After a dominating performance Friday night against rival ASU, the Arizona Wildcats football team heads into the most important offseason of the Rich Rodriguez era.
The disastrous 2016 season saw the Wildcats win only one conference game, almost lose to an FCS school in Grambling State and on the verge of becoming known as the worst team in school history. Arizona cannot afford to falter in any way going into 2017.
“We know what the problems are and how to fix them,” Rodriguez said.
Arizona fans hope he is right. They also hope that Rodriguez is the man for the job. Speculation about the fifth-year head coach being on the hot seat began once the Wildcats were officially eliminated from bowl contention in a resounding way against Washington State, losing 69-7.
The Wildcats were able to pull off upsets in each of Rodriguez's seasons before this year, and it gave supporters a glimpse at what could be. This year, there was no such glimpse. Instead, the Wildcats gave fans a nightmarish recollection of dark times of the past a la the John Mackovic era.
For now, it appears Rodriguez has a good hold on the head coaching position—and he should. This is his first season not making a bowl game at Arizona, but hitting the bottom of the conference two years after a division championship shouldn’t be the valley for expectations. The program should never be as inept as it was this season.
The Wildcats are already on the road to solidifying a crucial 2017 class that is expected to set the program up for success immediately. Arizona currently holds a top-20 ranking, according to 247sports.com. The current class is highlighted by four-star quarterback Braxton Burmeister and four-star athlete Greg Johnson.
Burmeister, the No. 10 quarterback in the class, is expected to compete for the starting job right away. He amassed over 7,000 yards passing and nearly 2,000 yards rushing at La Jolla Country Day in California. Johnson, on the other hand, is considered the No. 1 athlete in the class. He is dynamic, strong and expected to contribute in a multitude of ways. The key with him is whether the coaching staff will effectively be able to maximize his abilities, an issue that has cause for concern.
“The whole staff will be on the road recruiting tomorrow,” Rodriguez said. “It was a tough year for us, but with what’s going on in recruiting and what is going on with our younger players, we’re going to be OK.”
Player development has not seen a lot of improvement, and it cost the team drastically this season. Whether it was injuries, missing on recruits or lack of ability to develop players to maximize the system, this season was a referendum on the entire program and its players. Arizona senior Samajie Grant said there needs to be players that love the game of football and that want to be here. That is a key part of the recruiting process that Rodriguez will have to start noticing in the players he brings in.
The Wildcats had a dismal season outside the win over ASU. The fans have to expect more from their football team than average bowl games and flash-in-the-pan seasons. Rodriguez knows that, the athletic department knows that and the players know that. If it doesn’t turn around soon, revenue will start to feel it in a significant way and it will force change before Rodriguez and the Wildcats can make them.
“We’re going to be better than OK,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes you gotta get knocked down to the bottom to get back up. We’re down at the bottom, but we’ll get back up.”
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