Arizona’s offseason questions begin in offensive backfield
Optimism is high for Arizona’s football program following a second consecutive 8-win season and a dominating bowl victory. The defense took a big step forward, there’s young talent being stockpiled at a number of key positions, and a promising group of newcomers (freshmen and transfers) will be taking the field next fall.
But taking that next step in the competitive Pac-12 doesn’t come easily, and the Wildcats have questions in need of answers this off-season if they are to achieve biggers goals in 2014.
It’s fair to say that if Rich Rodriguez doesn’t know, no one does. B.J. Denker’s backup Javelle Allen was dismissed from the team for rules violations between the end of the regular season and UA’s bowl apperance. Jesse Scroggins, the JC transfer who started his career at USC, was never a factor while trying to assimilate into Rodriguez’s offense, and walk-on transfer Nick Isham would have played before Scroggins had a reserve been needed in the bowl game. Anu Solomon, who redshirted in his first year out of high school, and Connor Brewer, who transferred in from Texas, could emerge as the front-runner during spring or fall drills, but this question is likely to be answered later rather than sooner. Who knows? Maybe Arizona finds a graduated senior with eligibility remaining to come in and run the show for a season.
The odds are against it. Many are projecting the two-time All-American as a mid-second round pick in this year’s draft, and some rank him among the top two running backs available. If that’s what he learns from his pre-draft NFL evaluation, it should be enough to convince him to move on. He has little else to prove at UA, unless he tempted by a run at the Heisman Trophy and the Pac-12’s all-time rushing record. That means another year’s worth of pounding and injury risk. It’s not likely his stock will rise much higher. He is what he is — a smallish, tough, smart, determined runner who lacks breakaway speed. That won’t change in a year. Should he pack his bags, the top candidate as his replacement is Pierre Cormier, who sat out the season as a redshirt.
With Jake Fischer and Tevin Hood now gone there seems to be a gap in leadership on that end. But there are solid, respected candidates in junior Tra’Mayne Bondurant (who has looked into his NFL status), Jared Tevis and sophomore Scooby Wright. The unit got better in Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 scheme as the season wore on and should continue to do so next year with the addition of newer and more athletic players. Wright could be a rising star at linebacker. He’s not a big talker, but you don’t have to be when you play big
On the offensive end, UA loses steady Chris Putton, who was a leader of the group, but it returns a strong core in Mickey Baucus, Steve Gurrola, Fabbians Ebbele and Cayman Bundage. Throw in a good group of younger players such as Lene Maiava and there’s reason to believe this will be a strength. On the defensive side, the Wildcats lose Tevin Hood and Sione Tuihalamaka from a unit that wasn’t as good as it needed to be, so this is an area of continuing concern.
As much as they prove they can handle. And if their talent level is a match for their reputations, they should be able to handle plenty. Rodriguez wasn’t hesitant to throw youngsters like Scooby Wright, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant into the fire, and his third recruiting class should be his best yet. The addition of 5-star recruit Jalen Tabor is moving the needle more than ever. Tabor, a 6-foot-1 cornerback, is the highest rated player UA has picked up in the last decade. UA has commitments from at least six 4 or 5-star recruits, plus a stellar group of transfers headed by receivers Cayleb Jones and Davonte’ Neal. It would be surprising if there wasn’t an immediate and significant impact.