By Rock Mayock 11:00 p.m. | The warm desert winds of change were blowing hard through the State of Arizona in 2011. Those winds were so strong the head coaches of both Arizona and Arizona State found themselves blown out of their jobs. However these winds also brought the innovator of the speed option offense, Rich Rodriguez, to the doorstep of the Arizona Wildcats. Now Rich Rod is faced with the prospect of bringing a schematic and cultural change to a Arizona program that has been drowning in a cesspool of mediocre inconsistency. Can one man make a difference? We shall see.
Overview: The obstacles facing Arizona in 2012 are monumental. The most tenured coach in the Pac-12, Mike Stoops, and his entire coaching staff are out. Rich Rodriguez and his trio of long time assistants Calvin Magee, Rod Smith and Jeff Casteel are in. The offense lost practically every significant skill position player. The defense is undergoing the transformation from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5 scheme. In short, the program is being rebuilt from the foundation up.
Offense: The most notable departure from the Arizona offense is QB Nick Foles. Fortunately for Rich Rod he was not left with a completely empty cupboard. Physical option QB Matt Scott red shirted last year and is poised to become the trigger man for the speed option attack. Scott has the wheels to run the option but his ability to stretch defenses and throw the ball downfield is yet to be determined. Complicating matters is the fact there is no #1 receiver now that Juron Criner has moved on to the NFL (Raiders, Round 5, Pick 158).
Also gone is last season’s leading rusher, Keola Antolin, and his beautiful perm press hair. Antolin’s likely replacement will be Ka’Deem Carey. Unfortunately the Wildcats ranked #114 nationally in rushing yards per game last season. Expect Arizona to improve upon this stat by playing to Rich Rod’s strength, the option running game, behind an offensive line that returns 4 of 5 starters including Kyle Quinn (C)and Mickey Baucus (T). Fortunately for the Wildcats, the Tucson City Prosecutor’s Office dropped assault and trespassing charges against offensive linemen Eric Bender-Ramsey and Fabbians Ebbele. The two were involved in an incident at an off campus party that resulted with several party goers (including women) being punched in the face. Although the charges were ultimately dropped, both Bender-Ramsey and Ebbele sat out Spring Ball while the situation was pending resolution. As a result the pair will need to learn Rich Rod’s offense and blocking scheme during Fall Ball.
Look for Rodriguez to lean heavily on incoming freshman to fill the skill player void. Due to the fact Rodriguez was named coach immediately after the 2011 season he had a fair opportunity to sign immediate impact recruits. As a result look for redshirt players David Richards (WR), Patrick Onwuasor (WR) and Jared Baker (RB) to all make early season contributions to the team.
Defense: Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Mike Stoops’ tenure at Arizona was his inability to install a dominate defense, in particular the inability to generate any kind of a consistent pass rush with the front 7. The flaccid Arizona defense was glaringly bad throughout 2011 as they ranked last in conference sack production. This inability to produce a pass rush allowed opposing offenses to sit back and pick apart the Wildcat secondary. Therefore a prime imperative for Rich Rod has been to forge a defense that will matchup against the high powered offenses found throughout the Pac-12. Enter Rodriguez’s former defensive coordinator at West Virginia, Jeff Casteel, and his 3-3-5, also known as “Stack,” rushing defense.
Casteel’s Stack defense uses an odd man (3) front that is intended to confuse offensive blocking schemes thereby making it easier for second level players to both see and get to the ball. This system proved particularly effective at West Virginia even with their smaller personnel on defense. At the start of Spring Ball both LB Jake Fisher and DB Adam Hall were supposed to be defensive anchors however Hall blew out his ACL for the second time in two seasons and Fisher is still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery in 2011. As a result Casteel will turn to last season’s leading tackler Marquis Flowers (LB) and interceptions leader Shaquille Richardson (CB) to assume leadership roles.
Inexperience along the front 6 will continue to be an issue in 2011 but there is hope for the future. Sophomore DE Kirifi Taula is a stud in the making and junior DT Justin Washington will compliment him nicely. Redshirt freshman Dame Ndiaye fits perfectly into the 3-3-5 Stack and will definitely see playing time at both the DE or OLB position. It also bears mentioning that DL Willie Mobley is still recovering from knee surgery that sidelined him for all of 2012 however Coach Rodriguez is confident he will be ready for the start of the season.
Bottom Line: There are no illusions about how painful the 2012 season is going to be for Arizona. The installation of a new coaching staff, a new offense and a new defense with a handful of quality skill position players to ease the transition will translate into another losing season. Unlike his pit stop at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez will eventually enjoy success at Arizona. This is due to the fact that Michigan is too fixated on the “traditional” way of doing things instead of embracing progress. Conversely the Pac-12 has always embraced innovation (i.e. Bill Walsh at Stanford or Chip Kelly at Oregon) and the low key environment of Tucson will be the perfect laboratory for Rodriguez to tinker in.
If the Arizona offensive line can manage to both stay healthy and out of trouble and Matt Scott and efficiently execute the speed option there is a chance the Wildcats might n eke out a 3-9 or a 4-8 record. This also means the defense needs to stay healthy and execute Casteel’s Stack defense. Season prediction:
3-9, Last in the Pac-12 South