TUCSON, Ariz. - The Rich Rodriguez era continues in 2014 when the Wildcats look to build on their 16-10 record and back-to-back bowl wins in his first two seasons at the helm of the program. An innovator of the hurry up, no huddle, spread offense, Rodriguez and his staff have assembled a squad for 2014 that looks to carry on the excitement and culture that has been in the works for the past 24 months. This season looks to be a stepping stone towards building a concrete and complete program here in the Old Pueblo.
The Wildcats’ offense, stout and dangerous in 2012 and 2013, will have a different look to it in 2014. Charged with replacing quarterback B.J. Denker and all-time leading rusher Ka’Deem Carey, Rodriguez will look to position groups that have virtually no in-game experience. A solid summer of conditioning and skill development, coupled with a strong showing in fall camp, will hopefully produce two players ready and able to take over at critical skill positions.
At quarterback, the Wildcats repped 7-8 players during spring ball and will look to narrow that down to four for fall camp. In the mix are Texas-transfer sophomore Connor Brewer, JUCO-transfer junior Jerrard Randall, senior Jesse Scroggins (USC/El Camino College) and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon.
Luckily for whoever is named starting signal caller, the 2014 receiving corps is ready and willing. A familiar face is back in the fold in senior receiver Austin Hill. He missed 2013 with a knee injury but is back for 2014 with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Two years ago, he totaled 81 catches for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the Wildcat receivers while ranking No. 2 in the Pac-12 in total receiving yards (1,364) and yards per game (104.9).
Hill is a member of the watch lists for the 2014 Maxwell (offensive player), Biletnikoff (receiver) and Walter Camp (top player) Awards. He will lead a group of receivers that most consider the best in the country. He’s joined by a pair of sophomore transfers, Cayleb Jones (Texas) and DaVonte’ Neal (Notre Dame), who will add instant depth at the position. The trio is joined by junior David Richards and sophomores Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant.
In 2013, Phillips was a FWAA Freshman All-American and All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. He hauled in 51 receptions for 696 yards and seven touchdowns to lead the squad in both categories. In the AdvoCare V100 Bowl victory over Boston College, he collected nine receptions and totaled 193 yards, the most ever by a true freshman in school history and the yardage total is 11th-most in single-game history.
Griffey also had a breakthrough performance in Shreveport. He caught two touchdowns, including the first of his career. Freshman speedster Tyrell Johnson will also add ability to the group.
Enormous shoes were left to fill when Carey declared for the NFL Draft. During spring practices, redshirt freshman Zach Green and senior Terris Jones-Grigsby took a majority of the reps at running back while junior Jared Baker out while rehabbing a knee injury.
While the skill position personnel has yet to sort itself out, a veteran offensive line is in position to block for an offense that’s averaged 458.5 (2013) and 526.2 (2012) yards per game the last two seasons. Arizona returns four of its five starters from 2013 (104 career starts total) with nine underclassmen filling out the depth chart. The group blocked for Arizona to average 264.9 rushing yards per game and allowed just 1.31 sacks per game in 2013, both figures ranked second in the Pac-12.
Mickey Baucus (left) and Fabbians Ebbele (right) have been consistent bookends for the line while Steven Gurrola, a member of the 2014 Rimington Trophy Watch List, was a consistent anchor in 2013. Look to redshirt juniors Lene Maiava and Faitele Faafoi to fill holes and provide relief as both have in-game and starting experience.
Under Jeff Casteel’s direction, Arizona’s total defense improved by nearly 100 yards per game (fifth-most improved defense in the country), giving up 499 yards per game in 2012 to 401.1 yards per game in 2013. The Wildcats have seen an improvement of 1.3 yards per play, 1.8 yards per pass and 0.6 yards per rush.
Depth has been a common theme for the Wildcat defense over the last two seasons. It changes some for 2014, where depth is stronger in the secondary and slightly weaker on the line. The Cats looks to replace seniors Jake Fischer, Marquis Flowers, Sione Tuihalamaka and Tevis Hood, who combined for 121 career starts.
Up front, Reggie Gilbert leads a group that has seen consistent improvement from year one to year two. He brings 21 career starts, including all 13 games in 2013. He’s joined by upperclassmen Dan Pettinato and Dwight Melvin. Calvin Allen, Jack Banda, Luca Bruno and Parker Zellers spent their true freshmen seasons working with the scout team to develop their skills and improve their nose for the ball.
At linebacker, sophomore Scooby Wright will be looked upon to lead in a manner mature beyond his years. He played in all 13 games and started 12 at sam linebacker in 2013 and went on to earn Freshman All-America honors by 247sports.com and second-team Freshman All-America by Athlon Sports. He was named All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention with 83 tackles to rank No. 3 among the Wildcats and No. 2 among Pac-12 freshmen.
Alongside Wright, true freshmen Jake Matthews, DeAndre’ Miller and Derrick Turituri also saw quite a bit of playing time. Joined with letterwinners Keoni Bush-Loo, Hank Hobson and SirThomas Jackson, the Cats have contenders at linebacker.
In total, the cornerbacks and the safeties are comprised of seven seniors and four juniors, one of Arizona’s deepest positions. Last season, the Wildcats had five INT returns for touchdowns, tied for most among FBS teams. UA intercepted 18 passes in 2013, its most in a single campaign since totaling 16 in 2008.
The corners are led by seniors Jonathan McKnight and Jourdon Grandon, who also takes on a free safety roll. McKnight broke up a team-leading eight passes to go with his 54 tackles. Senior Brendan Murphy and sophomore Devin Holiday also have in-game experience.
The “spurs” and “bandits” play a hybrid safety/linebacker position with seniors Tra’Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis, who combine for 52 career starts and 368 career tackles. Bondurant picked off four interceptions for 79 returns yards and two touchdowns in 2013. Tevis is a member of the watch lists for the 2014 Lott IMPACT Trophy (character and performance) and the Bronko Nagurski Award (defensive player). He’s also a nominee for the AFCA Allstate Good Works Team.
Juniors William Parks and Anthony Lopez and sophomore Tellas Jones also saw significant playing time at the position last season. Physical and quick, Parks was named the AdvoCare V100 Bowl Defensive MVP after his 69-yard interception return for a touchdown in Arizona’s 42-19 victory.
Arizona welcomes and returns some key roles on the special teams units. Drew Riggleman is back to punt while Casey Skowron and Jack Flatau will look to replace Jake Smith as place kicker.
The return game will drastically improve with the addition of the speedy receivers Neal and Johnson. Junior Johnny Jackson has also returned punts while the Wildcats saw five different players return kicks in 2013, with four of those returning this year.
Fierce special teams blockers Jones-Grigsby, T. Jones and Trevor Ermisch are back for 2014. They combined for 29 tackles last season. Senior Chase Gorham is expected to handle long snapping as Arizona looks to replace Brian Chacon for placekicking snapping.
Arizona, coming off an 8-5 record and an AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl win in 2013, will host seven home games at Arizona Stadium and travel for five road games in 2014. The 2014 slate features seven teams that played in a bowl game during the 2013 season.
Arizona opens on Fri., Aug. 29 vs. UNLV. In 2013, the Rebels were 7-6 overall and 5-3 in Mountain West Conference play after falling to North Texas, 36-14, in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The Wildcats travel to San Antonio, Texas to face UTSA at the Alamodome on Thurs., Sept. 4. The Roadrunners were 7-5 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA action.
Non-conference play closes hosting Nevada on Sat., Sept. 13. The WolfPack were 4-8 overall and 3-5 in MWC play in 2013. Pac-12 play begins with Arizona hosting California on Sat., Sept. 20. The Bears were 1-11 in 2013. Arizona finds its first bye week on Sat., Sept. 27.
UA will travel to play at Oregon on Thurs., Oct. 2 for its first weekday game of 2014. The Ducks were 11-2 overall in 2013 and won the Alamo Bowl. October continues for the Cats hosting USC (10-4, Las Vegas Bowl Champions in 2013) on Oct. 11 for Family Weekend.
After a bye week on Oct. 18, Arizona will travel to Washington State on Oct. 25. The Cougars finished 2013 at 6-7 and played in the New Mexico Bowl.
Arizona opens November with a game at UCLA on Nov. 1. The Bruins won the Sun Bowl and finished last season with a record of 10-3. The Wildcats will host Colorado (4-8 in 2013) on Nov. 8 for Homecoming and Washington (9-4, Fight Hunger Bowl Champions in 2013) on Nov. 15. The road trips conclude with a trip to Utah (5-7 in 2013) on Nov. 22.
The Cats close the season with the annual Territorial Cup game, hosting Arizona State on Friday, Nov. 28. The 1:30 p.m. MST kick will air nationally on FOX. Arizona will look to finish the season above .500 to compete in its sixth bowl game in the last seven years.