TUCSON, Ariz. — The Arizona Wildcats return only 23.6 percent of their offensive production from last season, the lowest mark in the Pac-12.
But that doesn’t even close to being a defining number.
Two-time All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey (1,885 yards rushing, 173 receiving) and quarterback B.J. Denker (2,516 yards passing, 949 rushing) are gone, but third-year Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and his hurry-up, zone-read attack rarely stop for anything once it gets established. Arizona has averaged 35.8 points per game in RichRod’s first two seasons.
The return of wide receiver Austin Hill from an ACL injury, the debut of touted transfer receivers DaVonte’ Neal and Cayleb Jones, the addition of new speed in the backfield, and one of the most veteran offensive lines in the conference helps ease the pain of all that lost yardage and Arizona being one of only two schools in the Pac-12 to not have a returning starting quarterback.
UA’s new starter, Anu Solomon, is eager to put that talent, depth and versatility at receiver to work.
"In certain situations, I can just go to whoever, whereas last year B.J. had to pick one of the receivers to go to," Solomon said.
"This year, I can pick the whole field. It’s kind of a win-win for the quarterback and running backs. The quarterbacks can get all excited. We’re like, ‘Oh, touchdowns everywhere.’ And then for the running backs, it opens up the running game. It’s a win-win."
With the opener against UNLV coming up Friday, here’s a look at the Arizona offense:
Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon isn’t the runner that his predecessor B.J. Denker was, but he has shown a solid grasp of Rich Rodriguez’s offense.
Projected starter: Anu Solomon
The redshirt freshman won a four-way battle in camp. So, what to expect?
He won’t be a runner like Denker was, and he’s not as athletic as 2012 starter Matt Scott, but he’s mobile. He’ll be able to buy time in the pocket — his composure is said to be a big plus, as opposed to being someone who just tucks the ball and runs at the first sign of pressure — and he’s working on being more of a threat on the ground.
"I can do a little," he said of running. "B.J. has a gift and it happens to be running, but it’s something I have to work on — attacking the line of scrimmage a little bit more, so I can draw the defense up to me, where I can get the whole wide receiver corps open."
Solomon was the most consistent, well-rounded quarterback in camp, probably the least likely to make a mental mistake that leads to a killer turnover. His grasp of the offense, and the sense of timing within it, helped him win the job.
But he’s not going to be just a caretaker of the offense. Rodriguez always says he wants his quarterback to be like a point guard who can shoot the 3. Solomon, despite what coaches call his "chill" personality, won’t be timid. Anybody who won four state high school championships, as he did in Nevada, has the fire in his belly.
He said the one thing a quarterback can’t do in this offense is "be worried."
"You can’t be afraid to make mistakes," he said. "You just have to do what you have to do and believe in the offense."
Player to watch: Rodriguez said he isn’t sure who is next up after Solomon, but it’s most likely as the season develops that the coaches will have a package for junior Jerrard Randall, the former LSU player who is the most athletic of Arizona’s quarterbacks.
Projected starter: Terris Jones-Grigsby
Jones-Grigsby has one of the best stories on the team, arriving as a walk-on in 2010 and almost quitting a year later because of academic problems. Rodriguez and his new coaching staff, instead of not bothering with a grades-challenged walk-on, helped him work through his problems.
"They really talked to me about things rather than saying, ‘This guy is a thorn in our way and he’s always going to be that,’" Jones-Grigsby said. "I knew I had a great support staff with them."
Jones-Grigsby, who became a valuable special teams player in the past two seasons, takes over the starting role for the opener. Coaches trust him to do all the right things — running, blocking, protecting, carrying out fakes.
"That was one of the most missed things about Ka’Deem — that he was an excellent guy without the football," offensive co-coordinator and running backs coach Calvin Magee said. "Even now when my guys watch that on film, they didn’t realize he was doing all that."
UNLV fifth-year transfer Adonis Smith and true freshman Nick Wilson are listed as co-backups. Junior Jared Baker, one of the speediest options, is coming back from a November ACL tear but should be able to contribute, at least on kick returns. Zach Green is a bigger option at 220 pounds.
Arizona cross-trains its backs and slot receivers, so DaVonte’ Neal, Tyrell Johnson, Jonathan Haden and others could be carrying the ball, too, at a position that figures to be a work in progress for a while.
Player to watch: Wilson. He probably has the most upside of any back on the roster, especially in terms of being a three-down guy. Wilson said teammates call him "Young Ka’Deem" or "Little ‘Deem" because of similar body types and some facial resemblance. That can’t be bad.
Austin Hill is the leader of a deep, talented Arizona receiving corps.
Who actually ends up starting will be partly a function of formation … and it really doesn’t matter anyway. Rodriguez says he would like a rotation of eight, so there’s those five listed above, plus outside receivers Trey Griffey and David Richards, and slots Jonathan Haden and Tyrell Johnson.
Size and speed. Experience and youth. No position at Arizona is better now and for the immediate future.
It starts with Hill, probably the best pro prospect on the team as he comes back from an ACL tear suffered in the spring of 2013.
"It’s good to have Austin back, simply because he’s a veteran guy," Rodriguez said. "He has great hands. He has a feel for the game. And I think he’s even better in game time. He’s one of those guys who is pretty good in practice, but he’s even better when the lights come on."
At tight end, converted quarterback Josh Kern, true freshman Trevor Wood and senior Blair Tushaus, a first-year walk-on transfer from BYU, are competing for playing time. Tushaus, a former starting center for the Cougars, could get the starting call.
Player to watch: Neal. The sophomore Notre Dame transfer is a quick, make-you-miss player with special talent. Backup quarterback Jesse Scroggins, asked during camp about what Neal brings to the offense, said, "Everything."
Projected starters: LT Mickey Baucus, LG Cayman Bundage, C Steven Gurrola, RB Jacob Alsadek, RT Fabbians Ebbele
Arizona’s offensive line has 104 career starts, the second-highest total in the Pac-12 behind Washington. Baucus and Ebbele are rare four-year bookends as starting tackles, but each will be looking for his first postseason recognition.
"Nothing can help you like playing in a game; we have that taken care of," Baucus said.
Rodriguez wants to have eight linemen ready to play. Next up likely is junior Lene Maiava, who appeared in 11 games last season (two starts) and can play guard or tackle.
Junior Carter Wood, the brother of freshman tight end Trevor Wood, is the backup center behind tough-guy Steven Gurrola. A true freshman, Layth Friekh from Peoria Centennial High, cracked the depth chart as the backup left tackle.
Player to watch: Alsadek. The redshirt freshman won the only open starting job on the line and could be a fixture for the next four years. Rodriguez said the coaches liked his game tape in high school but were further swayed when Alsadek sent film of his individual workouts. "You could tell this guy loves football," Rodriguez said. "He’s one of the guys that will do a little extra in the summer."