Arizona Football: Biggest Surprises for Wildcats Through Week 3

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2013

Arizona Football: Biggest Surprises for Wildcats Through Week 3

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    Arizona is 3-0 for the second straight year under coach Rich Rodriguez. No surprise, really, considering the Wildcats had by far the easiest nonconference slate of any Pac-12 team.

    What has been a surprise, though, has been the way Arizona has rolled to its 3-0 mark. So far this isn't the same team that played "first to 50 wins" football en route to an 8-5 record in 2012.

    Click forward to see what some of the biggest surprises—both good and bad—have been for the Wildcats heading into their pre-conference slate bye week.

The Defense Is Much Improved

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    Arizona allowed more than 35 points per game in 2012, and in Pac-12 games, the Wildcats yielded 40 on average. So far this season the defense has allowed just three touchdowns and two field goals.

    It's pretty much the same players as last year, so why the improvement? Some credit goes to added experience for guys like linebackers Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers, safety Jared Tevis and cornerback Tra'Mayne Bondurant, each of whom started at least 10 of those high-scoring shootouts from '12.

    But even more so, another year of working against Arizona's offense in practice has made the defensive unit more adept at spotting patterns in the wide-open offenses that have been commonplace in the Pac-12 and are becoming more prevalent across FBS.

    As a result, Arizona's defenders are not just trying to slow down opponents, they're actually making stops. The Wildcats have registered eight takeaways and five sacks so far, with Bondurant tied for the FBS lead in interceptions with three.

    Whether this trend will continue come Pac-12 play, though, remains to be seen. Five of Arizona's nine conference games are against teams currently ranked in the top 30 in total offense, including its next foe, fourth-rated Washington.

B.J. Denker's Legs Are More Than Compensating for His Arm—So Far

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    Despite what was described as a quarterback competition during training camp, the starting slot was Denker's to lose. It was no surprise that he'd get the call thanks to his experience with RichRod's system, having started a game in 2012 when Matt Scott was recovering from a concussion.

    The left-handed Denker was known as a run-first passer—hence his Twitter handle, @VanillaV1ck7—but the level at which the senior has been able to move around, both laterally and vertically, has been the most pleasant offensive surprise for the Wildcats to this point.

    Denker has rushed for 224 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns in three games, and his scores aren't just of the simple 1-yard-dive variety. Twice he's read the downfield coverage and, after assessing no one was open, has taken off with amazing speed for scoring runs of at least 30 yards each game.

    The running has, at least to this point, lessened the significance of Denker's subpar passing performance. He's thrown for just 326 yards in three games, and his .556 completion percentage is far below what one would expect from a RichRod quarterback.

Ka'Deem Carey Has Shaken off His Offseason Issues

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    Carey got into legal trouble during the offseason, tarnishing the glow of being the NCAA rushing leader from 2012 and causing many to question whether his maturity could match his physical skills.

    The junior was suspended for Arizona's season opener, then he was held out of the first quarter of its second game after senior Daniel Jenkins earned the start thanks to his stellar performance in the Week 1 win over Northern Arizona.

    So, some rust might have been expected the first time Carey touched the ball this year, right? Carey instead took his first handoff 58 yards for a touchdown against UNLV, added another one that game and then scored twice more in Arizona's most recent win, a 38-13 pounding of UTSA.

    His 149.5 yards-per-game average would rank him sixth in FBS right now, but for some reason the NCAA doesn't list him among its rushing leaders.

    Carey is likely turning pro after this season, so his motivation to put up big numbers is understandable. But maybe the most impressive thing about his game is the tenacity at which he executes every rush, never stopping his legs or looking the least bit stagnant. This prompted RichRod to declare Saturday night that "Ka’Deem Carey may run hungrier than any running back in college football," according to the Arizona Daily Star's Daniel Berk.

The Wildcats Have Avoided Any Significant Injuries

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    There have been bumps and bruises, limps and hobbles. Even a few trips by the training staff out onto the turf. But all in all, Arizona has gone virtually unscathed in the injury department through three games.

    (This is probably a jinx, now; so it goes, right?)

    Arizona's media relations staff releases an injury report two days prior to each game, and it's said the same thing every time: no probables, no questionables, no doubtfuls. Four players were listed as out entering the first game, and remain so, but no in-game injuries have resulted in any significant playing time.

    The lone exception might be junior right tackle Fabbians Ebbele, who had to be helped off the field during the first half of last weekend's win over UTSA with an apparent leg injury. He returned to play after missing a series, but then sat out the rest of the game.

    Any other injuries that might have occurred in the most recent game will have the added time of Arizona's first bye week to heal. The Wildcats don't play again until Sept. 28.

A Future Star Might Have Been Discovered in WR Samajie Grant

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    As noted previously, Arizona's air attack has been low-flying to this point, both because of Denker's somewhat inaccurate arm and an overall lack of experience from the wide receiving corps.

    But early in Saturday's win over UTSA a fresh face stepped up for the Wildcats: true freshman Samajie Grant.

    Grant entered the game with just one career reception, but on Arizona's first drive alone he had four catches for 46 yards, including a 13-yard TD pass where Grant recognized Denker's scramble to the left and broke off his route to get behind the Roadrunners defense for an easy score.

    That kind of field awareness can go a long way for the Wildcats come Pac-12 play, when just being a running team won't cut it.