Arizona Wildcats earn average grades in non-conference play
With Arizona’s non-conference schedule now in the books, it has become clear where the Wildcats’ strengths and weaknesses lie.
Arizona entered the 2013 season with questions at almost every defensive position and concern about whether the defense would improve from last season, when it finished last in the conference. But three games in, it’s obvious the team has bought into coordinator Jeff Casteel’s “odd stack” defense.
Offensively, there are still concerns. Quarterback B.J. Denker separated himself a little last week against UTSA with his strongest performance to date, but he has yet to establish himself as a true threat to throw the ball.
Offensive Line: B-
Head coach Rich Rodriguez has been up and down on the hogs this fall. Consistency and communication have been the biggest problems, but with a running back like junior Ka’deem Carey, sometimes those faults can be covered up. The Wildcats have run for an average of 322.3 yards per game, which ranks them sixth in the country.
The offensive line has only allowed three sacks for a total loss of 19 yards. The three allowed sacks rank Arizona 18th in the nation and tied for second in the conference, behind Oregon’s two allowed sacks.
It’s hard to say much about Arizona’s receivers, since not much has been asked of them so far this fall. The Wildcats’ passing offense ranks 119th out of 123 schools in the country.
Freshman Samajie Grant reeled in five catches and a touchdown last week against the Roadrunners. He has shown the ability to be the future of the program, but he hasn’t shown consistency yet.
Grant only had one catch entering Saturday’s game against UTSA.
Running Backs: A
It’s no secret the Wildcats’ ground attack is their bread and butter. Carey and senior Daniel Jenkins are two of the best running backs in the conference. Carey is on track to once again be an All-American, and Jenkins has increased versatility by lining up as a slot receiver.
Even third-string running back Jared Baker, who could be the starting running back next season, has shown he can be a solid runner when given the opportunity.
Rodriguez doesn’t like calling his quarterback a game manager. In his fast tempo spread option system, it’s impossible to just manage.
With a 3-0 record, Denker has clearly been making all the right decisions. But as the competition increases, whether or not he’ll be able to execute those decisions will be magnified.
Denker threw for more than 100 yards for the first time this season last week against the Roadrunners. The passing game opened early as the defense put much of its attention on Carey and Jenkins. If Denker can continue to open up the passing game, the Wildcats will be a real threat to the Pac-12 South.
Defensive Line: B
Arizona’s pass rush has been decent. Its five sacks through three games tie it for 62nd in the country. The Wildcats have put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and sometimes forced them into ill-advised throws.
The key to the defensive line this fall has been its third down pressure with the Wildcats’ SWAT defense.
One of the biggest improvements from last season has come at the linebacker position.
Senior Jake Fischer is no longer trying to lead by example. Linebackers such as freshman Scooby Wright, who is second on the team in tackles, are tackling machines. Senior Marquis Flowers is a year older and wiser, and it’s been showing on the field. So far, the linebackers have been the centerpiece of a much-improved defense.
Defensive Backs: B-
Depending on where you look, Arizona’s last man of defense has been pretty solid. Spur Tra’Mayne Bondurant leads the team in tackles and has shown how effective his playmaking in the open field can be. The week one Pac-12 defensive player of the week is making a strong push for most valuable defensive player.
However, the Wildcats are still occasionally giving up deep passes. It happened against UNLV and last week against UTSA.
Special Teams: C
The Wildcats’ special teams have been questionable for a few years now, and it’s still too early to decide if this year’s squad is different.
Arizona has the speed to be a real threat on kick and punt returns. Kicker Jake Smith and punter Drew Riggleman haven’t been bad, but they haven’t done anything to wow us, either. As time goes on and opportunities arise, the special teams will either shine or, as they have in the past, hold the team back.
— Follow Luke Della @LukeDella