Spring ball a 'good building block' for some Wildcats
Rodriguez says starting spots can't be won in spring, but a few Arizona players certainly helped their cause.
Arizona just completed its third spring under Rich Rodriguez, who has gone 8-5 in each of his first two seasons.
Kelly Presnell / Associated Press via Arizona Daily Star
By Steve Rivera
TUCSON, Ariz. --Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez said just before the spring game last weekend that no one can really win a job at this time of year. It's all about August.
"But they can prove that they can play," said Rodriguez, who last weekend finished his third spring at the helm of the Wildcats. "It's kind of the same thing. If we have two guys at the same position that we feel we can win with, they will both play. ... We don't give them a starting spot 'til fall."
Deep down -- where coaches go to really get a picture of what kind of team they have -- Rodriguez knows there are numerous guys penciled in. Like most of the returners and "maybe a couple of young guys."
He won't give a specific number, of course, but it seems that about half the starting lineups are set. Still, Rodriguez must keep everyone motivated.
"Because they are not in fall shape, I still have to see how they show up in August," Rodriguez.
With the Wildcats hoping to improve on their 8-5 record from each of the last two seasons, senior wide receiver Austin Hill called the spring a "good building block."
Notre Dame transfer DaVonte' Neal, expected to be an impact player on offense in the slot and perhaps in the backfield, said that the spring was productive and that he was "looking forward into going into the summer and working my butt off."
It's clear Arizona has gotten bigger, faster and stronger since Rodriguez first arrived. The tempo is markedly faster, which has contributed to Arizona's offensive success, and there is depth at a number of positions, something every coach covets.
"We still have a lot of work to do this summer," Rodriguez said. "We're not at the point where we can be on autopilot."
That said, with a number of established returners and a strong incoming recruiting class, "I feel really good where we're at," Rodriguez added.
While the best thing about Saturday's scrimmage was that "nobody got hurt," according to Rodriguez, a number of players helped themselves and their chances for playing time come fall.
Jesse Scroggins, a former USC backup who transferred in last year and didn't appear to be the same player after suffering a concussion early in workouts, showed signs of being a possible replacement for B.J. Denker at quarterback. At the very least, Rodriguez said, "he's making strides."
"He still has moments of inconsistency," Rodriguez added, "but he's so much further ahead as far as understanding the plays, where his eyes are supposed to be and how he is supposed to be executing."
At wide receiver, the Wildcats are loaded with the likes of Hill, David Richards, Cayleb Jones, Nate Phillips and Trey Griffey. Griffey, a redshirt sophomore who's now at 6-foot-3, 191 pounds, might be the most improved receiver on the team over the last five months. He came on the scene in the final two games of last season, catching seven passes for two touchdowns. He had 14 receptions on the season.
His most impressive catch during the offseason came in the spring game when he snagged a pass one-handed despite excellent coverage. His future looks promising, although the competition for playing time will be stiff.
On the defensive line, Arizona barely registered a blip of pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season. Senior Tevin Wood gave it his best effort week in and week out, as did Seone Tuihlamaka and Reggie Gilbert. But the pass rush just didn't produce. Depth was an issue, too.
Arizona should be better at the spot this year with the return of Gilbert and a host of young players vying for time. Redshirt freshman Luca Bruno, redshirt sophomore Dwight Melvin and walk-on Parker Zellar all have shown enough to warrant consideration, but the incoming freshmen will get a chance, too.
"We have guys who can be pretty good, but do we have anybody where they hold their breath when we pass rush?" Rodriguez asked. "I haven't seen it this spring."
Linebacker could be a trouble spot after the graduation of leader Jake Fischer in the middle and playmaker Marquis Flowers on the weak side. But former Ironwood Ridge High standout Jake Matthews and DeAndre Miller, both reserves last year as freshmen, had good springs. And the position will be anchored this year by Scooby Wright on the strong side.
"We'll be deeper than what we were," Rodriguez said of the linebacking corps.
Miller and sophomore cornerback Devan Holiday were named by veteran safety Jared Tevis when asked about strong spring performances.
"Some of the young guys have stepped up," he said. "Many are maturing and establishing their roles."