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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Rich Rod, Arizona football ready for start of spring practices

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Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez walks to greet someone off-field before Arizona’s 51-13 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2014. Rodriguez and the Wildcats open spring practice today.

Arizona football returns to practice today, working to replace lost starters and build depth as the Wildcats try to defend their Pac-12 Conference South championship. Spring football features 14 practices, culminating with the annual spring game on April 10 at 6 p.m.

“I’m happy to get back outside, play a little football,” said Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez. “We got about six weeks of good strength and conditioning in.”

Spring football offers a chance to find replacements, especially on the offensive line. Starting center Steven Gurrola and starting tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele all had their eligibility expire. Baucus played in the East-West Shrine Game.

“That’s the concern on offense,” Rodriguez said. “You got a whole lot of experience to replace. I think we got some talent there; we got size.”

Rodriguez said they will try a multitude of players to replace the leader of the offensive line.

“Steven Gurrola was a big piece of our offensive line the last two years,” Rodriguez said. “If you’re an o-lineman and you can shotgun snap, you’re getting reps at center this spring.”

The Wildcats need to build depth to deal with their difficult schedule in 2015, Rodriguez said. Arizona starts on Sept. 3 with UTSA and doesn’t have a bye week until after the ASU game on Nov. 21.

Rodriguez said he was worried about the impact of ending the year with six-straight games last season, which became seven when they made the Pac-12 Championship game.

“I’m still trying to figure out how we got stuck with that,” Rodriguez said. “The 12 games with no open dates is different, and I’ve never had that, so we’ve got to have a plan, certainly, to play more people.”

Rodriguez said he’ll hold out incumbent starting running back Nick Wilson, but wants to find more depth at that position.

Arizona added nine new players this semester who either transferred from a junior college or started college.

The Wildcats are more settled at the quarterback this spring. Anu Solomon returns after passing for 3,793 yards and 28 passing touchdowns while throwing nine interceptions in his redshirt freshman year.

Still, the Wildcats did lose backup senior quarterback Jesse Scroggins and fourth-stringer Connor Brewer, who transferred. Jerrard Randall, who was the third-string quarterback last year, only attempted three passes in 2014.

“Anu’s got to get better in a lot of facets just like everybody else, but he should have some confidence because he played really well at times,” Rodriguez said.

Freshmen Brandon Dawkins and Zach Werlinger join the mix at quarterback after redshirting last year. Some think that Dawkins, a Blue-Grey All-American in high school, can challenge Solomon for the starting job.

Rodriguez said that Dawkins was impressive, but since he was redshirting and worked on the scout team, he didn’t have to learn the offense, so he’s an unknown commodity.

“He didn’t do much — for us he was getting redshirted, but we he had his opportunities, whether he did a freshman scrimmage or on the scout team,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a talented, competitive guy.”

Spring football will also be DaVonte’ Neal’s first time exclusively on defense. Neal, who was the Wildcats’ fifth-leading receiver (27 catches) and top punt returner (average of 11.1 yards per return), moved to cornerback in the offseason.

The Wildcats lost starting left corner Jonathan McKnight, whose eligibility expired, and several impactful safeties like Tra’Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis.

Rodriguez said he will move Neal back to offense if he doesn’t become a starter or rotation player.

“We need guys over there, and he’s had a really good five or six weeks of preparation for spring,” Rodriguez said.

The Wildcats do have one sure thing on defense. Rodriguez said linebacker Scooby Wright, who won the Bronko Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Rotary Lombardi awards as a true sophomore, is bigger and faster this year.

In fact, Wright might get some reps on offense, in short yardage and goal-line situations.

“I’m not saying he’s going to play any fullback, but that’s not outside the realm of possibility either,” Rodriguez said. “That would just add to the legend if we do that, so we want to keep him humble right now.”

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Follow James Kelley on Twitter.

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