2013 bowl victory formation

RichRod’s 2nd UA season ended in victory formation.
Photo by Wildcat Universe

The 2013 college football season is over and Rich Rodriguez is still Arizona’s head coach. While the entire Wildcat Universe waits for a certain running back to make a life-altering decision, let’s see what RichRod’s second year in Tucson taught us.

We went through this exercise last year and there was some concern the team would take a step backward in 2013 with the loss of Matt Scott. Didn’t happen. Yes, the non-conference schedule was easier this year and the Cats didn’t have to play the eventual Pac-12 champs but the de-feathering of top-five-then-and-top-10-now Oregon was more impressive than any win last season. Therefore…

This will not be a long, painful rebuilding process.

Rodriguez certainly inherited more talent than Mike Stoops got from John Mackovic but the 1-10 slide to end Stoops’ tenure didn’t foster a lot of optimism about an immediate turnaround. Sixteen wins later and optimism is all over the place. If back-to-back eight-win seasons constitutes rebuilding I can’t wait to see what built looks like.

Getting – and keeping – his assistant coaches helped a lot.

Convincing defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and RichRod’s other former assistants to come to the desert was a big deal. Keeping them has provided the UA program with a solid foundation. Six of the nine full-time assistant coaches from Rodriguez’s first Arizona staff are still here. So, no, Todd Graham, guys like Calvin Magee weren’t mercenaries, they were just waiting to be reunited with the right boss.

Rod and Rod know how to coach quarterbacks.

You cannot overstate the job Rodriguez and QB coach Rod Smith did with B.J. Denker. Look at it this way: If you go back before Sonny Dykes and the Tuitama/Foles/Scott era, Denker’s 2,516 passing yards would have been the third most in school history, and just four yards behind Tom Tunnicliffe’s 1982 season which stood as the UA’s best for 20 years. Add in Denker’s 949 rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns and he would’ve been on the short list of Arizona’s best quarterbacks ever. All this from a guy that nobody wanted. Well, nobody but the Coaches Rod.

The offense can score in the red zone.

The knock on Dykes’ offense was the difficulty in scoring touchdowns inside the 20. It worked fine when future NFL players Eben Britton and Rob Gronkowski were blocking next to each other in 2008 (33 rushing TDs) but the going got a lot tougher in the three years after that (19, 20 and 17 rush TDs in 2009-’11).

That’s not the case with RichRod’s system. It’s a spread offense but the ground game continues to work near the goal line. The Cats punched in 33 rushing touchdowns in 2012 and 36 this year.

Now, the big mystery moving forward will be what happens if Ka’Deem Carey goes pro. Will a new feature back emerge or will it be more running back by committee? And will the new back(s) have Carey’s same nose for the goal line? Speaking of whom…

RichRod chose discipline over a 2,000-yard rusher and Heisman finalist.

Carey finished the season with 1,885 yards, the most in the Pac-12 and the third-largest total in FBS, all after sitting out the first game of the season for disciplinary reasons.

Rodriguez actually kept Carey off the field until the second quarter of the UNLV game. With an extra 1.25 games of action the UA record-holder breezes by 2,000 yards on the season, maybe even before the bowl game and the Heisman voters would have had no choice but to send him to New York. RichRod’s message was clear: He expects everyone to follow the rules.

The defense is getting better but is still behind the offense.

The UA’s 2012 defensive rankings could not have gotten much worse: 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, 11th against the rush, and dead last in passing defense and total D. So when you see Pac-12 rankings of 6th, 7th, 5th and 8th that qualifies as improvement. Against opponents like Oregon and Boston College you could see the direction of the defense with an emphasis on speed, flying to the ball and forcing turnovers.

To become truly dangerous on D the team could use an elite pass-rusher to force opposing quarterbacks into more mistakes and a top-shelf cover corner who can match up with the WR firepower in this conference.

The special teams need work.

It is surprising that someone who has designed such an explosive offense has so far put together such nonthreatening return teams. The punt return strategy appears to be (hopefully) fair-catch it or (hopefully) stay away from it. Kick returns have been just run up the middle and anything past the 20 is a win. Arizona’s defense had four returns longer than anything the special teams could do returning kickoffs (season long of 34 ) or punts (long return of 25). Add in inconsistencies in both punting and place kicking and the Wildcats were giving away both yards and points on special teams all year.

RichRod recruits guys to play right away.

The answer to both defense and special teams is recruiting. And a big draw in that regard is Rodriguez has proven if you’re good enough, you will play from day one. The best example this year was at the receiver position where the Wildcats’ top two pass-catchers were true freshman Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant. With Trey Griffey‘s emergence you could easily argue that by the end of the season the UA’s three best WRs were freshmen.

Big strong fast guys who want to help a team win right now? Come on down!

You have to beat your rival when you have the chance.

ASU was the better team this year and showed it on the field. No argument there. What makes the Territorial Cup loss worse, however, is the fact the UA didn’t take care of business last year with a fourth-quarter lead at home. If you let games like that slip away you end up with a rivalry oh-fer that mars two otherwise solid seasons.

Next year’s rivalry game in Tucson with improved talent on the Arizona sideline is a big one for Rodriguez and the Wildcats.

There is still no reason not to be excited about the future.

Draft gurus and recruitniks always talk about players with high ceilings. If you’re going to gamble on someone you want a guy who has the potential to be exceptional. Rich Rodriguez’s West Virginia success shows he has a high ceiling and there was nothing in the first two seasons at Arizona to lower those expectations. In fact, after taking Stanford to the wire last year and beating Oregon this season, RichRod’s ceiling may actually have crept up a little.

Threre’s still a lot of work to be done. Unless you can fill a class with 25 Nate Phillipses and Scooby Wrights it’s going to take time to recruit and develop elite players. For the second straight season fans will have to wait through a wide-open quarterback competition. The defense and special teams won’t jump to the top of the conference overnight.

But RichRod and his staff have been dealing with those issues and still managed to go 16-10 in their first two seasons in Tucson. The program will be even stronger in the future than it is today. Does that strength start to really show itself this fall?

We’ll have to see what lessons are in store for Wildcat fans in Two Zero One Four.

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