Football in good shape after 1/3 of season
As the calendar page is about to flip to October, the vast majority of non-conference games are out of the way and each squad is getting into the meat of its respective schedules. After all the preseason prognosticating, fans can finally get a feel for how their teams will measure up, now that the season is one-third over for most teams.
In the case of this year's football team (3-1, 1-0 Pacific 10 Conference), there's some good, some bad and some downright ugly aspects to its game. Here's how the Arizona Daily Wildcat grades the UA football team's performance so far this year.
Running Backs: A
Easily the most impressive aspect of the team. Junior Nic Grigsby is averaging 8.1 yards per carry and topped the 100-yard mark in the first two games of the season. Sophomore Keola Antolin is a proven running back and Grigsby's injury showed just how many horses are in the UA's stable.
Greg Nwoko looked both powerful and fast during Saturday's win against Oregon State and fourth-string running back Nick Booth displayed some of his skills too. If the Wildcats go far this year, it will be the running attack that takes them there.
Defensive Line: A-
Defensive end Brooks Reed was supposed to have a breakout season. He hasn't yet as he's been slowed by an ankle injury, but the rest of the line is picking up the slack.
The group has been consistently inconveniencing the opposing quarterback. While they don't always get a sack, the pressure makes the rest of the defense's life easier. Just ask Oregon State how relentless this unit can be.
Offensive Line: B
Many UA fans were worried how the offensive line would cope with the loss of left tackle Eben Britton to the NFL. So far, it seems like the group is doing just fine. Despite a few recent injuries — guard Vaughn Dotsy and tackle Mike Diaz (concussions) — and a less-than-stellar effort against Iowa, the O-line has done a good job of protecting Arizona's young quarterbacks.
The offensive line has done a great job of opening up holes for the running game — see 223.25 yards rushing per game, good enough for 13th in the nation. The O-line is also doing well in the passing game.
Nick Foles wasn't sacked in his first-career start in the win against Oregon State and the line was dominant against Central Michigan in the season-opener. If the offensive line keeps up this kind of effort, Wildcat quarterbacks might not need to do much laundry this season.
While this unit has three senior starters, not one of them had a whole lot of experience. Based on the performance through four games, they could have fooled anybody. Middle linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka has been a beast — he's tied for a team-high 31 tackles and he has one tackle for loss and an interception.
Xavier Kelley and Sterling Lewis haven't dazzled — 23 and 14 tackles, respectively — but they haven't disappointed either. Each linebacker has running back speed and it's showing. Central Michigan's coaching staff called the UA defense the fastest it's ever seen. This group of linebackers was one of the primary reasons.
Secondary: C +
A senior safety — Cam Nelson — and a senior cornerback — Devin Ross — were supposed to anchor the squad. Despite Ross' Defensive Pac-10 Player of the Week award for his efforts against Oregon State, neither player has performed up to expectations so far this season.
It's been redshirt sophomore Trevin Wade who's leading the way. Wade has already picked off four passes — tied for second in the nation — and batted down eight passes — tied for fourth in the nation. Without Wade, the UA secondary would have greatly underperformed so far. If Ross, Nelson and sophomore Robert Golden pick up their game, this unit could be one of the most fearsome in the Pac-10.
After the first two games sophomore Matt Scott appeared to be trying to find his way in the offense and it would be his job to lose. Well, he lost his job and redshirt sophomore Nick Foles was efficient and impressive during a 37-32 Arizona win Saturday at Oregon State.
Despite holding a 3-1 record and 1-0 in Pac-10 play, neither quarterback has shown a consistent ability to throw the ball deep. That needs to change if the Wildcats want to get close to last season's success.
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends: C-
Sure, the absence of Rob Gronkowski isn't helping and the lingering injuries for wide out Delashaun Dean, but this group needs to get better as a whole. During the 19-6 season-opening win against Central Michigan, UA wide receivers dropped about half a dozen passes. Senior Terrell Turner was supposed to emerge as the Wildcats' main possession receiver, but he's gotten off to a slow start.
David Douglas and David Roberts have stepped up in the past two games, but players like Dean, Turner, Juron Criner and William ""Bug"" Wright need to pick up their play to keep the Wildcats from becoming a one-dimensional offense.
Special Teams: D+
The ""+"" was only earned during Saturday's win against Oregon State. In fact, a ""D+"" might still be generous at this point. The kick return and kick coverage units have been average, but the kickers have been inconsistent at best.
After tying a school record with four made field goals in the season opener, place kicker Alex Zendejas has struggled mightily. Head coach Mike Stoops' choice to fake a 40-yard field goal try against Iowa shows the lack of faith he has in his kicker. Zendejas even concussed his own teammate when one of his kicks smacked offensive lineman Vaughn Dotsy in the back of the helmet during a 34-14 win against NAU.
Punter Keenyn Crier had been struggling as well, until the last quarter of the Oregon State game. Just before halftime, his 13-yard punt set the Beavers up to take a 3-point lead at the break. His three boots that pinned Oregon State at its own 3-yard line played a huge role in the Wildcats' win, so huge that he earned a game ball after the contest, a distinction given by a team's coach to the best players of that game.
If Arizona wants to post a second-consecutive season with a winning record in Pac-10 play, each kicker needs to perform up to their standards.