG Jacob Alsadek and OT Gerhard de Beer. C Nathan Eldridge was a breakout contributor as a freshman a year ago while former UW target Michael Eletise projects as, perhaps, the best o-lineman on the field for Arizona in 2017 if he can beat out incumbent junior Christian Boettcher. Past those guys there aren’t too many bodies, so health will be a concern for this unit. That said, this is a competent and balanced group that ought to excel in run blocking and be at least adequate in giving the QB a pocket.

Arizona’s Defense

Arizona Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
inside linebacking play big play prevention S Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles DL Mykee Irving (TFr)
DL depth third down defense LB Tony Fields DL PJ Johnson (Txfr)
blitzing schemes defensive size LB Colin Schooler

The defensive side of this preview might be brief. Not so much because there aren’t players to write about, but because I’m trying to keep this post rated at a PG-13 level. Needless to say, this is not looking like a great unit.

Seven of the best players on a really bad defense from 2016 are all gone. The linebacking corps is where this pain is being felt the most. Only three of eight players who got in games a year ago are back, the best of which is OLB Deandre’ Miller. Outside of Miller, it’s anybody’s guess how the rest of the unit shapes up.

UNLV v Arizona
DL Jack Banda will need to be a leader.

The defensive line has a few things going for it, but not enough. End Jack Banda is a hustle ‘n grit kind of player who gets everything he can out of his limited physical skills. Former walk-on Parker Zellers and JUCO transfer Sione Taufahema are going to provide most of the reps inside. Again, depth is an issue, especially with USC transfer Noah Jefferson taking a redshirt and former Boise State starter Dereck Boles opting to renege last minute on his transfer commitment in favor of USF.

The secondary is probably the unit in the best shape thanks to a youth movement that began a couple of year ago. All of the starters are back led by safety (“Bandit”) Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. DC Marcel Yates likes to emphasize DFF’s versatility as a coverage guy and as a blitzer. As such, you’ll see his stats get stuffed every week.

Flannigan-Fowles has a partner in crime in senior CB Dane Cruikshank - a big corner - as well as some young complements. Safety Isaiah Hayes looks like an up-and-comer whose strength is erasing big plays when corners lose their assignments. I’ll be watching his development, in particular, this fall.

While there are good pieces here and there, shortages in talent and depth are going to plague Arizona’s D in 2017.

One Breakout Player

JJ Taylor, RB

This one is too easy and almost unfair given that Taylor was so visible to UW fans. But, in total, Taylor only appeared in four games for a total of 261 yards and 2 TDs. And, yes, they were pretty much all against UW.

Arizona is going to have to lean on their offense to win games this year. They will have no choice but to focus on Taylor and hope that they can keep him healthy. I think that the bet will pay off as Taylor looked pretty good in the spring and will go into the fall playing behind what looks like a serviceable offensive line.

I’m expecting big things from Taylor: a thousand-plus yard season, 12 TDs and a few broken ankles in the process.

Projecting Arizona in 2017

I opened this preview with discourse on peripheral vision and the manner in which the human brain fills in the gaps. In essence, most of us can see the outcome of 2017 for Arizona coming from a mile away.

The thing about peripheral vision is that it can be fooled. More correctly, the mind can be deceived into thinking it is seeing something it recognizes when, in fact, something else altogether is happening. This is the domain of the illusionist. The Copperfields, Criss Angels and David Blaines of the world actively attempt to manipulate this aspect of human nature in order to pull off their greatest stunts.

Is Rich Rod a master illusionist? Does he have a trick up his sleeve that might help him fool us all?

It’s possible. I do tend to stay optimistic about teams built around run games and good offensive line play. If ‘Zona stays healthy, I think they’ll demonstrate that. You also cannot discount the wild-card effect that teams with big play capability can present. Arizona has some of that, too.

The Wildcats schedule is a plus. While they will have their hands full in an OOC bout with Houston (in Tucson), they get a huge break with misses against both Stanford and Washington. They only get four in-conference home games, but their road games include three winnable affairs against teams with poor looking rush defenses: @ Cal, @ Oregon and @ ASU. They also have a well-timed BYE which, as you recall, has been a sore spot for Rich Rod.

This doesn’t look like a great team, but it doesn’t feel like a disaster season in the offing. That happened last year. I think that Arizona can finish 4-5 in the conference and make a bowl in 2017. Or maybe not.