Arizona enters 2016 with heavy heart after lineman's death
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona went into preseason camp with numerous issues to address. There was a new defensive coaching staff installing a new system, a quarterback competition despite a returning starter and new faces on special teams.
All of that became secondary on Aug. 8 when the team learned of the death of offensive lineman Zach Hemmila.
The senior died in his sleep, leaving a hole in the Wildcats' line and a much bigger one in their hearts.
''Everybody in our program is hurting,'' Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Hemmila's death came early in camp and is something the Wildcats will carry with them into what already had the potential to become a difficult season.
After four seasons of struggling on defense, Rodriguez replaced his defensive coaching staff, hoping a new approach would work. With that could come some growing pains as players try to learn a new system.
Arizona will move the ball in Rodriguez's quick-hitting offense, but who will be pulling the trigger is a question after Rodriguez said there will be competition for the quarterback job.
The Wildcats, like every team in the Pac-12, also have a difficult schedule, with few easy weeks on the calendar.
A few more things to look for from Arizona for the 2016 season:
DEFENSIVE CHANGES: Arizona has consistently been one of the nation's worst defenses, so Rodriguez fired coordinator Jeff Casteel and his defensive staff. He hired former Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates to overhaul the defense. Arizona will abandon the 3-3-5 defense that Casteel installed and go to a more attacking defense in hopes of creating pressure and mistakes. Arizona will be relying on several inexperienced players on that side of the ball, so there could be a learning curve.
THE QB: Junior Anu Solomon has two seasons of experience as Arizona's starting quarterback, but Rodriguez was not ready to automatically hand him the ball. Solomon struggled with injuries last season and wasn't as effective as he had been as a freshman when he was healthy. Rodriguez went into spring football saying he wanted competition for the starting job and Solomon will have to beat out Brandon Dawkins and freshman Khalil Tate to get it. Even if Solomon is the man, Dawkins will likely take his turns under center, as he did last season.
WILSON'S RETURN: Running back Nick Wilson had a strong freshman season, using his combination of power and speed to break Arizona's freshman rushing record with 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. Last season, he struggled with injuries and missed four games, finishing with 760 yards and nine touchdowns. Having Wilson healthy will force teams to play against the dive option in Rodriguez's zone-read offense, opening up holes to the outside.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Arizona had to replace its kicker and punter from last season. One player could end up getting both jobs. Sophomore Josh Pollock is the only scholarship special teams player on the roster and could handle placekicking, punting and kickoffs. That's a lot to handle, so the Wildcats could use someone else to handle punting duties – if anyone steps up in camp.
KEY GAMES: Oct. 1 at UCLA; Oct. 8 at Utah; Oct. 15 vs. USC; Nov. 25 vs. Arizona State.
SEASON OPENER: Brigham Young, Sept. 3 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. The Wildcats have had some relatively easy openers under Rodriguez, but this should be a test right out of the gate – physically and emotionally.
PREDICTION: 6-6, smaller bowl. The death of Hemmila will likely weigh heavily on the Wildcats, though it could be a rallying point for the season. Working against them is a difficult schedule and still plenty of questions on the defensive side of the ball.