Arizona bolted out of the gate in 2012 with wins in the first three games, including a 59-38 throttling of Oklahoma State, a team that reached as high as No. 18 in the national polls. Growing pains were bound to come though and they came quickly with a three-game slide as the Wildcats were silenced by Oregon (49-0) and outlasted by Oregon State (38-35) and Stanford (54-48 OT). The Wildcats regrouped after the three-game skid and ended up winning four of their final six games, though they did lose at home to in-state rival Arizona State.
Despite the ups and downs of the season Arizona was sitting with a 7-5 record at the end of the regular season. That was enough to push the Wildcats to their fourth bowl game in the last five seasons. In the New Mexico Bowl, Arizona won in a shootout, downing Nevada 49-48 by scoring a pair of touchdowns in the final minute.
OFFENSE: The offensive revolution for Arizona last season was expected when Rodriguez came in, but even those expectations might have been surpassed. The Wildcats set school records in a number of offensive categories, including yards (526.2 pg) and points (38.2 pg). In fact Arizona ranked in the top 25 in the country in both those categories as well as in passing and rushing.
Rushing the ball is the cornerstone of Rodriguez's spread offense and the Wildcats are blessed with one of, if not the, best players in the country in that regard. Ka'Deem Carey returns for his junior season after amassing 2,354 yards in his first two seasons. That included a national leading 1,929 yards and Pac-12 best 23 touchdowns during the 2012 campaign. Carey is an explosive back that can also be utilized more in the short passing game with his ability to wreak havoc in the open field. Expect his name to be among those tossed around for All-American honors come year's end.
Though there is time to pick the replacement for quarterback Matt Scott, who was extremely impressive in his lone season in Rodriguez's system, for now it seems senior B. J. Denker has the job. Denker threw just 37 passes as Scott's backup last season, but completed 25 of those attempts and also tossed three touchdowns. Waiting in the wings are Jesse Scroggins, a junior college transfer who originally enrolled at USC, and freshman Anu Solomon.
Whoever is taking the snaps with the first team come the season opener on August 30, will have to deal without leading pass-catcher Austin Hill. A knee injury will cost the junior, who caught 81 passes and ranked second in the Pac-12 with 1,364 yards, much of the 2013 campaign as he isn't likely to return until November, if at all.
"(It) means everybody else has to step up," senior wide receiver Terrence Williams said about losing Hill. "I have to take a bigger leader role in the room and the younger guys in the receiving room have to step up. He's a big part of our receiver room, but we've got to make up for it."
Though Miller may be vocal about being a leader, he had only 13 receptions last season. David Richards is thus the go-to receiver based on past production, as his 29 receptions last year are the most of any returning player.
In terms of the offensive line, the right side should be well fortified with returning starters Chris Putton and Fabbians Ebbele manning the right guard and right tackle spots, respectively. A pair of sophomores, guard Cayman Bundage and center Jacob Arzouman will be called on to perform as well.
DEFENSE: For how unbelievably productive the offense was, Arizona's defense was equally atrocious. Partially a symptom of the up-tempo style they played at, the Wildcats were gashed for 499 yards and 35.3 points per game last season. Each of those was among the 25 worst marks in the country.
Another reason for the lack of success was the learning curve as the team shifted to the 3-3-5 stack defense that defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel implemented. It is the same system Casteel utilized under Rodriguez at West Virginia and one that has proven to be successful in the past. With a year under their belts the hope is the Wildcats will be improved. With a number of starters coming back, those hopes are pretty realistic.
"I like what we do defensively and I like the players coming back and I think they're going to play with a chip on their shoulders, and you will see better defense this fall," Rodriguez said.
Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers were each productive at linebacker for the Wildcats last season. Fischer racked up 119 tackles, which led the team, while Flowers had 100 stops, 13.0 TFL and 5.5 sacks. His three interceptions also tied for a team best.
The back end of the defense will be equally filled with proven commodities with Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Jared Tevis, Jonathan McKnight, Shaquille Richardson and Jourdon Grandon all returning with starting experience.
The rotation up front will be anchored by defensive end Dan Pettinato and senior nose guard Devin Hood. The two players slotted behind Pettinato and Hood on the depth chart, Reggie Gilbert and Sione Tuihalamaka, also have starting experience and will see plenty of playing time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jake Smith is coming in as a transfer from Syracuse to take over as the new place kicker. The hope is there won't be much of a drop off from John Bonano, who hit 14-of-20 field goal attempts last season. Punting duties will also go to a new player with Drew Riggleman taking over for Kyle Dugandzic.
Richard Morrison (13 punt returns, 10.2 ypr, TD) will be back as the punt returner. Hylan Butler, who returned two kickoffs last season, will get a shot at the job full-time.
OUTLOOK: With the defense now more experienced and with a further grasp of the 3-3-5 scheme, Arizona, which should be formidable again offensively, is expecting big things for this campaign.
The schedule also breaks in Arizona's favor with the first three non- conference games all contests the Wildcats should thrive in against Northern Arizona, UNLV and Texas-San Antonio. The first two games in league play are less inviting with road tests against Washington and USC. The difficulty takes a downturn from there with games against Utah and at Colorado. The Wildcats then play five games in November but benefit from playing UCLA and Oregon at home, while avoiding Stanford altogether.
With Carey on the field and Rodriguez's offensive scheme in full form, Arizona is a must-watch team just about every week. Turning the squad into a team that wins just about every week will require some big strides from the defense. Assuming improvement of any kind though means Arizona will be one of the teams in the upper echelon of the Pac-12.