TUCSON, Ariz. — The word “conservative” isn’t normally associated with Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, but it was Monday — and by none other than Rodriguez himself.
Normally considered one of the more aggressive offensive coaches in the game, Rodriguez said he was anything but that in Arizona’s 35-0 win over Northern Arizona on Friday in the season opener.
Regarding some conservative play calling, Rodriguez said it happens “probably every year I’ve coached or something where I’ve coached and have done that. And that’s totally on me. I don’t like being that way.”
He had some excuses, though. Rodriguez was starting a mostly inexperienced quarterback in B.J. Denker, who didn’t take hold of the starting job at any point it camp, and was without All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey, who was suspended for the game after multiple off-the-field incidents in the offseason.
“I don’t think we were unaggressive in our play calling, but we could have let loose a little bit more,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t like holding things close to the vest. We will let them loose a little more often.”
The Wildcats’ first chance to do so will come Saturday night against UNLV, which is coming off a 51-23 loss to Minnesota.
“I’m sure (Rodriguez) will open up the playbook a little bit more,” said running back Daniel Jenkins, who filled in for Carey and finished with 131 yards, much of it coming on a 91-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. “We’ll show a little more things.”
NAU didn’t give Arizona the chance, limiting the Wildcats to just 47 plays on offense. That’s 36 plays below last year’s per-game average, and accordingly, Arizona’s 393 yards in total offense were about 140 fewer than last year’s average. While one game does not a trend make, it was a far cry from last year’s up-and-down-the-field track meet.
Rodriguez said he’d like the move the needle closer to 90 plays in a game.
“That’s the identity of our program,” Rodriguez said, adding that he’d like each snap to come after about eight seconds have ticked off the play clock. “We’re going to get fast guys playing fast — and go as hard as we can.”
As for the less hectic pace in the opener, center Chris Putton said Arizona was just trying “to keep things simple in trying to establish our offense.”
Carey’s return should help; he led the nation last year with 1,929 rushing yards and is big-play threat every time he touches the ball. Getting the passing game going also will be a necessity eventually. In the opener, Denker threw just 13 times, finishing 9 for 13 for 87 yards and a touchdown. In comparison to last year’s numbers, 13 throws was sometimes just a couple of series for former quarterback Matt Scott.
“Going forward, we’re going to have to throw the ball better,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s there, because I’ve seen it in practice. We have to have the threat of pass.”
Rodriguez said he’s not too concerned at this point since it’s still early, which shows up in many aspects. What he does want to see soon, though, is someone stepping up at the receiver spot.
“What we really need is some explosiveness,” said Rodriguez. “We don’t have the size and experience we had a year ago. Some guys will have to develop that in practice. I have pretty good confidence — we just have to get it done in games.”
One possibility at that spot is Notre Dame transfer DaVonte’ Neal, who brings exactly the sort of “explosiveness” Rodriguez referred to. Neal did not play in the opener while awaiting a decision on his waiver to be eligible to play immediately — transfers typically are required to sit out for one year — but Rodriguez said he expects to have a ruling this week, perhaps as early as Thursday.
Regardless of Neal’s status, whatever is needed on offense for Arizona to win games, Rodriguez will do it.
“I’m not married to one or the other (run or pass); we’ll do what we have to to win,” he said.