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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Arizona football: News and notes from the Wildcats’ first week of practice

Courtney Talak
Arizona football athletes stretch before practice on Friday, Aug. 5.

The Arizona football team started practice this week, officially marking the start of the 2016 season.

The Wildcats regressed from a 10-4, Pac-12 Conference South champion season in 2014, to a 7-6 season in 2015.

But Arizona will get a clean slate in 2016, and its first three practices are in the books. Here’s what you need to know about the new-look team:

Diverse Defense:

The most notable change Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez made this offseason was bringing in a new defensive coaching staff, headlined by the addition of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who held the same position at Boise State.

Yates plans to install a 4-2-5 defense, a switch from the 3-3-5 Arizona used under former defensive caller Jeff Casteel.

Additionally, Yates and company plan to make UA’s defense more diverse than in years past.

“I think it was easy to predict what we were going to do,” defensive end Luca Bruno said at the team’s reporting day on Wednesday.

To make things less predictable, the Wildcats are planning to have more movement before the snap, hoping to catch opposing offenses off-guard and generate a more consistent pass rush.

“We’re always moving,” Bruno said. “It’s going to start confusing people and I love that … We’re more of an attacking defense now.”

Defensive Departures:

Before training camp even got underway, the Wildcats lost three potential contributors on the defensive side of the ball. Senior linebacker Derrick Turituri, senior defensive lineman Anthony Fotu and junior college recruit Josh Allen (a four-star talent), will not be with the team in 2016.

Turituri missed most of the 2015 season with an injury, but was a valuable piece of Arizona’s 2014 defense as he nabbed 44 tackles and five tackles for loss as a sophomore.

Fotu played sparingly in his first year at Arizona in 2015, but did record an interception and was expected to compete for a starting spot on the defensive line in 2016.

Meanwhile, Allen was a prized recruit in Rodriguez’s 2016 recruiting class, but didn’t qualify academically, deeming him ineligible to play for Arizona.

Yates isn’t discouraged by the loss of defensive talent, however.

“We’re going to coach what we have, and we’re happy to have what we have,” Yates said.

Quarterback battle:

Perhaps nothing has garnered more attention this offseason than the upcoming quarterback battle between two-year starter Anu Solomon and sophomore Brandon Dawkins.

While the incumbent Solomon likely has a leg up on Dawkins due to his experience and past play, Rodriguez isn’t willing to just hand the keys over to Solomon.

“I have never believed in giving a guy a position,” Rodriguez said. “I think Anu knows he’s good enough to win with, but he’s gotta play better, and he’s done that. He had a good summer.”

Don’t expect Rodriguez to officially name a starter for the team’s season-opener on Sept. 3 against BYU (with kick off at 7:30 p.m.) anytime soon.

“What time’s the game?” Rodriguez joked. “I’d say about 7:29, I better have a decision … Even if I did know, why would I tell anybody?”

Solomon plans to play more “Polynesian style” football:

Part of the reason Solomon’s job is in question is because of his durability. Solomon missed two games last season—and was knocked out of two others—and anytime a QB misses time, it can throw off an entire offense.

For that reason, one would think Solomon would look to play a bit more cautiously in the upcoming season to help him stay on the field, but Solomon thinks the opposite is true.

“I thought I was playing soft last year,” said Solomon, who suffered two concussions last season. “I gotta change that up, and play more Polynesian style and get hit every play. This year I expect more and try to hit people … I thought I could’ve pushed through those two concussions.”

Rodriguez seeks better cornerback play, Cruikshank could be an option:

Arizona allowed the 13th-most passing yards per game in the country last season (274.8), and while an often non-existent pass rush didn’t help, Rodriguez was clear that the team’s secondary needed to improve, namely the team’s cornerback play.

“Our corner play has to improve, and I think it will,” Rodriguez said. “I like our corners, we’re doing some different stuff with them.”

The team returns most of its cornerbacks from last season, including redshirt senior DaVonte’ Neal, but the order of the depth chart is up in the air.

One player that could emerge from the pack is Dane Cruikshank, a junior college transfer who redshirted last season.

“He’s athletic and a tall, long, strong guy,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know who the starters are, but he’s going to be competing for one of the positions [at corner]. He’s got a chance to make some plays and he has good ball skills.”

“[Cruikshank] is a unique talent,” Arizona cornerbacks coach Donte’ Williams told “Anytime you get a guy who’s 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and runs a 4.4 or 4.3 (40-yard dash), those guys don’t come around on a daily basis.”

Additional notes:

  •  The team received news on Monday morning that redshirt senior Zach Hemmila passed away in his sleep. Hemmila, 22, was competing for the starting center position, and likely would have won it. “We lost a great young man,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody in the program is hurting.”
  • Rodriguez mentioned running back Nick Wilson is a “full-go” in training camp. Wilson missed four games due to an assortment of injuries in 2015 and is being counted on to lead the Wildcats’ ground game.
  • The status of freshman tackle Keenan Walker—the highest-rated recruit Rodriguez has landed at Arizona—with the team is in doubt. Walker was arrested in Scottsdale in early July, and Rodriguez isn’t sure if he’ll be in camp with the Wildcats moving forward.
  • The UA is also awaiting clearance for wide receiver Zach Benjamin. The 6-foot-4 receiver transferred in from South Florida and could make an immediate impact this season.

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter

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