Football Guide '17: Rushing attack runs the show
Arizona running back JJ Taylor runs toward the end zone for a touchdown against University of Hawaii on Sept. 16, 2016.
The Arizona Wildcats enter the 2017 season with more questions than answers. A disappointing close to the 2017 recruiting cycle and a disastrous 3-9 campaign last year have some people doubting the direction of the program. While expectations are at their lowest in years, hope remains that the ‘Cats can surprise the pundits. Offensively, Arizona has the potential to be explosive on the ground, with multiple returning tailbacks and the best running quarterback in the Pac-12. A lack of depth on the offensive line and wide receiver will limit what the Wildcats can be through the air.
On paper, Brandon Dawkins is the prototypical Rich Rodriguez quarterback. Dawkins can run, as evidenced by his performance against the hated Sun Devils last season. Unfortunately, his limited passing ability made him a one-dimensional player. He will have to improve on his pedestrian 53.8 completion percentage if he is to be more than an impressive athlete playing the position.
Sophomore Khalil Tate was a highly touted recruit and had a baptism by fire last year, earning his first career start against USC. That start didn’t end well, with the Trojans manhandling the young signal-caller. Donavan Tate, like Dawkins, is an athletic marvel but a raw passer. He will be the first man off the bench if Dawkins falters or is injured. Tate is the kind of athlete coaches salivate over; he is the complete package. He has the size, the strength and the athleticism needed to succeed at the collegiate level. The former baseball player arrived in Tucson with little hype but has stood out in fall camp. He hasn’t been able to overtake Dawkins, but don’t be shocked if the “Old Man” is utilized in a cameo role.
Freshman Rhett Rodriguez has the name, but he doesn’t have the strength or ability at this point. Rodriguez is in desperate need of a redshirt; he lacks the heft needed to survive in the rugged Pac-12.
The ZonaZoo should print “Pound The Rock” t-shirts, because the ‘Cats tailbacks will see a lot of action in 2017. Nick Wilson, J.J. Taylor and Nathan Tilford form the best triumvirate of backs in the conference.
Wilson and Taylor are finally healthy after suffering injuries last season, and Tilford was the highest-rated recruit in this year’s recruiting class. A surprisingly physical runner, Wilson rushed for 1,375 yards as a true freshman in 2014. He will split carries with Taylor, whose ability to make defenders miss makes him extremely dangerous in a tempo-based attack.
Look for Taylor to be a weapon in the pass game as well; he is a handful for any linebacker. Tilford appeared to be a complete back in high school; the only limiting factor for him is pass protection. If the young runner can grasp the intricacies of pass pro, he will get carries.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Who will be the man on third down? That is the question everyone is asking, for the ‘Cats don’t have a true go-to receiver on the roster. Shun Brown led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns last season, but only caught 29 passes during the campaign. He will be joined by Shawn Poindexter, a player that has blossomed over the off-season. Poindexter, who is the tallest receiver on the roster at 6-foot-5, will be the red zone threat the ‘Cats desperately need. Cam Denson was a big play threat last season, averaging 16.1 yards per catch; he will get more targets with Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and Samaje Grant gone.
Devaughn Cooper is back with the team, and will have to fight his way back up the depth chart, according to coaches. Cooper is an explosive athlete, so if he can get back into the groove, there will be a role for him.
Former cornerback Cam Denson has been a bit of a disappointment during his career, but has one more chance to turn it around. Talent isn’t the issue for Denson; it’s staying on the field and being a consistent contributor that the senior struggles with. Tight end Trevor Wood may not be the second coming of Rob Gronkowski, but he is a player coaches are high on. Wood wasn’t utilized often last year, but he will see additional targets this year.
This isn’t a group to write home about, but they should improve as the season goes on. If Brown or Poindexter become a dependable threat, the offense will benefit immensely.
Jacob Alsadek is your typical roadgrader. He leads what is a physical Wildcat front. Alsadek started 10 games last season and was graded highly almost every week. Three starters from last year join Alsadek, including tackles Gerhard de Beer and Layth Friekh. Both DeBeer and Friekh are experienced upperclassmen that are at their best when leading the way for Wildcat tailbacks.
This offensive line thrives in the run game, as evidenced by Arizona’s sterling statistics in that area. Unfortunately, protecting the passer isn’t this group’s strong suit, and it is extremely evident on film. Arizona’s front struggled with aggressive, physical defensive linemen last year and, outside of Alsadek, was unable to consistently keep on coming rushers at bay.
Arizona has a line that can pave the way for runners, but for the ‘Cats to be a complete offense, this group has to provide the quarterback with an uncluttered pocket.
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