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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Commentary: Rich Rodriguez will have the last word

File Photo

Arizona football head coach Rich Rodriguez directs his players during Arizona’s 56-30 loss to UCLA on Sept. 26, 2015. The Wildcats went 7-6 overall and 3-6 in the Pac-12 during the 2015 season.

Arizona head football coach Rich Rodriguez hasn’t been having the best of times in Tucson lately. The latest blow came July 22 when Matt Dudek, general manager and director of player personnel, took a position as the director of recruiting at the University of Michigan. Dudek’s departure is just the latest of a seemingly endless run of players and coaches leaving the Arizona football program in search of a better opportunity or, more importantly, stability.

Rodriguez has been under fire after the Wildcats went 3-9 last season, but he seemed to stem the tide with a top-20 recruiting class. However, that class quickly fell apart after defensive backs coach Donte Williams left for Nebraska. Additionally, the No. 7 athlete in this years recruiting class, defensive standout Greg Johnson, opted to reconsider his commitment, eventually choosing USC instead of the UA.

Since then, the Wildcats’ 2017 recruiting class has dropped to the No. 44 overall, although impressive recruits like four-star running back Nathan Tilford are still committed to playing in Tucson.

With all the uncertainty surrounding the Arizona football program, it’s easy to understand why season ticket holders and fans are concerned. From the outside looking in, it would appear that the sky is falling, but is it?

Only Rich Rodriguez knows.

What we know is that the team heads into 2017 expected to finish somewhere near the bottom of the Pac-12. What we don’t know is how seriously the players have taken last year’s disastrous campaign — and the ridicule the program has been under since. Has the scrutiny lit a fire? Do the players care? Do they have enough talent to turn things around?

RELATED: USC overwhelming favorite in Pac-12 while others look to ruin coronation

On paper, the Wildcats seem no better than a season ago. They had one of the nation’s best rushing attacks (No. 19 overall) but featured one of the worst air attacks in the country (No. 108 overall). The running game is once again expected to be the bell cow, featuring not one, not two, but three backs that could carry the load: Nick Wilson, J.J. Taylor and Nathan Tilford. But the overall success of the offense will once again fall on the arms of senior Brandon Dawkins and sophomore Khalil Tate.

Dawkins, the starter for most of last season, supplanted veteran Anu Solomon a season ago and has at times showed flashes of brilliance — especially against college football playoff semi-finalist Washington and against rival ASU in the season finale. However, Dawkins’ inaccuracy through the air frustrated Rodriguez and is a big question mark heading into the season.

Tate showed some signs of being the eventual starter last season. Going up against UCLA, the quarterback had impressive moments through the air and on the ground. However, when handed the starting job against USC at home, Tate didn’t fare so well, only completing seven passes for 58 yards before getting pulled for former tight end Matt Morin. He’ll have a chance to compete for the starting job and has an edge in having a bigger arm than Dawkins.

For all the offensive genius Coach Rodriguez possesses, it would be fair to question if college football has caught up with, if not surpassed, the innovator of the read-option attack. Then again, all the offense in the world may not help if the other side of the ball can’t hold its own.

RELATED: Rich Rod looking for a few good recruits

The Wildcats were a disaster on the defensive side of the ball last season, surrendering 34 points or more in every Pac-12 conference game. To make matters worse, Arizona featured the country’s No. 115th ranked defense overall and the No. 117th pass defense.

Will the Wildcats improve on that side of the ball? Potentially. Defenses tend to improve in the second year of a system, and that should be the expectation under second-year coordinator Marcel Yates. Additionally, the unexpected surfeit of injuries incurred last season is not likely to recur this year.

The 2017 Arizona Wildcats football team comes into the season with low expectations — which is a good thing for Rich Rodriguez. A 6-6 season may just save him from getting fired. Rodriguez has always been competitive, and he certainly won’t go down without a fight. His team, though, will have the last say in that matter, beginning with its opener against NAU on Sept. 2.

Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.

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