A year ago at this time, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and his players didn’t know what they were getting into, so there were plenty of struggles and limitations. Rodriguez, who had been hired about three months earlier, said at the time that he was “guessing’’ at what he had.
This year, he knows exactly what he has. On Saturday, UA’s first day of spring practice, Rodriguez saw what he said was a “night and day” difference compared with last year.
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The players did, too. Senior Richard Morrison said last year was like “going through a track meet.” Not so much Saturday.
Wide receiver Austin Hill said the team is “better bonded” this year and knows what to expect and what’s in store for the remaining 14 practices. Arizona’s camp culminates with the spring game on April 13.
“I think we have a little bit better attitude because we know what we are getting ourselves into,” Hill said. “It’s fast-paced and (we aren’t) afraid to get yelled at. Last year we weren’t expecting to get yelled at, and there was a lot of cussing going around.
“Everything was so fast.”
A year later, with almost all of the players already one year into the system, they are used to the team’s pace.
“Even though we’re going fast, you slow it down yourself,” Hill said. “It was a lot more fun.”
Rodriguez said he appreciated his team’s enthusiasm on the first day and called it a pretty good day. He also recalled the first day last year being a bit different.
“When we got halfway through with the popsicles (UA players are given them during breaks), they couldn’t even walk to the popsicles,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not in shape right now, but they understand their routine. There’s a lot less stress in the effort than there was this time a year ago.”
He added, “Our practices aren’t long (an hour to 90 minutes), but they are pretty intense,” Rodriguez said. “We can get a lot more done in a matter of an hour 15 minutes than a lot can get done in two and a half hours. We move pretty quickly, but it does gas them.”
Not all players were able to participate, though; spring availability will be limited by more than a dozen injuries.
“I’m not going to panic … as long as they are ready by summer workouts,” Rodriguez said.
As for the big question at quarterback in the quest to replace graduated starter Matt Scott, Rodriguez sounded like there’s a bit more urgency. Returning backup B.J. Denker is the presumptive No. 1 heading into spring ball, with 2012 transfer Nick Isham and redshirt freshman Javelle Allen also in the mix and highly touted freshman Anu Solomon set to arrive in the fall.
“Like all of our returning players, we’re expecting B.J. to have a better understanding of what we are doing,” Rodriguez said. “We want him to be sharp mentally and physically, have a sense of urgency. I think he had a pretty good day.
“I thought Nick Isham had a good day, and Javelle Allen is learning. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on those guys, as much as you can in the spring, and try to simulate the pressure you face in the game.”
Arizona is hurting on defense and has been since Rodriguez arrived on campus more than 14 months ago. He’s looking for depth at all positions. He may have gotten some help when Morrison, who played receiver last season after moonlighting at quarterback during spring ball, asked to be moved to cornerback.
“It was really at his request,” Rodriguez said. “I think he knows we need some competition there. He asked to move, and I think it’s going to be a pretty good move for us. We’re down a few corners this spring, so he’s going to get a lot of reps. He’s athletic enough to help us. I like Richard; he’s a good football player. He really wants to play, he wants to prove himself.”
In other secondary news, Rodriguez said Jouron Grandon will be playing both free safety and cornerback.
Senior wide receiver Terrence Miller was on the field still awaiting word if he’ll be eligible to play after applying for a medical redshirt. He played in four games last year and missed the final nine after suffering an ankle/foot injury. He actually missed some of the games because of a shoulder injury but re-aggravated the foot injury before he was able to return.
The NCAA standard is that a player cannot have played in more than 25 percent of his team’s games (about three games in football) to receive a medical redshirt, but Rodriguez sounded optimistic.
“I don’t know if it has been finalized yet, but we don’t think there will be any issues,” Rodriguez said.