UA notebook: Rodriguez still seeking intensity
First-year Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez had been issuing warnings that his initial spring in Tucson -- as he changed schemes on both sides of the ball and created a new offseason workout regimen -- would be ugly.
He was hardly surprised by the early results.
Rodriguez began spring by talking about his disappointment in the team's overall strength, feeling that many of the players coasted for a couple of months between the time coach Mike Stoops was fired at midseason and when Rodriguez began to get his staff in place. And through the first third of actual drills, he often talked about the need for more intensity, effort and urgency.
"The biggest thing our guys have to understand is that the effort that we have to play with should never be compromised," Rodriguez said. "Whether it's a scrimmage or a practice, or certainly a game, we have to play as hard as we can on every snap. Our guys are still learning that."
Rodriguez was so unhappy after the team's first scrimmage that he ended up canceling the ensuing practice so that he could spend extra time in a team meeting, reviewing every play in detail.
"I wasn't really pleased after the scrimmage with the intensity and other execution issues," he said. "After watching the film, I was even more displeased.
"But I think our guys understand. That's the good part. I think we have a lot of guys who care, and they understand they can perform or work at a higher level. That's the one thing I have been pleased with -- their attitude and their ability to listen and learn from it."
As for the actual football, Arizona is going through the growing pains of changing to Rodriguez's read-option offense and the 3-3-5 stack defense of coordinator Jeff Casteel leading up to an April 14 spring game.
"I know Coach Rod demands perfection," running back Daniel Jenkins said, "and that's what we're trying to achieve."
-- Coach Rich Rodriguez, after five practices, decided he wanted a blue arch -- about a foot wide -- painted on the grass, stretching from fence to fence as the Wildcats enter their practice field from the northwest corner. Rodriguez is dipping into his motivational bag of tricks as a way to get his guys to focus.
"Once they cross the blue line, academics, personal issues and everything else has to go in the background, and it's all football," Rodriguez said. "And when they cross back over, I hope they still think about football a little bit, but then their focus can go to other things as well."
-- Rodriguez has narrowed the practice goal posts by about six feet by adding white PVC pipe inside the yellow uprights, leaving about a 12-foot window for kicks to be "good." Said Rodriguez: "It's the old target-shooting thing: Aim small, miss small. If they can make it through the white (posts), they can make it through the yellow ones."
-- Arizona can't hold its April 14 spring game at Arizona Stadium because of construction that includes a $72 renovation of the north end zone featuring locker rooms, coaches offices, a weight room and the usual trappings of a big-time facility. The Wildcats will have their spring game at Kino Stadium, a baseball facility that mostly serves to house Class AAA games these days.
-- QB Matt Scott: The senior, who redshirted last season behind Nick Foles, is a good athletic fit for Rich Rodriguez's read-option offense and the team's best hope for a moderately painless transition to the attack. "Physically, I think he can handle anything," Rodriguez said. "Matt can make all the throws. Some of the throws and route packages we want to put in sometimes depends on what our quarterback can do, and I think Matt can do them all." Scott has started five games at Arizona, showing improvement in the passing game under the tutelage of former quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo the past two years.
-- LB Jake Fischer: Rodriguez is looking for players who, as he often says, "love playing football, not just like it." The coach has found one of those in Fischer, a junior who redshirted last season while rehabbing a spring ACL injury. Fischer, a starter in 2010, is back at full speed, playing an outside spot in coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme. "Without question, Jake Fischer is going to be one of our leaders defensively," Rodriguez said. "I can see why the coaching staff missed him so much last year. He's an athletic guy who is a tough guy. He's a football player."
-- LB Brian Wagner: The graduate student transfer from Akron is the nation's leading returning tackler, averaging 13.36 per game. He fills a huge position of need after arriving at the semester break. Arizona has only five scholarship linebackers this spring. Wagner is getting the first crack at middle linebacker. Coach Rich Rodriguez touted Wagner's smarts early in spring camp. "He's not a big guy. He's not the fastest guy," Rodriguez said, "but he's big enough and he runs well enough. You can tell he loves football. We need him to be a player, so this spring is going to be key for us to have confidence in Brian that he is going to fill that role."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We want to be known as a team that is going to out-hustle you, because we can control that every snap. We can work harder than you every day, and we're going to. So practice has to be how we play -- run to the ball every play and we're not giving up. Full speed all the time." -- Senior S Adam Hall.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2012 OUTLOOK: The presence of senior QB Matt Scott gives the new offense a chance, but there appears to be too much change, and not enough overall talent left behind by Mike Stoops, for coach Rich Rodriguez to make a big splash in his first season. Arizona does have eight home games, though, including a nonconference tilt vs. Oklahoma State, which shouldn't be as strong as the Cowboys team that spanked the Cats in each of the past two seasons. Being around .500 would be enough for Rodriguez to claim momentum.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Arizona is taking baby steps as it switches from a quick-strike passing spread offense to coach Rich Rodriguez's read-option offense, which he developed and honed at Glenville State about two decades ago. Only a fraction of the playbook was in use early in the spring, and Rodriguez might not be able to implement the full attack until his second season. He says he isn't likely to use the quarterback run game as much as he usually did at West Virginia and Michigan. That's not a knock on QB Matt Scott's running skills; it's to simplify the offense and to help keep Scott healthy, considering there isn't anyone remotely proven behind him. Rodriguez says he likes the depth at running back, led by Ka'Deem Carey and Daniel Jenkins.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: What the Wildcats need here are playmakers, which were sorely lacking last season, when Arizona averaged less than one sack per game. Getting a pass rush from the up-front group is still a concern and might not be solved until help arrives from the freshman class. However, the return of LB Jake Fischer, S Adam Hall and CB Jonathan McKnight from ACL injuries will certainly help. Arizona has a lot of options up front in the 3-3-5 scheme, although the Cats lack the kind of huge nose guard that often fits this system. Depth at linebacker and in the secondary could be issues.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: This area has been a mess for much of the past two seasons, in all phases. Punter Kyle Dugandzic was a bright spot, averaging 46.0 yards, but he needs to improve his get-off time. John Bonano stepped in at placekicker at midseason and helped stabilize that spot, but he is being challenged in the spring by transfer Jake Smith (Syracuse, Youngstown State). A lack of depth has hurt the return and coverage teams, and that could be a challenge again this season.
-- Starting RT Fabbians Ebbele and DB Jourdon Grandon were suspended from practice early in the spring after their arrests on trespassing and assault charges during an off-campus brawl. They were part of an incident involving several football players.
-- DB Josh Robbins, who sat out last season because of back problems, had to give up football. He would have been a redshirt sophomore.
-- RB Greg Nwoko, who suffered a torn ACL last spring, is back at full speed. He gives Arizona a big-back option.
-- CB Jonathan McKnight, who suffered a torn ACL late in fall camp, is able to do some drills and individual work, but he won't have contact this spring. He is on schedule for a full return in the fall.