Arizona football: Wildcats’ offense turns focus to line in 2015

Arizona offensive lineman Cayman Bundage and receiver Cayleb Jones figure to be among the leaders of the 2015 offense.

Gus Ruelas/AP

TUCSON, Ariz. — The top three skill position players for the Arizona Wildcats this season were a true freshman, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore.

That’s a good place to start … assuming Arizona can find some new blockers.

The trio of running back Nick Wilson, quarterback Anu Solomon and receiver Cayleb Jones helped Arizona average 34.5 points per game (28th in the nation) and 463.6 yards per game (25th in the nation). The Cats won the Pac-12 South and finished 10-4 after a 38-30 loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Solomon ended the season on a sour note, with two interceptions against the Broncos (one returned for a touchdown) and taking his eighth sack of the game at the Boise State 10-yard line in the final seconds, without a timeout.

Solomon would give coach Rich Rodriguez something he didn’t have in his first three seasons at Arizona — a returning starting quarterback. Rodriguez actually hasn’t had a multiple-year starting quarterback since his final years at West Virginia, when Pat White ran the show for him from 2005 to 2007 before Rodriguez jumped to his ill-fated tenure at Michigan.

Solomon has the edge in experience, but nothing will be handed to him. Rodriguez loves competition, and he has a prospect waiting in the wings. Here is an early look at the offense in 2015:

Here are the numbers on Solomon: 313 of 540 for 3,793 yards, with 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In terms of raw passing numbers, he was the top freshman in the nation.

His passing efficiency rating of 130.7 is fourth among freshmen but was merely a tick higher than B.J. Denker’s mark from a season earlier (126.8). The difference is that Denker added a big running threat in the zone-read attack that Solomon did not, even when he wasn’t bothered by an ankle injury for about five games to finish the regular season.

BIG LOSSES

WR Austin Hill, C Steven Gurrola, OT Mickey Baucus, OT Fabbians Ebbele

KEY RETURNERS

QB Anu Solomon, RB Nick Wilson, WR Cayleb Jones, WR Samajie Grant, OG Cayman Bundage

"He still can get a whole lot better," Rodriguez told FoxSportsArizona.com.

"That’s going to be my challenge to the entire team when we get back (on Jan. 14). We can get a whole lot better. I can get better. It starts with me."

Former LSU Tiger Jarrard Randall, who was the third-string quarterback this season, will be a senior. He has superior athleticism to Solomon but has been behind with his accuracy and knowledge of the offense since arriving last spring. Dual-threat Brandon Dawkins, a three-star recruit who redshirted this fall, will be given every chance to show his skills in the spring.

Solomon can’t get comfortable, which is exactly how Rodriguez likes it.

"He’s competitive enough to deal with it," Rodriguez said.

Nick Wilson, coming off a freshman season in which he rushed 236 times for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns, is the clear No. 1. And he did that while battling an ankle injury in midseason that cost him one game and most of two others.

He can be a workhorse — he had at least 29 carries in three games — but did get banged up at various points, including sitting out the second half of the Fiesta Bowl after taking a hit to the head late in the first half.

Arizona won’t have an established No. 2 next season. Jared Baker, who will be a senior, is next in line, rushing 25 times this season as he came back from an ACL injury suffered late in 2013. Redshirt freshman Zach Green is further behind. The Wildcats have one running back in its 2015 class — three-star Orlando Bradford from Shreveport, La.

Potential options exist among guys who can also play slot receiver, such as Jonathan Haden.

Cayleb Jones made this 43-yard catch at the Boise State 8 in the final seconds of the Fiesta Bowl.

The Wildcats will again be deep at receiver, returning everyone except Austin Hill, who ended up playing a lot in a tight end/H-back role.

Texas transfer Cayleb Jones, a tall go-up-and-get-it receiver, is the headliner, leading the team with 73 catches for 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns.

"In Cayleb you have all this talent," said receivers coach Tony Dews. "And I tell him, ‘You don’t even know. You haven’t even scratched the surface of where you can be, especially if you buy into the weight room and get strong.’ He has it genetically. His dad is 6-3, 250 pounds and looks like he could still play.’"

Robert Jones was a 10-year NFL linebacker, ending his career in 2001.

The Wildcats also will have Samajie Grant (45-718-6) and hope to get a full season out of Nate Phillips, who missed the final five games because of a foot injury. Then there are Trey Griffey, DaVonte’ Neal, David Richards and Tyrell Johnson, among others. That quartet combined for 95 catches.

Salpointe Catholic graduate Kaelin DeBoskie, a 5-foot-6 slot receiver, and Tony Ellison will be coming off redshirt seasons. More help is on the way in the recruiting class. All this depth is part of the reason why talented Cam Denson, recruited as a receiver out of Salpointe, is likely to stay at cornerback after playing at that spot as a true freshman.

Arizona will have options at tight end, including junior college signee Matt Morin and 2014 signee Darrell Cloy, who spent this season at Milford Academy in New York. He is expected to enroll this spring. Trevor Wood played sparingly as a true freshman and moved to defensive end during the season.

"The defensive guys would love to keep him there," Rodriguez said. "He just wants to be where he can play the most. If we needed him as an in-line blocking tight end, he could probably do both."

Much of the offensive focus will be here as Arizona loses three starters, with the critical position being center. Steven Gurrola, a second-team All-Pac-12 performer, is gone, and there is no clear-cut replacement.

Carter Wood subbed in for the equivalent of one game when Gurrola was ejected for fighting in the Pac-12 title game, but spring will be an all-comers competition.

"If you can shotgun snap, you are going to rep some center in the spring," Rodriguez said.

Arizona likely will test veteran guard Cayman Bundage at center, and youngsters Layth Friekh and Levi Walton could be among those who throw their hats in the ring, too. Rodriguez said he wants to give five players reps at center in the spring.

"Layth is one of our youngest guys on the offensive line, and he could play," Gurrola said of Friekh, who was a freshman this season. "I was on him all season like, ‘Hey, man, you got to get tough out here. You gotta be vocal.’ It’s a tough position, so you got to be tough."

Four-year starting tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele also are gone, but Arizona returns three of its top six linemen in Bundage, redshirt freshman guard Jacob Alsadek and versatile sixth man Lene Maiava, who can play guard or tackle.

Redshirt sophomores Zach Hemmila and T.D. Gross spent the season on the two-deep, if not a lot of time on the field. This will be a huge spring for them. Same for mammoth Jordan Poland, the former USC commit who redshirted as a freshman this season. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa will be a strong candidate for a starting spot as he becomes eligible at Arizona.

Gurrola said he did a lot of individual drills against Tagaloa in practice this season.

"I’d tell him to beat me and knock me down so I can get ready," Gurrola said. "It helped a lot. That’s the type of guy he is. He’ll help out … anything to win."

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