TUCSON, Ariz. — There is a lot of optimism for a team picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South. Fourth place (out of six) usually doesn’t get much mention.
But at Arizona, there is a buzz — real or imagined.
It’s one thing for a team and its followers to be excited for a season, and another thing for them to be pleased with the direction in which the program is headed. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has managed to check off both boxes as he heads into his third season in Tucson.
The Wildcats have won eight games and posted bowl victories in each of Rodriguez’s first two years with talent probably not up to that level. With better overall talent, depth and speed, the challenge will be to do more.
"I couldn’t be more pleased with the direction we are going right now," said Greg Byrne, Arizona athletic director. "The progress that has been made under Coach Rodriguez in the two and a half, nearly three years. People think it’s just about coaching and Xs and Os and that solve all the issues. But it’s not. It’s combination of recruiting, commitment in the weight room and commitment in the practice field and structure in the program that allows success. That foundation has been set which bodes well for our future."
A caveat should go here: Running back Ka’Deem Carey was a heck of a player — a consensus All-American, and quartrback Matt Scott was pretty darn good, too. Rodriguez inherited both from predecessor Mike Stoops.
The rest gave what they had to to get Arizona into the postseason.
"I think we’re getting better," Rodriguez said at the annual Pac-12 media day last week. "Sometimes you’re getting better and it doesn’t show in your record because your opponents have gotten better too. But I think we’re better as a program. We’re better individually, talent-wise, and our guys are growing up in a system where two years ago we were doing things completely foreign to them."
Now, for all intents and purposes, the language is understandable, although, of course, the bevy of newcomers will have to get up to speed. Some freshmen catch on quicker than others.
If it happens — Hint: Cameron Denson, Nick Wilson, Jonathan Haden and Trevor Wood — Arizona could be more solid than expected.
Of course, the spotlight on just how good will shine on the quarterback and running back positions. The offensive line returns four starters, the receiving corps is being hailed as one of the best in the land and the defense is stronger, deeper and more talented, but the Wildcats will be led by an unproven quarterback without the luxury of an All-America running back to carry the load.
"I don’t know how much of it is noticed, but we are starting to get some relevant depth in positions that are not just one deep anymore," said former Arizona player Lamont Hunley. "A healthy team is a successful team, but good depth breeds consistent winners. I am very excited about the receivers. It looks like if we get some relatively strong QB play we are going to surprise a lot of people."
"There’s a lot of anticipation for football," Byrne said. "I’ve been told from longtime fans that it’s as high as they can remember."
August always produces optimism, but the feeling in Tucson relates to more than just the upcoming season.
"I have to tell ya, I love the guy (Rodriguez)," said Heath Bray, a defensive back for Dick Tomey in the mid 1990s and season ticket holder. "I have had the opportunity to be with (Rodriguez) on many occasions, and personally, I think he is a coach in the mold of the best U of A coaches Larry Smith and Dick Tomey from a personality standpoint. And that may be the highest praise of which I am capable. I would have loved to play for him and his staff. He’s a tough, fair, brilliant coach and connects with the players.
"It’s the type that breeds loyalty and belief from his guys. We have some ground to make up to be in the top of the Pac South, but I feel we are headed there. Greg Byrne has really put together an awesome foundation for the program. I haven’t been this positive since Coach Tomey left."
That was 2000. While Stoops might have momentarily lulled people into believing he was headed in the right direction, it’s taken Rodriguez to truly excite the fan base.
Depth, talent and speed are his tools.
Arizona has numbers. Two years ago it had bodies.
"I’m very confident in the program and its direction," Bray said. "My real concern with this season is not really what we need to do but what the other teams are doing with their team. The USCs, UCLAs and ASUs in the south have really improved their teams. So we have to play so sound and error free football against them to get out of the Pac 12 South."