Arizona football 2017 Analysis: Will it be revival or a fight for survival in Tucson?
Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins (13) scores the first touchdown of the game against Grambling State on Sept. 10, 2016. Dawkins ran for two touchdowns and rushed 223 yards leading the Wildcats to victory, 31-21.
Last fall was an unmitigated disaster for UA football. The Wildcats went 3-9 and were overmatched most of the season. Arizona lost eight consecutive conference games, and only a stirring victory over rival ASU kept the ‘Cats from going winless in Pac-12 play.
A much-ballyhooed recruiting class failing to materialize and the hiring of new athletic director Dave Heeke put head coach Rich Rodriguez squarely on the hot seat as questions arose about the direction of the program.
Quarterback Brandon Dawkins is the type of player who thrives in Rodriguez’s explosive, high-octane offense. A talented runner, Dawkins ran roughshod over the rival Sun Devils, accumulating 183 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale.
Unfortunately, Dawkins can’t run on every down, and his passing leaves much to be desired — he completed just 53.6% of his passes last season. His inability to stretch the field and make routine throws made the Wildcat passing game one of the least effective in the country.
There is a good chance that the ‘Cats will be one-dimensional once again due to a lack of returning starters in the receiving corps. Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant exhausted their eligibility, leaving Shun Brown as the lone returning starter. Cam Denson and Shawn Poindexter combined for just 21 catches last year, and they’ll be expected to produce bigger numbers in their upgraded roles.
While the Arizona passing game doesn’t inspire confidence, the rushing attack should provide fans with loads of excitement. Nick Wilson returns to the fold after spending most of 2016 on the sidelines due to injury.
The senior speedster rushed for 1,375 yards as a freshman and 729 yards as a sophomore. Observers note that Wilson looks to be completely healthy — something that hasn’t been the case in quite some time.
Wilson is joined in the backfield by sophomore J.J. Taylor, a player whose freshman campaign was shortened by injury. Taylor was off to a dazzling start, gaining 261 yards on 38 carries before he was forced out of action.
Highly-touted freshman Nathan Tilford will also see playing time, making the Wildcat stable of runners one of the best in the West. Whoever carries the football will run behind a solid, experienced offensive line.
Four starters return from last season, led by center Nathan Eldridge. Eldridge is a player whose best days are ahead of him; he should be an all-conference pick by the time he leaves Tucson.
Senior guard Jacob Alsadek provides leadership, and tackles Gerhard de Beer and Layth Friekh have combined to start 33 games in their careers.
Kicker Josh Pollack struggled last year, only connecting on one kick from beyond 40 yards: he will need to improve.
Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates struggled to find a winning combination in his first year at the UA. It wasn’t a return to Desert Swarm, as the ‘Cats surrendered an average of 44 points per game in conference play.
While injuries played a huge role in Arizona’s inability to stop anyone, a lack of talent was the true culprit.
Year two of the Yates regime should be an improvement, as the system is no longer foreign to the defensive squad. Seven starters return, and for the first time in years there is hope for the unit.
The group that should make the largest leap is the men in the trenches. The ‘Cats have three solid defensive linemen, with Justin Belknap as the best of the bunch. Junior college transfer Sione Taufahema will provide additional bulk inside and should contribute immediately. The linebacker corps are rebuilding as leading tackler Paul Magloire graduated, leaving hybrid DeAndre’ Miller the lone returning starter.
Despite the lack of experience, more bodies are available, which means the defense should be better equipped to handle injuries. The secondary is deep and experienced, with all four starters returning.
Dane Cruikshank had a fine year in 2016, with 60 tackles and nine passes defended. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles finished second on the team in tackles with 78 — he’s a playmaker at safety.
While on paper the ‘Cats appear to be the least talented team in the Pac-12 South, they do have some advantages that may help them reach the postseason.
Arizona will not face Stanford and Washington, the two best teams in the North division, and will go face-to-face with Utah and UCLA at Arizona Stadium. Despite those advantages, the ‘Cats will face an uphill battle all year.
This season is about more than the opponents on the schedule; it’s about the future of the program.
Can Arizona football be more than an also-ran in the South? Will Rich Rod be held accountable if the ‘Cats aren’t competitive? Those questions will be answered in due time, but for now it seems that the odds are stacked against the men in blue.
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