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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Wildcats earn first preseason ranking in 16 years

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Tyler Baker
Tyler Baker / The Daily Wildcat Wilbur, the UA mascot, flies the University of Arizona flag before the Territorial Cup matchup against Arizona State University on Friday, November 28, 2014. Arizona would go on to beat ASU and win the Pac-12 South Championship.

Arizona football was awarded an early seal of approval from the national media about 24 hours after the Wildcats ended their 16-day preseason camp.

The defending Pac-12 South champions will open up the season with an AP Top 25 ranking next to its name for the first time since 1999, as the UA was tabbed the No. 22 team in the country on Sunday.

The Wildcats, who have returning sophomore Anu Solomon at quarterback and All-American Scooby Wright III at linebacker, are one of six Pac-12 Conference schools ranked in the preseason poll. Rival ASU is ranked No. 15 in the country, while Oregon leads the conference with the No. 7 overall ranking.

Preseason expectations have not been this high for Arizona football in over a decade. The Wildcats’ Saturday scrimmage gave the coaching staff a better indication as to whether or not the UA will meet those expectations.

“It was probably a typical end of camp scrimmage where there is some pretty good intensity,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We got about 95-100 plays in. There was a little bit of heat so we were tested a little bit, which is good. I’ll have a better idea after I watch the film.”

The highlight of the scrimmage came on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Solomon to junior wide receiver Nate Phillips. Solomon and the first-team offense had their way for most of the contest.

That could be taken as either a good or bad sign, depending on whose perspective.

Arizona is used to relying on its fast-paced offense to be its strongest attribute. Now that Rodriguez has a returning quarterback roaming the pocket, the offense could take another leap forward.

“I think, all around, [Solomon] has gotten more comfortable,” wide receiver Cayleb Jones said in a statement. “He has become a much better player, even off the field. He is tougher physically and mentally. He forces us to learn the different routes and coverages so we become better as an offensive unit.”

Arizona should also be solid on the ground, as sophomore running back Nick Wilson returns from a freshman season in which he ran for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. Wilson’s average of 105.8 yards per game set Arizona’s freshman rushing record.

The success of both Solomon and Wilson will depend heavily on the stability of Arizona’s offensive line.

The position group took a few hits over the summer; first, guard Jordan Poland was dismissed from the team in July after being arrested for trafficking stolen property. Then, in early August, center Carter Wood was ruled out for the season with a chronic right foot injury. Wood was expected to be Arizona’s starter at center this season.

Cayman Bundage, a senior who started 12 games last season, will likely replace Wood at center. The offensive line also adds California transfer Freddie Tagaloa, a former top recruit.

“Part of it is we’re looking to see who the best five guys are,” offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. “We want to get the best five guys on the field.”

Arizona will field a young defensive group, particularly in the secondary.

The Wildcats lost three secondary starters over the spring, including Jared Tevis, who was second on the team with 99.5 tackles, and Jourdon Grandon, the team leader in interceptions.

Replacing that level of production could wind up as Arizona’s toughest challenge in the season’s early going, but returning free safety Jamar Allah voiced some cautionary optimism following the scrimmage.

“I think there is a lot of room for improvement,” Allah said. “We have to fine tune things before the first game. I think we have done much better than I thought we would do with having a lot of new guys coming in.”

The Wildcats do have one of the Pac-12’s better safeties in senior Will Parks, as well as a budding sophomore in Cam Denson. In addition, former wide receiver DaVonte’ Neal transitioned to the secondary over spring, providing more immediate depth.

Then, of course, there’s Scooby.

The reigning Chuck Bednarik Award winner—given to the top defender in college football—is arguably as valuable as any player in college football.

Wright led Arizona last year in almost every defensive category, including 163 total tackles.

Even if Wright’s numbers drop from last year, Wright could provide more of an impact for a somewhat-rebuilt defense. Wright, already listed at 246 pounds, looks to have added even more muscle over the offseason.

If he and his cohorts can compliment an explosive offense, there’s a chance Arizona could find itself snugged in the top 25 all season. 


Follow Ezra Amacher on Twitter.


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