by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Since when is college football like golf?

Or, to be more specific, when did coaches suddenly qualify for mulligans?

Such appears to be the case with new Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, whose recent three-year flame-out at Michigan seems to have been conveniently forgotten by the good folks of Tucson, who have welcomed Rich-Rod to the Sonoran Desert like the second coming of Elvis Presley.

Which is understandable, perhaps, considering the ups and downs experienced by the hometown U of A Wildcats over most of the past decade. Do anything, the Cat faithful seem to be pleading, but just let us win. Consistently.

Which it seemed as if ‘Zona was in the process doing a few years ago when it appeared to be turning the corner in the preceding Mike Stoops regime. But the Cats did a U-turn in the middle of the 2010 campaign, then couldn’t pull themselves out a skid soon enough to save Stoops before last season was complete. Defensive coordinator Tim Kish finished out 2011 on the UA sidelines before AD Greg Byrne decided to clean house and start anew.

(Kish, by the way, landed nicely on his feet at Oklahoma, where he is the new LB coach and will again be reunited with Mike Stoops, now the defensive coordinator for brother Bob’s Sooners in Norman.)

Rich-Rod had been cooling his heels the previous year after his ouster in Ann Arbor, an experience with the Wolverines that in retrospect appeared to have been be one of those situations that confirmed Murphy’s Law...anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. From the outset, Rodriguez was behind the count at Michigan, beginning with his messy divorce from alma mater West Virginia to one problem after another with the Wolverines.

Rich-Rod was getting hit from both ends, as West Virginia went to court to collect the “liquidated damages” (buyout clause) of the Rodriguez contract that had been renegotiated just four months prior to his departure in December of 2008; Michigan was thus obligated to fork over $2.5 million of the total bill of $4 mill, with Rich-Rod responsible for the rest.

Then came the problems at Ann Arbor, both on and off the field; Rodriguez wasn’t generating any sympathy from the Wolverine backers after his first team imploded in 2008, collapsing to a woeful 3-9 mark, the worst record in school history. Several players transferred and complained of classless behavior on the part of Rodriguez and staff. NCAA problems then ensued, with allegations of excess practice time and an over-allotment of graduate assistants contributing to rules violations which forced U of M to impose self-sanctions.

Unfortunately for Rich-Rod, things didn’t get much better on the field in years two and three at Ann Arbor, when a few more wins might have been able to mollify the increasingly-angry mob that wanted his scalp. Rodriguez could never find the proper quarterback to implement the spread option that had worked to devastating effect at Morgantown. Wins, the ultimate measuring stick, never materialized in great numbers as expected. When Rodriguez finally got above .500 in 2010, it was only to 7-5, and his Wolverines were then bombed by Mississippi State, 52-14, in the Gator Bowl.

That humiliation, coupled with a winless mark vs. hated Ohio State, and the related distractions of his tenure, proved enough for Michigan AD David Brandon to send Rich-Rod packing just after the bowl loss in Jacksonville. Along the way his win percentage (.405) was the worst in Wolverine history, and the bowl fiasco vs. MSU the worst postseason loss in Michigan annals. We haven't seen as many worsts since our last visit to Denny’s. A year spent mostly under-the-radar working Conference USA games for CBS College Sports (assignments to Memphis and Tulane games are great for obscurity) preceded his hiring at Arizona last November 21.

What he inherits in Tucson is a program that is success-starved, having endured many dry spells over the past decade (including last year’s 4-8 mark) since the Dick Tomey era ended in 2000. Cat backers got a brief taste of winning in the Stoops regime, which was their first bit of fun since the Tomey years, many of which were awfully good, including the 10-2 team of 1993 that walloped Dennis Erickson’s Miami Hurricanes, 29-0, in the Fiesta Bowl. That might have been the high-water mark for Tomey’s wildly-aggressive “Desert Swarm” defenses that featured Tedy Bruschi (right) and routinely terrorized West Coast foes in the early and mid ‘90s. Tomey’s Cats became bowl regulars in those days and experienced their greatest thrill in 1998, finishing 12-1 and 4th-ranked in the final polls after dusting off Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

For the most part, however, the Cats have not been as accomplished on the gridiron as blood rival Arizona State, along with whom UA transferred into the then-called Pac-10 from the WAC in 1978. The Cats had a handful of memorable teams in the ‘60s and ‘70s, though what might have been their best team in a genration in 1975 missed the bowl party altogether.

Under HC Jim Young, who would move to Purdue in 1977, UA fashioned 8-3 and a pair of 9-2 records between 1973-75, but was beaten out each year for the Fiesta Bowl bid (then awarded to the WAC champ) by hated ASU twice, and BYU.

Featuring prolific QB Bruce Hill, deep threat WRs T Bell and Scott Piper, and high-stepping UCLA transfer RB Jim Upchurch, the Cats surged in ‘73 and ‘74, then with most of the same cast (save for Tex Randolph replacing the graduated Upchurch at RB) were aiming even higher the following year.

The 1975 game for the Territorial Cup was perhaps the greatest in the long history of the rivalry vs. the Sun Devils. With a WAC title on the line, the teams entered Tempe with a combined 19-1 record. The back-and-forth grudge match was finally decided in ASU’s favor after an 80-yard fourth quarter drive capped by Sun Devil QB Dennis Sproul’s one-yard TD sneak. But the play they still talk about in Gov. Jan Brewer’s state is simply referred to as “The Catch” (left) by ASU WR John Jefferson, a spectacular diving TD grab late in the 2nd Q that pared U of A’s halftime edge to 14-10. The Sun Devils ended up 24-21 winners; check out You Tube if you want to see what we’re talking about regarding Jefferson’s catch, still perhaps the greatest we have seen on any level.

And they’re still hurting, almost 37 years later, in Tucson.

To his credit, Rodriguez has low-balled expectations this fall, although several Pac-12 insiders are keeping a close eye on the Wildcats. Spring football was mostly a familiarity session as Rich-Rod and his first-year staff installed completely new looks on both offense and defense. Moreover, the players learned something about the commitment demanded by Rodriguez, who halted practice a couple of times and took the team into meeting rooms to break down their practice-filed mistakes, one-by-one. Accountability was suddenly important again in Tucson, approved wholeheartedly by the UA support base.

Rodriguez, however, owes a big thank you to the preceding Stoops/Kish regime that resisted temptation to lift the redshirt on sr. QB Matt Scott a year ago. Stuck behind the highly-regarded Nick Foles, Scott (right) could have transferred out with only one year of eligibility remaining, but was convinced to stick around Tucson for a chance to be “the man” in 2012. Like a gift package waiting in storage for a year, Scott can finally be unwrapped this fall.

Best of all, Scott seems an even better fit for the Rodriguez read-option than the spread looks of the Stoops era that last season produced the nation’s third-leading pass attack (371 ypg), but was as out of balance as the Greek debt when gaining only 94.5 ypg on the ground, ranking 114h in rushing.

And there is reason for optimism, as desert sources also say that Rich-Rod has confided that Scott has the potential to be among the best QBs he has ever coached in his offensive system. “Physically, I think he (Scott) can handle anything,” Rodriguez said in spring. “Matt can make all the throws.”

The Rodriguez offense is also fast-paced with lots of no-huddle, aspects which Scott seemed to master by the end of the spring session, although only a fraction of the playbook was installed during March workouts. Scott, who has five career starts for the Cats and for a short while was first string ahead of Foles early in the 2009 season, has passed for 1301 yards and run for another 579 more in his UA career. But Rodriguez has said that he might limit the running part of the offensive package for Scott, not wanting to expose his QB to added injury risk considering that no backup at the position has taken as much as one college snap.

Rich-Rod admits that much of the new offense remains a work in progress entering fall camp, but he has already had plenty of good things to say about his RB corps. Soph Ka’Deem Carey (right), a low-slung 5'10, 203-lb. slasher who gained 425 yards in limited work as a frosh, could post big numbers in the read option, and cat-quick sr. Daniel Jenkins (5.7 ypc on 31 totes last fall) made a case for more carries during spring. A big-back alternative could be 237-lb. sr. battering ram Greg Nwoko, who has 536 career rush yards and should be ready to contribute this fall after missing 2011 with knee issues. Meanwhile, all five starters return on a veteran OL that features several of the lighter, quicker athletes (no starters over 295 lbs.) that proved good fits for the best Rodriguez spread options at West Virginia.

Although graduation gutted much of last year’s receiving corps (including top pass-catcher Juron Criner, who recorded 75 receptions LY before being drafted by the Oakland Raiders in April), Scott has a couple of big targets who could cause problems for smaller DBs. One-time Texas transfer Dan Buckner (left, vs. Oregon State last October), at 6'4, might flourish as the new go-to threat after catching 42 passes last fall, and 6'3 soph Austin Hill impressed in limited work (21 catches in 7 games) as a frosh.

Rodriguez also has a chore to shore up the Cats’ special teams, especially their kick coverage units that were often burned a year ago.

Offense isn’t the only new look in Tucson this fall; Rich-Rod’s d.c. Jeff Casteel is installing a radical 3-3-5 “stack” scheme on the stop end, hopefully introducing different attack angles for defenders who had trouble generating pressure out of more traditional alignments a year ago.

In fact, last year’s defense had trouble doing lots of things, ranking in triple digits nationally in most stat categories, including an alarming 119th in pass defense (299 ypg) and 110th in total defense (461 ypg). Casteel’s new deployments are as much out of necessity as they are from design.

With only four starters returning from a year ago, spring work with the “D” was spent experimenting with several mix-and-match combinations, a process that will continue into fall practice. Spring was also not without its setbacks for the platoon, which lost safety Adam Hill to an ACL tear after he was trying to return from a similar injury suffered a year ago.

What experience there is in the platoon is still in the secondary, where three starters are back from last season when the DBs were admittedly toasted with regularity. But the Casteel system will covet physical safeties, and 5'10, 208-lb. soph Tra’Mayne Bondurant (right) was a terrier as a frosh and appears a good fit for the new “Spur” position in the Casteel defense. There are also hopes that soph CB Jonathan McKnight will be ready to contribute in fall after suffering his own ACL tear last season.

While the LB corps looks thin on the returning starter chart (where there are none listed), in practice things might not be as bleak with the expected return of active jr. OLB Jake Fischer from last year’s knee injury, as well as the arrival of Akron transfer Brian Wagner (left), immediately eligible after enrolling as a grad student after leading the nation in tackles (13.4 pg) last year for the Zips. Wagner, who is penciled into the starting MLB spot, adds much needed experience to a LB corps that was looking to have precious little of it before his arrival. True frosh Dakota Conwell, a four-star prep, was Rich-Rod’s most-decorated recruit and could find work immediately in the new schemes.

Update summer: Wagner decides to forego football and has left the Wildcat program.

The Casteel defense would ideally have a huge nose guard to fit the system best, but for the time being the Cats will probably have to go with a slightly-smaller version in 275-lb. jr. Sione Tuihalamaka (right), the lone returning starter on the DL. Expect frosh such California product DE Kyle Kelly to contend for playing time as the up-front group looks to upgrade a pass rush that generated a mere 10 sacks in 2011 (another triple-digit ranking of 116th nationally).

No wonder the pass defense had such a difficult time last fall!

Although the schedule includes an early visit from Oklahoma State, the non-conference portion (Toledo and South Carolina State the other foes) is hardly draconian, especially with all three games in Tucson, where USC and hated ASU will also visit later in the season.

Spread-wise, note that the Rodriguez years were a disaster in Ann Arbor (10-27 vs. the line!), and under Stoops and Kish, Arizona dropped 16 of its last 22 spread decisions entering this season. But we’d be surprised if that sort of spread futility (hardly a trademark of Rodriguez’ West Virginia teams) endures this fall in Tucson.

Summary...The Arizona program stalled and then regressed under Mike Stoops, and the thought in the desert is that Rich Rodriguez offers the Cats a better chance to get to the next level. And the new regime presents some intriguing angles, not the least of which to see how quickly Rodriguez might be able to redeem himself after the Michigan fiasco. The Cats will likely be flying under the radar at the outset and could possibly emerge as a pointspread surprise if the defense shows even slight improvement from a year ago and QB Matt Scott emerges as the sort of force we expect him to be in the new Rich-Rod spread option. The schedule is challenging but not overwhelming, and we cannot discount the possibility that Rodriguez could steer the Cats into a minor bowl if the pieces fit properly into place this fall. Watch these guys.


Return To Home Page