Arizona Wildcat Football: Midseason Grades for Players and Coaches
Because of a quirk that gave them two byes in a three-week span, the Arizona Wildcats are behind the curve in terms of games played at this point in the season.
Arizona is in the midst of eight consecutive weeks of competition to wrap up the year, beginning with last Thursday's 38-31 loss at USC. The setback dropped the Wildcats to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12 Conference.
While the record itself might be in line with what was expected for the team through five games, the route taken to those results is much more dependent on a closer look at each and every facet of the Wildcats' program.
Click through to see how we grade Arizona's coaching staff and its various position groups at the de facto midpoint of the season.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez spoke a lot during the offseason about wanting to play as fast, if not faster, than the 2012 team that averaged 83.2 plays per game.
However, through five contests the Wildcats are snapping the ball only 73.8 times per game, a decrease that is partly due to the on-field personnel but also a sign that RichRod is more unsure of what he wants to do or, more likely, what he thinks his offense is capable of doing.
Rodriguez has struggled to develop quarterback B.J. Denker into the dual-threat that is needed in his fast-paced offense, and as a result the playbook has seemed rather vanilla to this point.
Defensively, coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 attack is much improved from a year ago, and until the last game the secondary looked like it had shaken off its tendency to get beat. It didn't appear Casteel was willing to adjust his game plan to face USC's pro-style game, and it showed.
Senior B.J. Denker has played about 97 percent of the snaps, only giving way to freshman Javelle Allen toward the end of out-of-hand games. Therefore, this grading is pretty much all about Denker.
The speedy left-handed quarterback has impressed with his legs, especially his ability to accelerate through opposing defenses after getting past the line of scrimmage. However, for all the good he's done on the ground, Denker remains suspect as a passer.
There might have been a turning point in his progress, though, during Arizona's 38-31 loss last week at USC. After throwing for just 445 yards and two touchdowns in the Wildcats' first four games, Denker was 28-of-44 for career highs in yardage (363) and TDs (four).
He found receivers behind the defense several times for big plays, three of which resulted in scores. However, a good number of Denker's best throws came via an odd jump pass/floater approach that is just daring opposing secondaries to time his release in the future.
The above grade is a season assessment, but if Denker can build off his last game, expect a much higher mark at the end of the year.
Junior Ka'Deem Carey has picked up where he left off in 2012, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the games he's played in this season (Carey did not suit up for the opener against Northern Arizona due to a team suspension).
After leading FBS in rushing last year, Carey sits fourth in average yards per game this fall. His 142.3 average is a few yards below his 2012 pace, but he remains a reliable commodity that is almost impossible to bring down for a negative gain.
Ka'Deem Carey did not lose a yard rushing on 21 totes last night, but that's nothing new. Only 3 lost yards on 94 carries this year.— Blair Willis (@BlairWillisUA) October 11, 2013
Though used sparingly the last three games, senior backup Daniel Jenkins has also been impressive, rushing for 263 yards on just 40 carries.
While its pass game has been slow in coming around, the Arizona run attack remains solid, sitting 14th in the country at 262.2 yards per contest.
With quarterback B.J. Denker's accuracy struggles muddying up the data, it's hard to say how much of Arizona's woeful passing numbers (161.6 yards per game, rated 112th out of 126 FBS programs) is the fault of its receivers.
One thing is for sure, though: no pass-catcher has stepped up to be the go-to guy.
There were some glimmers of hope in the loss to USC, as seven different receivers (including RB Ka'Deem Carey) caught a pass, and speedsters Nate Phillips and Garic Wharton were able to sneak behind the secondary for long TD receptions. Senior Terrence Miller also finally stepped out of the shadows to catch six balls after tallying just three in the first four games.
All in all, though, Arizona's receiving and tight end corps have been a collective disappointment if only because of their lack of playmaking and the ability to do more than the norm. With Denker struggling, to see a receiver come to his aid and provide him with some easy targets would be helpful, but that hasn't happened.
Leading rusher Ka'Deem Carey is one of those backs that doesn't always need a hole to get his yardage, but the openings have been there most of the season all the same.
Arizona's line has admirably filled the gaps left from departed contributors, with JUCO transfer Steven Gurrola doing well at center. The Wildcats have been fortunate to not have much of an injury issue with its linemen, though Fabbians Ebbele has missed a little time with leg issues.
The unit has allowed just seven sacks on 143 pass plays, though that stat can partially be attributed to QB B.J. Denker's speed and general elusiveness.
What had appeared to be a strength early in the season (not to mention a vast improvement from 2012) has regressed the past two games in the face of stout rushing attacks.
Washington's Bishop Sankey, the FBS rushing leader, wore down the Wildcat front four via 40 carries, while a quintet of diverse running backs from USC tore through the defensive line to the tune of 259 yards last week.
The personnel rotates between standard run-stopping down linemen and specialty pass-rushers as part of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's SWAT package that comes in on third down. Neither has been particularly strong the last few games, especially on the pass-defense side, as that unit has failed to record a sack in the past two contests.
Linebackers Jake Fischer, Marquis Flowers and Scooby Wright have performed to the level that was expected, which is to say average. They haven't been worked over by opposing offenses, nor have they themselves been too impressive in terms of shutting down the run or stopping the pass. Though still better than 2012, the group is just so-so, which might be the best that can be hoped for.
Wright, a true freshman, has been as good as anticipated since winning the starting SAM linebacker spot out of training camp. He has 34 tackles (19 total), including four for loss.
By far the most improved facet of Arizona's defense from a year ago, the five-man back line was stellar through the first three games of 2013, but has looked quite bad the last two games.
Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Shaq Richardson, Jonathan McKnight, Jourdan Grandon and Jared Tevis have all started every game, and it's almost like they play with a pack mentality: either all good or all bad. While this might be looked at positively in that no particular player can get picked on by an opposing quarterback, as was the case with USC last week it also can mean every one of them becomes a weak link.
Kicker Jake Smith has one missed PAT and is 5-for-8 on field goals, with each miss coming from inside 40 yards. Arizona hasn't had a good kicker since NFL veteran Nick Folk left after the 2006 season, but Smith hasn't been as bad as some kickers since then.
On the punting side, Drew Riggleman hasn't had any of his kicks returned, but that's mostly because they've either been shanked out of bounds or went so short there's been no need for a return. Using the rugby kicking style hasn't been effective for him, but it seems to be the only way he can avoid mis-kicks, so that approach appears to be here to stay.
Arizona's return game has been a non-factor to this point. The Wildcats are averaging only nine yards per return on punts, 18.5 per return on kickoffs and collectively haven't had a return from either longer than 26 yards.