2014 Record: 10-4 (7-2 Pac-12 South)
2016 NFL Draft Prospects: defensive end Reggie Gilbert, wide receiver Cayleb Jones, inside linebacker Scooby Wright III
Were they a fluke in 2014 or is this the type of success fans can expect on a yearly basis as the Rich Rodriguez Era enters its fourth season? That is the question in the minds of many as Arizona returns much of the star power on a team that made it all the way to the Fiesta Bowl after catching fire in the month of October thanks to a 31-24 win over Oregon in Eugene.
The reigning Pac-12 Coach of the Year got his team as high as eighth in the polls while winning ten games for the first time in Tucson since Dick Tomey was roaming the sidelines back in 1998. But even Tomey couldn’t replicate the three consecutive seasons of eight wins or more, with three bowl appearances as the sweetener.
As a frame of reference, it was only the third time in Wildcats history that a team has won ten regular season games. And he’ll do it again with the same full-time coaching staff he’s had since the start of the 2013 season. That type of coaching staff is unique to the school in that it hadn’t happened since 1999 when Tomey’s team won the Holiday Bowl en route to a 12-1 record.
But where to from here for Rodriguez entrenched in the ultra-competitive Pac-12 South that possesses three other team in the AP top-25?
What to look for from the Wildcats on offense
2014 S&P+ Offense: 105.4 (46th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Offense: 7
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 84% (21st in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 52 (90th in FBS)
A starting backfield duo of freshmen helped Arizona post the second most points in school history. Now quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson form what is perhaps the best returning quarterback/running back duo in the Pac-12, with another full off-season of conditioning and coaching under their belt.
In terms of returning starting experience, it will be the first time since he was hired, that Rodriguez returns his starting quarterback. In fact, it was the first time Rodriguez has had an entrenched starter at the position since his glory days at West Virginia with Pat White.
For Solomon, it was a certainly eventful first year for the physically gifted signal caller as he set nearly all of the school’s freshman passing records, finishing with the second most passing yards in a season in school history. But like many underclassmen at the position, he needs to become more consistent. There were games where he blew the doors off opponents (146.5 QBR in the Oregon win), matched with others where he threw silly interceptions or took sacks in critical situations (completed less than 38% of his passes in a 10-point loss to UCLA in November).
He’ll have the luxury of lining up next to running back Nick Wilson who also obliterated most of the school’s freshman rushing records on his way to 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. He also was sure-handed with the ball, a must with Rodriguez, fumbling just once on his 236 carries. He’s also added twenty pounds since enrolling last season which should help him with the durability issues that plagued him over the course of 2014. He was an integral part in the two victories that helped clinch the Pac-12 South, totaling nearly 500 yards on the ground against Utah and ASU.
Junior receiver Cayleb Jones is the third member of the Arizona offensive trio that turned heads last season. A 1,000 yard season that helped get him added to the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list earlier this summer.
In his first year as a starter after transferring from Texas, junior Cayleb Jones set the Pac-12 a blaze by catching 73 passes for over 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns. What he lacks in long speed, he makes up for in separation ability by using his 6-foot-3 frame as the premier deep threat on the team.
He did most of his damage however early on in the season against inferior opponents, failing to register a 100-yard game in each of his final ten games. He has one of the highest ceilings on the team and looks to soon be playing on Sundays. But he’ll have to continue to improve if he wants to continue to be targeted so frequently because once again the Wildcats are loaded at receiver. Once he learns to run better routes, use his body more efficiently, all while developing a better rapport with his redshirt sophomore quarterback he could prove to be the best receiver in the conference by season’s end.
The offensive line will be looking to replace three of its starters from last year, and 129 career starts. But if it’s any consolation, there’s a slew of upperclassmen ready to take their place including senior Cayman Bundage who will kick inside to play center. While many feel this unit just needs to hold water in the scheme for the team to put up points, a further look at both rushing/passing S&P+ statistics show that the offensive line did its part to hold the team back in 2014. As the more talented young players start to filter into the two-deep, this could be a much better looking situation in a year or two.
What to look for from the Wildcats on defense
2014 S&P+ Defense: 106.6 (40th in FBS)
2014 Havoc Rate: 0.159 (63rd in FBS)
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 57% (88th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Defense: 5
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel identified early on in the season that his patented 3-3-5 defense just wasn’t racking up the turnover he expected. However, as the schedule moved from non-conference to Pac-12 play, the Wildcats caught fire transitioning from 3 forced turnovers in their first three contents, to 22 in their final 9 regular season games.
But it wasn’t just turnovers. They were creating straight havoc across the board as Casteel had also witnessed an increased rate in tackles for loss from on average 5.15 per game in his inaugural 2012 season, to nearly 2 more per game in 2014. Much of this thanks to 2014 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Scooby Wright III.
Similar to Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham’s defense, Casteel’s defense is predicated on constantly pressuring the opposing quarterback. And in years past, it just wasn’t getting the results which caused inexperienced and out manned secondaries to get exploited, to the tune of the worst pass defense in the Pac-12 during 2012.
While Casteel has yet to develop a dominant pass rusher during his time, he does has one of the most dominant inside players in the country in Wright who is moved all over the field on this defense. Sun Devil fans need look no further than his electrifying performance in the 2014 Duel in the Desert where Wright and company totalled 15 tackles for loss against the ASU offense.
Casteel does a great job with his scheme in getting his defenders to funnel ball carriers into Wright’s area of destruction. He’s a linebacker that’s very good at sorting through the trash, separating from blockers and closing in on tackles. And there’s no reason why he can’t have similar success in 2015.
Depth is still a concern for this defense however. During a summer conference call, Rodriguez mentioned his defense needed to be able to play more than “13 or 14 guys” but was getting closer to his goal of “18-to-20 guys.”
In the mean time, the defense will have to continue to be opportunistic, create turnovers, and score on those turnovers as much as possible, including six times last season. When this happens a win historically follows, as the Cats are now undefeated in eight games when it scores a non-offensive touchdown.
The defensive line can only improve as it loses just one among its two-deep and returns the productive Reggie Gilbert and his 34 career starts at defensive end. It’s also a very light group
If there is one major area of concern with this team on defense, it is with its secondary where safety Will Parks returns as the lone veteran of the unit. It’s critical that the rest of this secondary performs near the level of 2014 as Casteel routinely asked a lot from the group on a weekly basis in 2014 to provide plays along with Wright.
Golden Nugget Casino early line: ASU -3
Ranked in AP preseason poll for the first time since 1999, Rodriguez will have to deal with this team believing in the hype. As he lays the groundwork in Tucson, he faces an uphill battle with a schedule that allows no off-week, an anomaly awarded to a small amount of schools (just five) as part of the FBS scheduling system.
The grind of that schedule could prove costly to an ultra thin offensive line and one of the youngest secondaries in the Pac-12. That being said it certainly has the star power to dominate teams and the scheme both on offense and defense to provide the blueprint. It also returns two of the best specialists this side of Utah that could prove of high value if this team plays in as many close games as it did a season ago.
Whether or not the new offensive line gels, the Solomon-to-Jones connection improves, and how the defensive secondary comes together with so many youngsters will be the early season story-line with this team. If these three concerns are eliminated by the time of the 2015 Territorial Cup, it could once again line up two of the best teams in the Pac-12 South division, if not the entire country.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”
**Graphs provided by Gary Doran‘s Advanced Stats Report.