2012 Arizona Football Preview: Fighting With Toothpicks

TUCSON AZ - OCTOBER 23: Quarterback Matt Scott #4 of the Arizona Wildcats throws a pass during the college football game against the Washington Huskies at Arizona Stadium on October 23 2010 in Tucson Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Under Mike Stoops, Arizona's glass ceiling was sturdy and unforgiving. Can Rich Rodriguez not only rebuild the Wildcats after an iffy season but raise the potential of the program as well? And if so, how long will it take? Related: Arizona's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Golden Bears football, visit Arizona blog Arizona Desert Swarm, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Arizona.

In 7.5 seasons at Arizona, Mike Stoops pulled off what was truly a rather remarkable feat. No, he didn't win big. No, he didn't take the Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl (though he did come relatively close in 2009, losing a three-point heartbreaker to Oregon in what would have given Arizona the bid). But for four straight years in Tucson, from 2007-10, he put almost exactly the same level of product on the field.

Sometimes the offense was better, sometimes the defense got the nod, but the Wildcats ranked 32nd in F/+ in 2007, 35th in 2008, 33rd in 2009 and 38th in 2010. If you want to see what a glass ceiling looks like in college football (or as I put it in last year's preview, a mesa), here's a good place to start.

Depending on close-game execution, Arizona finished anywhere between 5-7 and 8-5 in these years -- they went 1-4 in one-possession games in 2007 and finished 5-7, and they went 4-3 in such games in 2009 and almost stole a conference title. But after four years of this (and a late-season collapse in 2010), impatience rose. It was a bad time for Stoops to face a bit of a rebuilding year in 2011, with a brutal early schedule and almost complete turnover on both lines. Sure enough, Arizona started 1-5, and the Stoops era ended.

Freed of any contractual obligations to build up the Arizona program, Stoops opened up to CBS a few months later.

"We may have got it as good as it can get. You have to be realistic with what your expectations are and you should have high expectations, I certainly did. But what you're capable of and what the circumstances that are dealt to you, it's hard to achieve those big goals of winning a championship there," Stoops said of his time at Arizona. "There's a reason they haven't won a championship at Arizona and it's not bad coaching or bad players. You can blame it on anything you want, football and championships are about commitments made university wide. It's a commitment made to winning, not at all costs but there is a cost.

"When you don't have a football facility and every Mountain West team has one and you don't, that's a problem. We were playing at a BCS level and I feel like I was fighting with a toothpick and they've got a bat."

Arizona appears to be joining the arms race with a $72.3 million north end zone expansion project, but in the New Pac-12, this only gets them closer to the median. In a changing, growing Pac-12, full of ridiculous ambition and an improving batch of coaches, figuring out Arizona's new ceiling is difficult. Stoops took him exactly as far as he could, and not an inch further, and now the Wildcats welcome former West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez to the family.

Rodriguez was, by most accounts, a lovely hire who has proven he can win big at a school outside of football's top tier (he also proved that he might struggle to win at a blue-blood school like Michigan, but that's another story entirely). Between injuries, depth issues, another rugged schedule, and some serious stylistic changes, the Wildcats probably aren't a threat to win as quickly as other conference mates with first-year coaches (Washington State, Arizona State and UCLA, to name three), but in a few years we should be able to pretty clearly determine whether Arizona's ceiling is where Mike Stoops thinks it is, or whether there is room for a bit more growth.


Related: Check out Arizona's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about the Wildcats last year:

A late-season collapse in 2010 wilted some petals in Arizona's cactus blossoms, and even though Mike Stoops has brought a level of success to Tucson that Wildcat fans hadn't seen in over a decade, fans of every stripe bore quickly of any type of plateau, even good ones. (You can spot the "can't take us to the next level" complaint coming from 200 miles away.) It would behoove Stoops to figure out another step forward soon, and in a wide-open Pac-12 South, opportunity awaits. Unfortunately for the Wildcats in 2011, "opportunity" does not typically respond well to a complete and total lack of starting experience in the trenches. […]

Arizona has a good quarterback, a great No. 1 receiver (and a deep receiving corps), three strong, experienced linebackers, three athletic cornerbacks, and 11 of a possible 13 returning starters beyond the lines ... and they have one combined returning starter on either line. It is hard to know how to project Arizona's 2011 season because this is so rare. … If Arizona had a cupcake-soft early schedule, I could talk myself into the Wildcats as a serious sleeper in a division where a sleeper could go a long way. Give the line some time to develop, and things could come together nicely. Instead, they play three potential Top 10-15 teams right out of the gates. They visit Stillwater on Thursday evening, September 8, then they play host to Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks, then they have to travel to USC and Oregon State. Good lord! They could be playing at their typical level -- low- to mid-30s in terms of F/+ rankings -- and stand at 1-5 heading into the back half of their schedule.

Because of the schedule and the strange turnover, this will be a very unique coaching experience for Mike Stoops. With a friendlier schedule and time for development, Arizona could thrive. Instead, it's all about survival. Making a bowl game should be considered a success. If fans are grumbling about Arizona plateauing 12 months from now, instead of the fact that they regressed in 2011, then that's a win for Stoops.

You could see it coming. The most inexperienced offensive line in the country struggled, an inexperienced-in-its-own-right defensive line got pushed around, and an impossible early schedule (at Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and at USC in consecutive weeks) indeed proved impossible. Combined with the five-game losing streak with which Arizona finished 2010, and Mike Stoops lost his final 10 games versus FBS competition. One could make the argument that Stoops was a victim of poor timing and/or deserved more time to clean up his mess simply because he had built Arizona to a Top 35 level. But 10 games is a lot to overcome, and Stoops couldn't overcome it.

Stoops was gone after the 1-5 start, and the Wildcats won three of six to finish the season under interim coach Tim Kish, but that was mostly because the schedule eased up. Under both Stoops and Kish, Arizona was basically the same team.

Arizona In 2011 (First Six Games): Arizona 30.1 Adj. Points Per Game, Opponents 29.5 (plus-0.6)
Arizona In 2011 (Final Six Games): Opponents 29.8 Adj. Points Per Game, Arizona 28.5 (minus-1.3)

So now Rodriguez takes over a team that was thoroughly mediocre in 2011, changes the offense from pass-happy spread to run-happy spread, and shifts to his preferred 3-3-5 defense (under successful defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, Rodriguez's D.C. at West Virginia). This will probably take some time.

Offense

When a program brings in a new head coach, it is often difficult to go about previewing the team as a whole because you don't specifically know what the new coach is going to attempt to do. For instance, take UCLA's Jim Mora. He has no "how I would run a college offense" track record, and his hire of pass-friendly offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is a bit at odds with the returning, mostly run-friendly personnel. Will they air it out as if Brock Osweiler were the quarterback? It is hard to say.

But when you hire Rich Rodriguez, we have a pretty good idea what is about to happen. Rodriguez was one of college football's first true spread innovators. He was Tommy Bowden's offensive coordinator at Tulane when the Green Wave and quarterback Shaun King rolled to an undefeated 1998 season. He was Bowden's coordinator at Clemson, when Woodrow Dantzler became the nation's first 2,000/1,000 quarterback. He unearthed quarterback Pat White and almost took West Virginia to the national title game in 2007. At Michigan, he brought in Denard Robinson, who damn near pulled off a 3,000/1,500 season. Styles shift over time -- after all, Mike Leach is embracing some Pistol concepts at Washington State -- but we know what Rodriguez wants to do with the ball, and we know the odds are good that it will eventually work. He has, for years, utilized one of the most effective spread-to-run offenses in college football, and he will almost certainly want to do the same thing in Tucson. We'll see if he has the personnel to do so effectively in 2012.

In quarterback Matt Scott, Rodriguez inherits a quarterback who is quite likely more capable in the run-pass department than anybody he found in his first year at Michigan (Steven Threet, Nick Sheridan, et cetera). Scott rushed 27 times (in non-sack carries) for 188 yards (7.0 per carry) and averaged a reasonably healthy 7.2 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) in 2010 in backup duty before redshirting last fall. Stoops didn't redshirt him as a future favor to Rodriguez, obviously, but it has worked out that way. Scott has potential, and early signs were encouraging, but if he doesn't work out, there are almost no other options. Scott was the only scholarship quarterback on the roster this spring; if he fails or gets hurt, the new quarterback would either be a walk-on, a newcomer (junior college transfer B.J. Denker, freshman Javelle Allen or freshman Josh Kern), or a receiver (high school quarterback Richard Morrison, who saw time behind center this spring).

If Scott is solid, then you can begin to talk yourself into the rest of the offense. Running backs Ka'Deem Carey and Daniel Jenkins combined to rush for 601 yards (4.9 per carry, plus-4.7 Adj. POE) and eight touchdowns last fall, and fullback Taimi Tutogi is a surprisingly agile weapon as well. And while the receiving corps is unproven (four of last year's top five wideouts are gone), a) senior Dan Buckner is a big, strong weapon, and players like Morrison and sophomores Garic Wharton and Tyler Slavin are nothing if not fast. Rodriguez typically knows what to do with speedy skill position players.

Meanwhile, the offensive line should reap the benefits of last year's pain. At this time last year, the Arizona line had combined for one career start. Predictably, then, the Wildcats ranked 119th in Adj. Line Yards. A brutally young line just couldn't figure things out without taking some lumps first. But the best thing about inexperience is that it doesn't last. Last year's two-deep returns intact, and all seven players who started a game last year are back, and only two of them are seniors. That one career start is now 61; this time next year, it might be in the triple digits. A line can only improve so much in one offseason, especially with a coaching change, but improvement of some sort is all but guaranteed.

Defense

It isn't difficult to talk yourself into the Arizona offense. The experience and speed are solid, after all, and beyond that, let's just say that offense wasn't the reason why Rodriguez failed at Michigan.

The good news for Arizona is that Jeff Casteel followed Rodriguez to Tucson. If Casteel had been the coordinator at Michigan instead of Greg Robinson, there's a chance that Rodriguez would still be there. Casteel is one of the most successful coaches of the 3-3-5 scheme in the country, and when he had the right personnel in place in Morgantown, the results were fantastic. According to Def. F/+, the best defense in recent history was not a Nick Saban unit, or one of the great TCU defenses, or anything else: it was the 2010 West Virginia defense that allowed just 13.5 points and 261 yards per game per game despite facing a decent set of offenses. When the personnel is strong up the middle (and it very much was for WVU in 2010, with Scooter Berry and Chris Neild at tackle, Pat Lazear, Anthony Leonard and Najee Goode at linebacker and Terence Garvin and Robert Sands at safety), the 3-3-5 can be ferocious and, more importantly in the Pac-12, fast.

At first glance, however, there may be some issues up the middle for Arizona in 2012. Four of last year's top six linebackers are gone, as is safety Robert Golden. Tackles Kirifi Taula, Sione Tuihalamaka and Justin Washington (combined: 7.5 tackles for loss) have at least some potential, though at 280 pounds each, they are probably a bit undersized for a three-man line. If they can hold up their end of the bargain, a new(ish) face at linebacker could help: junior Jake Fischer, a standout for Arizona in 2010 before missing last season with injury (a common theme), should be 100 percent this fall. And among the many 2012 sophomores who got their feet wet last fall, few showed more potential than likely new starting safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant (3.5 tackles for loss, seven passes defended, 39.0 tackles). There may be some upside here, but now's a good time to mention that, before they ranked first in Def. F/+ in 2010, West Virginia ranked 31st in 2009 as all the pieces were congealing. Arizona ranked 108th in Def. F/+ last year, so there is some growing to do.

It probably isn't a good sign that I mentioned "growing to do" before mentioning perhaps the three biggest weaknesses on the defense: 1) depth, 2) defensive end, and 3) cornerbacks not named Shaquille Richardson.

Depth. Because of a wealth of injuries last year, it is difficult to figure out who goes where yet. Fischer missed last season, as did sophomore cornerback Jonathan McKnight and tackle Willie Mobley. Safety Adam Hall played only one game last year before getting hurt, and he will likely miss 2012 after tearing his ACL in April. Of this year's defensive returnees, only four played in all 12 games next year, and when you combine that with the general shuffling and learning curve requisite with the move to the 3-3-5, that does not say good things about the 2012 defense.

Defensive end. Last year's best end, C.J. Parish is gone, and none of this year's ends recorded more than 12.0 tackles (or 1.5 tackles for loss) last year. If three-star sophomore Dan Pettinato (the "leading" returnee with 12.0 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss) doesn't thrive in 2012, it is difficult to figure out who will.

Cornerback. Shaquille Richardson picked off four passes and broke up another five last year. He and Trevin Wade were primary reasons why Arizona ranked 66th in Passing S&P+ despite ranking just 117th in Adj. Sack Rate (the pass rush was truly nonexistent last year). But Wade is gone, and McKnight is still working his way back to complete health. Sophomore Jourdon Grandon has potential but missed almost all of spring practice after a brawl-related suspension.

Rodriguez worked a mini-coup in reuniting with Casteel. This working relationship could be very productive at some point … but it probably won't be in 2012.

Defining Success

The positive: home games versus Toledo, South Carolina State, Oregon State, Washington, Colorado and Arizona State are all winnable.

The negative: Arizona probably isn't far enough along to win them all. And if they don't go 6-0 in those games, it is difficult to figure out how they reach bowl eligibility as the other six games on the schedule are Oklahoma State, at Oregon, at Stanford, USC, at UCLA and at Utah. We'll set the success-or-not bar at five wins, one more than last year's total. With all of the transition in store in Tucson, matching last year would be something of a victory.

Prognosis

Arizona could sneak out a 6-6 season (or, technically, even 7-5) if things play out perfectly, but it should not be expected.

Arizona's hire of Rodriguez, and Rodriguez's hire of Casteel, were both strong long-term moves. Combined with the stadium upgrades, Pac-12 Network money, and Rodriguez's offensive proficiency, the long-term prognosis for the Arizona program is strong, and it is quite possible that the ceiling under Rodriguez will be higher than that under Mike Stoops. But 2012 will probably be a redshirt year of sorts: learn, grow, and worry about production and wins in 2013.

For more on Wildcats football, visit Arizona blog Arizona Desert Swarm, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Arizona.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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