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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 12. Arizona Wildcats

Anu Solomon
12. Arizona Wildcats

2014-2015 Record: 10-4 (7-2 Pac-12)
Coach: Rich Rodriguez, fourth year (26-14)
Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: WR Austin Hill, S Jared Tevis
Heisman Hopeful: LB Scooby Wright
Breakout Player: S William Parks

The start to the 2014-2015 season was a magical one in Tucson. Rich Rodriguez's third year was going wonderful; the Wildcats were 5-0 at one point with a victory against No. 2 ranked Oregon, and appeared poised for possible Playoff contention. Though, the Wildcats slowed down considerably in the second half of the season, and the season ended on a rather sour note. A Pac-12 Championship blowout loss in a rematch with Oregon was worrying, than Arizona looked completely overmatched in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State. Overall, 'Zona finished off 10-4, certainly progress, but it still left something to be desired. Though, that was done with freshman at QB and running back and inexperience in places on defense. With a number of key playmakers returning, and one of the nation's best defenders, Rodriguez has a serious contender here entering his fourth season.

Backfield: Anu Solomon emerged as Arizona's starter over a number of other candidates and started 2014 on fire. His big arm was a perfect fit for Rodriguez's spread offense, and he used his legs to constantly frustrate opposing defenses. A Hail Mary against California to secure the 'Cats' hot start was the pinnacle of his success last year. Though, he slumped terribly at times in the second half of the year and he looked absolutely flustered in the Fiesta Bowl. One of his late turnovers was the final nail in the coffin in the loss. Those struggles were understandable considering that he was a young quarterback, playing some speedy and great defenses. Though, it will be interesting to see what Anu Solomon shows up in 2015-2016. Can he build on an impressive first season as starter (3,793 yards, 28 touchdowns) or will his late season struggles haunt him? At running back, sophomore Nick Wilson also returns. Following the loss of Ka'Deem Carey, there was expected to be a major drop off at the position in 2014-2015. Instead, Wilson smashed Arizona freshman records, rushing for 1,375 yards. The fact of the matter is that Wilson could be even more lethal this season. He has always had breakneck speed and crazy explosiveness, but he has become stronger and worked on becoming an even more versatile option. He has worked hard to become a more dangerous receiver, after picking up just 12 receptions last season. Although both Wilson and Solomon were crazy impressive as freshman last season, having them a year older will only make this already scary offense even more dangerous. Likely to compete for backing up Wilson will be senior back Jared Baker, who was solid a year ago. He ran for 100 yards on just 25 carries and had three total touchdowns, and he should compete for an increased workload this season. Also coming in and competing for carries will be Louisiana prospect Orlando Bradford. Bradford stands at just 5'8", but he is strong and powerful and a fearless runner. He could add a more short yardage option to the Arizona backfield than Wilson and Baker. Fellow three-star find Darick Holmes Jr. has a bright future. Another short runner (just 5'6"), Holmes is a game-changer. Though, there is just too much talent ahead of him too probably see much of a workload in 2015.

Receivers: Perhaps what makes Arizona's offense so lethal is the playmakers they have at receiver. That shouldn't change with Austin Hill gone, and former receiver DaVonte' Neal switching to defensive back. Solomon has a crazy amount of weapons at his disposal, and it begins with junior Cayleb Jones, who is the team's top returning receiver. Jones recorded 73 receptions, 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns. He has a dangerous mix of speed and pretty great size as well. He can make some fabulous catches on jump balls but also has the speed to gain the needed separation. Joining Jones will be fellow junior Nate Phillips. Phillips is even quicker than Jones, but doesn't have his size. At 5'7", Phillips squeezes into small holes in the defense and makes a living there. He has reliable hands and just knows how to move the chains. Yet another junior, Samaje Grant also returns to help lead the receiver corps. Grant is just as explosive and dangerous as Jones and Phillips. He showcased his big play potential, by picking up 718 yards on 45 catches, an average of 16 yards per reception. The trio can go deep every single play, and with Solomon's huge arm, defenses will be spread absolutely thin opening up plays underneath for Wilson and more. The loss of Hill pushes senior David Richards into a larger role. Richards has been waiting a pretty long time for a chance with the Wildcats, and he shouldn't disappoint. Richards is also gifted with great size (has measured in at 6'5"), and has terrific ball skills. He doesn't have the breakneck speed of some of these guys on this team, but he is a smart route runner and still finds ways to impact the game. Also returning is junior Trey Griffey, along with sophomore Tyrell Johnson, both hailing from the East Coast. Griffey showed plenty of upside in relatively reduced snaps last season, and he could be very good with increased chances, while Johnson has a long and rangy frame. Arizona has five to six receivers with pretty decent experience, not to mention a couple backs that can make plays out of the backfield. That is absolutely horrifying to opposing defenses. Add in a couple newcomers, Cedric Peterson and Darrell Clark, and this is truly scary. Peterson has a decent shot to see action from the get-go, as the three-star gem has plenty of strengths, while Clark will add depth in case of any injuries.

Offensive Line: While the talent at the skill positions for Arizona is absolutely crazy, the only thing that could hold back this offense (other than injuries) could be the offensive line, which loses three starters to a unit that wasn't particularly fantastic last season. The two returning starters to the unit are senior Cayman Bundrage and Jacob Alsadek. Those two will man the guard positions, with Bundrage handling the left side and Alsadek on the right. As a senior, Bundrage will be expected to be the leader and anchor of the unit. Alsadek was pushed into a starting role a season ago, and performed admirably. For an offense that's goal is to spread defenses thin, all of Arizona's offensive linemen will have to show athleticism and get out and make blocks down the field. There is good news arriving in the form of Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa, who could be expected to start right away. In 2013, Tagaloa started seven games at tackle for the Golden Bears, before an eventual move to guard. He will be expected to start once more at tackle, and having an experienced weapon like him certainly helps. The massive linemen, at 6'8", 320-pounds is a strong, physical presence who will most likely protect Solomon's blind side, starting at left tackle. The other two spots on the offensive line are question marks, but at least there is experience waiting in the wings. Senior Carter Wood is the favorite to take over the center position. Wood is a well-rounded linemen who will have to work hard to gain chemistry with Solomon, considering how much of Arizona's snaps are in the shotgun, which can certainly increase mistakes. The right tackle position could be a question mark, though senior Lene Maiava is the favorite to take over there. Arizona native Keenan Walker could compete for snaps there as well. Walker is widely viewed as Arizona's top player in the 2015 Class, hailing from Scottsdale, Arizona and ranking in as a four-star prospect. The offensive tackle has great size and showed his potential in the Under Armour All-American game. Depth also arrives in the form of Harper Sherman and Cody Creason, both three-star finds. Sherman comes all the way from British Columbia and offers great size and power, while Creason is an established run blocker who decided to stick on the West Coast.

Defensive Line: The Wildcats' defensive line was pretty average last season, but a number of pass rushers return to it, and a number of newcomers will also contribute to a better unit. Gone is solid defensive tackle Dan Pettinato, but nearly everyone else returns. That includes productive defensive end Reggie Gilbert, who returns for what will be his fifth and final year in Tucson. Gilbert has shown plenty of potential throughout his time with Arizona including three sacks and 49 tackles last season. Entering this season, he hopes to become an even more imposing presence off the edge. He isn't the biggest linemen on the field but he has deceptive speed and quickness. Up the middle, nose guard Parker Zellers makes his return to the Desert as well. Zellers was thrown into a pretty large role last season and did a good job, picking up 20 tackles. Zellers moves extremely well and could become one of the conference's top run stoppers. The defensive tackle position next to Zellers is a little bit of a question, considering that Pettinato is gone. The most likely candidate to take over at the position will be newcomer Anthony Fotu, who could be in store for a big season. Fotu arrives from Laney College in San Leandro, California, and is ranked as one of the top JUCO linemen in this year's class. Fotu is a good-sized defensive linemen with a high motor and just because he plays on the inside doesn't mean he won't be after the quarterback a lot this upcoming season. Sophomore Calvin Allen is just one of a many number of veterans who will play in reserve roles most likely. Allen didn't see much action a year ago, but still managed one sack. Senior Jeff Worthy is also expected to see snaps in a rotational role. Joining Fotu in this year's recruiting class three-star Kendal Franklin along with Flinton Connolly. Franklin is a skilled end who has a bright future in the Desert, while Connolly is a defensive tackle with good size.

Scooby Wright
Linebackers: There may not be a better defensive player in the nation than Scooby Wright. After a solid first season with Arizona, Wright exploded for huge numbers in his sophomore season last year. He had 163 total tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 14 sacks (along with a crazy six forced fumbles) en route to a Lombardi Award, given to the nation's best linemen or linebacker. Equating that per game, he averaged nearly 12 tackles per game, along with over two tackles for loss. The junior doesn't just fill an impressive stat sheet; the versatile veteran always manages to play best in the biggest games. His big plays against Oregon the past two years have helped key upsets (including a strip against Marcus Mariota), and he was absolutely dominant in Arizona's regular season finale against Arizona State. If I had to put my money on any defensive player winning the Heisman this season, it would certainly be Wright. Hey, if he has huge games in nationally televised games against teams like UCLA and USC, he may have a shot. Joining Wright in the linebacker corps will be fellow junior Cody Ippolito. Ippolito is another proven linebacker who was very productive in 2014-2015, managing 52 tackles, with 6.5 of them going for a loss. Ippolito is an aggressive, fearless linebacker with great closing speed and range. Fourth year defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel should definitely give Ippolito plenty of pass rushing opportunities off the edge. The final starting linebacker spot in Arizona's 3-3-5 defense is sure going to be an interesting competition. Junior Jake Matthews is a Tucson native with incredible instincts and experience. Another junior, Derrick Turituri will also have the chance to compete alongside sophomore DeAndre' Miller. Turituri is a great pass rusher, recording 44 tackles along with three sacks playing at one of the outside linebacker spots. Though, Miller had a great spring and has been flying up the depth chart. Miller has great size and is a powerful tackler. He didn't see much action last season though, but he most likely has a higher ceiling than either Turituri or Matthews. No matter who starts, having Wright along with Ippolito makes this unit clearly one of Arizona's strengths, and one of the top units in the Pac-12.

Secondary: Having a 3-3-5 defense puts a ton of pressure on the secondary, and it's a group that had some great moments last season, but is still working on consistency. There are two pretty big pieces to the unit that are missing unfortunately; as corner Jonathan McKnight and safety Jared Tevis both depart. McKnight was a productive corner who always managed to get a hand on the ball, helping him land 13 pass deflections. Tevis, meanwhile, was an absolute tackling machine, with 120 total and nine tackles for loss. The loss of that pair will put some pressure on others to step up, but luckily there are a number of reinforcements arriving. The most notable of those is DaVonte' Neal, who makes the interesting transition to cornerback. The former highly touted Notre Dame prospect just couldn't make an impact with all the talented wide receivers on this roster, but at cornerback, he could honestly have a chance to start from the get-go. He has worked hard on the transition to the corner position, and there will be growing pains. But, he has the size, athleticism and knowledge of receiver tendencies to be a pretty productive corner. If Neal doesn't start, expect a pair of sophomores to man the spots. Cam Denson is the more proven likely starter, a high energy guy who showed real playmaking potential, picking off two passes a year ago. More time under his belt should only benefit the young cornerback, but quarterbacks will still try to go deep on him often. Opposite him at cornerback could be Jarvis McCall Jr. Little used by Arizona to this point, McCall will be eager to prove that he belong with the Wildcats. McCall has great ball skills and has looked very good in spring and will hope to hold down the position on into fall camp. If nobody locks down the cornerback slot next to Denson, a true freshman could possibly have to fill in. There are number of possibilities, including Bakersfield, California product Anthony Mariscal. Fellow three-star Samuel Morrison along with Devon Brewer both have chances down the road, but any real action this season is probably not a possibility. The likely star of the defensive backfield should be senior Will Parks, who was solid last season, but could breakout even more this season. Parks proved to be a very aggressive safety, and Casteel should let him wild this season. Parks had 81 total tackles, and 13 going for a loss. He doesn't offer a ton in coverage but he is clearly a help in run support, and a sneaky pass rushing talent. Joining Parks at the three safety positions should be two other players with pretty decent experience. Senior Jamar Allah landed 29 tackles a season ago and should continue to be a help on run defense, while junior Tellas Jones hopes to produce with a very increased role. Junior college transfer Paul Magloire arrives from Arizona Western College as a pretty touted safety, while local Tucson gem Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles has a bright future with the Wildcats.

Special Teams: Special teams should be a considerable strength for the Wildcats this season, especially with senior punter Drew Riggleman returning. Riggleman earned All-Pac-12 honors for his 2014 campaign. Kicker Casey Skowron also returns, while the 'Cats' primary kick returner Tyrell Johnson is back.

The Pac-12 South is as competitive at it has ever been with five teams (USC, Arizona, ASU, UCLA and Utah) all having legitimate chances to gain the division crown. But, this Arizona team could well be seen as the favorite, even with the cold ending they had to 2014-2015. Few offenses in the nation can match the big-play potential of this Arizona team, and having guys like Scooby Wright automatically makes any defense much better. The Wildcats' non-conference slate isn't that difficult and it should set up perfectly and give Arizona plenty of early momentum. If the secondary can hold up and Solomon takes the steps as a quarterback that he needs to, the 'Cats could well win the Pac-12 South and push themselves into the College Football Playoff.

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