Cleat Geeks

2016 Pac 12 Preview: Arizona Wildcats

Pac12IntroPhotoFor the first time in nearly a decade, the South division looks to crown the Pac-12 champion – and this very well could be the year that they do so. The favorite within the division looks to be the Trojans of USC. Despite moving onto their third head coach in five years, the Trojans enter the season with arguably the highest expectations of any team in the conference, and deservedly so. They have all the pieces to make a legit run at a conference championship, but can Clay Helton lead them to glory in his first full season as the headman in LA? The UCLA Bruins pose the biggest threat to USC as they return promising sophomore QB Josh Rosen, a QB with #1 pick potential. His talent alone could lead the Bruins to a conference championship. One of the most underrated teams in the country, the Arizona Wildcats are a sleeper to take the conference this season, but will they be able to overcome the likes of USC and UCLA? Kyle Whittingham leads a strong Utah unit year after year, but will their depleted offense be able to keep up with other high-powered offenses in the country? Arizona State has one of the best RB tandem in the country, but their defense still poses as a liability to giving up the big play; they may be a year or two away as Manny Wilkins needs experience under center. Colorado went 1-8 in conference play last season, but they return 16 starters, and experience goes a long way in the college game.

Take a look as we dig deep into the Pac-12 South division. Comment with some predictions of your own for the Arizona Wildcats and if you agree or not that they’re the darkhorse in the Pac-12 this season. Follow @JonValencia_WiB for more Pac-12 updates throughout the off-season as we gear up for opening week.

3 – Arizona Wildcats (8-4, 5-4 – SOUTH)

Players to Watch: QB Anu Solomon, QB Jerrard Randall, RB Nick Wilson, LB DeAndre’ Miller, LB/S Paul Maglorie, CB DaVonte’ Neal
Key Departures: WR Cayleb Jones, LB Scooby Wright III, S Will Parks

AnuSolomonThe Wildcats entered 2015 with the highest of expectations during the Rich Rodriguez era in Tucson, but it turned out to be the worst season during his four-year stint as the team won ‘only’ 7 games. Heading into 2016, things are looking up in Arizona. While they aren’t gaining the national recognition of other Pac-12 teams, they have the roster makeup to make a run at a South division title with nearly their entire offense returning, and some notable playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The biggest sleeper in the Pac-12 this season, and one of the most underrated teams in the country. But, will they be able to compete with teams like USC and UCLA?

Any Rich Rodriguez squad starts with high-paced offense and more importantly, scoring points. Like any team, it all starts under center, but even more emphasis is put on the QB position in Rich Rod’s offense. Junior Anu Solomon returns as the team’s starting signal caller. While he’s not the prototypical running QB you’d expect in the zone-read, he is efficient with the football as his 20-5 TD:INT ratio would indicate from last season, that he is also a great game manager. One of the more underrated QBs in all of college football. He has battled injuries, staying healthy will be key. When Rodriguez wants to run the football, he has the luxury of shifting to Jerrard Randall. While nowhere near the passer of Solomon, Randall knows his role as a primary runner under center and emerged during Solomon’s injury absence last season. On the ground, Randall rushed for over 700 yards, averaging 9 yards per rush and scored 5 TDs. Early enrollee and four star QB recruit, Khalil Tate is the best athlete of the trio and should see some playing time as a freshman. The future of Arizona football.

With a lot of depth and talent at QB, the Wildcats have just that in the backfield. Junior Nick Wilson is an All-League talent, although his 2015 campaign was diminished by injury. Still, he rushed for 725 yards with 8 TDs – most of that production came in the first half of the season. He forms a great tandem with sophomore Orlando Bradford, another talented ball carrier. Between the QB and RB positions, the Wildcats have plenty of explosiveness to go around and should be among the most efficient running teams in the country. On the offensive line the Wildcats return four starters and boast huge size with the average linemen at 6’6”/308. ‘Zona has a lot of experience in the trenches and their great running ability makes their job even easier.

While they lose their top receiving threat from last season in Cayleb Jones, the Wildcats return a solid bunch headlined by big play threat Trey Griffey. Not a huge contributor thus far in his college career, but Griffey has outstanding athletic ability and averaged 25.8 yards per catch last season. His 6’3” size will be coveted in a WR corps that lacks ideal height. Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant will step up as the prime producers. The duo combined for 75 catches, 865 receiving yards and 6 TDs last season – both of whom are no taller than 5’9”. Cam Denson is a name to watch for – the junior converts back to his natural position after playing cornerback the past two years.TreyGriffey2

Things get a little confusing on the defensive side of the ball. Rodriguez brought in Marcel Yates from Boise State to assume coordinator duties in hopes that he can improve on Arizona’s 114th ranked defense from last season. Yates brings more of an aggressive, attacking style which could suit the personnel better, particularly in the back 7. DeAndre Miller is the name to watch for. The redshirt junior will make his living as a standup pass rusher off the edge – highlighted the defense last season with 8 tackles for loss. He is joined in the LB corps by S/LB tweener Paul Magloire who made 72 tackles last season. On the defensive line, two starters return in Luca Bruno and Sani Fuimaono.

With only one returning starter to the secondary, concerns may hover around a defensive backfield which ranked 114th last season in the country. However, they should be an improved unit this season. Notre Dame transfer DaVonte’ Neal is a gifted athlete who continues to grow as a corner after making the conversion from receiver. The coaching staff has high expectations for junior college transfer Dane Cruikshank – he will lineup opposite Neal at corner and solidify the position. Cam Denson will also see time at corner, although will now be a primary receiver. Along with Magloire’s contributions from safety, the Wildcats get even more of a boost in redshirt freshman Anthony Mariscal. An underrated athlete coming out of high school, Mariscal is another guy poised for a big year, and better yet career as he’s set to be a four-year starter.

Like last year, Arizona will likely be a mixed bag. They’ll be one of the best offensive teams in the country, but their defense will continue to be shaky, although it will be improved. The mix at QB and established running game give the Wildcats great variety and capabilities on offense. They’ll be able to burn a lot of clock and keep their defense off the field, allowing them to stay rested throughout most games. Last season they got torn apart by better conference opponents, they’ll need to squeeze out a win or two against the better teams if they want to compete and live up to my ‘sleeper’ label. I really like the team Arizona has this season. As I said earlier, they’re one of the most underrated teams heading into 2016.

9/3: vs BYU Warizona-stadium
9/10: vs Grambling State W
9/17: vs Hawaii W
9/24: vs Washington W
10/1: @ UCLA W
10/8: @ Utah W
10/15: vs USC L
10/29: vs Stanford L
11/5: @ Washington State W
11/12: vs Colorado L
11/19: @ Oregon State L
11/25: vs Arizona State W

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