The first season of the RichRod era at Arizona was somewhat of a surprise, as the Wildcats navigated a tough schedule to finish 7-5 before pulling off an amazing comeback in the final moments of a New Mexico Bowl win over Nevada.
But the honeymoon is over for head coach Rich Rodriguez, who now has to ensure his first year wasn't a fluke. To do that he will need contributions not just from top returners such as dark-horse Heisman candidate Ka'Deem Carey at tailback, but also from a handful of newcomers who could be the difference between a step back and a giant step forward.
Arizona opens the 2013 season Friday night at home against Northern Arizona, the first of three quite easy non-conference games before a grueling Pac-12 Conference season. The soft start to the campaign could prove to be the perfect opportunity to break in some new faces, most notably:
1. Jesse Scroggins, Jr., QB
Three years ago, Scroggins was one of the most highly touted prep quarterbacks in the nation, ultimately landing at USC. But in two seasons with the Trojans, the 6'3", 210-pound dropback passer never played a snap in a live game.
Following a year in junior college, Scroggins ended up in Tucson, Ariz., as the first of what's been many high-profile transfers the Wildcats have secured this season. Though sidelined early in training camp because of concussion issues, Scroggins entered the week leading into Arizona's opener against Northern Arizona in a three-way battle for the starting QB spot. Though lacking in Division I experience, Scroggins appears to be the signal-caller with the most polished game, if he's able to get into one.
2. Nate Phillips, Fr., WR/KR
No part of Arizona's roster was more depleted from its 2012 version than the receiving corps, as five of the top eight pass-catchers are no longer around. The top returning receiver: running back Ka'Deem Carey, who had 36 catches, mostly of the swing-pass variety.
Enter Phillips, a tiny (5'7", 177 lbs) but speedy freshman who should see plenty of time in the slot, especially when Arizona goes three- or four-wide at receiver. Phillips is also penciled in as the Wildcats' go-to kick and punt returner, so his chances to make an early impact will be plenty. Though unheralded out of high school, if he puts up any respectable numbers, he'll be considered one of those in-state steals that Rich Rodriguez was able to pull out of Arizona State's backyard in Chandler.
3. Steven Gurrola, Jr., C
Arizona's offensive line is mostly intact from last season, but a big hole needed to be filled at the center position with the departure of Kyle Quinn. Gurrola excelled in that role at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College, where he earned junior college All-American honors in 2012.
He has the inside track to claim the starting center spot this year, and if so he will play a key role in helping along whichever of the Wildcats' stable of quarterbacks is getting his snaps.
4. Scooby Wright, Fr., LB
Arizona's 3-3-5 defensive formation puts a lot of pressure on its linebackers to keep the middle of the field covered, a job that seniors Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers did admirably last year in what was ultimately a disappointing performance by the defensive unit.
If the defense is going to be any better this year, though, it will need a strong contribution from Wright. He comes in as an all-state selection from Northern California and will be expected to sacrifice every inch and ounce of his 6'1", 235-pound frame to keep Arizona's defense from again looking like a sieve.
5. Jake Smith, Sr., K
To this point, Smith's only real notoriety has been as one of three active college players—along with Arizona teammate Jake Fischer—who are plaintiffs in the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA over the use of players' likenesses in video games and other licensed merchandise.
But Smith's journey to Tucson has gone through more than just a courtroom; he also spent time at Syracuse and Youngstown State before walking on at Arizona in 2012.
Now, with no other experienced kickers on the roster, Smith finds himself the starting kicker who may also see time at punter. And in a league with so much offensive firepower, a few well-placed kicks might be just the tipping point Arizona needs to make a run at the Pac-12 South title.