Arizona Wildcats Football: The State of the Program After 2013 Season
The 2013 season went almost exactly as expected for the Arizona Wildcats, give or take a touchdown or missed tackle here and there.
Arizona finished with a 7-5 record for the second year in a row, and just like last season, it will be playing in a bowl game. The Wildcats are set to face Boston College (7-5) on Dec. 31 in the Advocare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, La.
The Wildcats finished with a 4-5 record in the Pac-12 Conference and were one of nine bowl-eligible teams from the league, which pushed them outside of the conference's seven bowl affiliations into an unaffiliated bowl game. The departure allowed them to escape competing in the New Mexico Bowl for the second straight year.
While the season included a couple of games that got away from Arizona, it also featured a program-defining upset of Oregon that featured Ka'Deem Carey breaking the school's career rushing record.
Arizona has reached a bowl game in each of Rich Rodriguez's first two seasons as coach, and he is the first coach to do so at the school. And though some major holes will need to be filled due to departing players—most notably Carey, a junior who is expected to declare for the NFL draft—enough pieces are in place to expect 2014 to be a promising year.
Based on the depth chart heading into Arizona's regular-season finale (a disappointing 58-21 loss at rival Arizona State), the team is expected to lose at least 10 starters (three offense, five defense, two special teams) to graduation or exhaustion of eligibility. That number doesn't include RB Ka'Deem Carey, a junior who is likely to go pro.
With that in mind, the Wildcats do return a number of key contributors, most notably:
Nate Phillips, Fr., WR
Phillips emerged from a crowd of inexperienced and underachieving pass-catchers to lead the team in receiving yards (503) and touchdowns (seven) on 42 receptions. At 5'7" and 177 pounds, he wasn't highly recruited out of high school and ended up in Tucson almost by accident, but he found a way to make the most of the opportunity.
Cayman Bundage, So., OL
Arizona's offensive line stayed mostly intact this season, playing well as a whole all year. One of the more integral pieces was Bundage, who as left guard was often called on to pull during designed run plays or as a lead blocker when quarterback B.J. Denker rolled left on a passing play.
Scooby Wright, Fr., LB
Wright was impressive from the opening day of training camp, so much so that he was tabbed as the starting strong-side linebacker before he ever took a snap in a college game. He finished with 78 tackles (including 9.5 for loss) and an interception.
Jared Tevis, Jr., DB
Tevis wasn't given a scholarship out of high school; instead, the Tucson-area standout had to walk on at his hometown school and hope to find a way onto the field. He did that in spades, earning a scholarship prior to his sophomore year. As a junior, he led the Wildcats with 55 solo tackles and a team-high three forced fumbles. And that was in only 10 games, as he missed a pair of starts due to injury.
Reggie Gilbert, Jr., DL
In a 3-3-5 defense, the down linemen have extra pressure put on them to force the issue, especially on passing downs when Arizona's linebackers fall back into coverage. Gilbert stepped up big time this year, notching seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Since he will be the only returner on the line, even more will be expected of him next season.
Arizona is ahead of the curve in terms of recruiting for the 2014 season, having secured most of the commitments it'll need to replenish the roster. As of Wednesday, the Wildcats have 27 players committed for next year, with nearly every major need already filled.
Although as many as 10 of Arizona's recruits could vie for starting spots next season, there are a trio of "must-haves" among the commitments:
Cameron Denson, WR/DB/KR
The local star who led Tucson (Ariz.) Salpointe Catholic to the Division II state title—a game that was played in Arizona Stadium—last month, Denson is 6'1" and 170 pounds. Though on the small side for a receiver, his speed and leaping ability will make him an asset whether he's on offense or defense.
Marquis Ware, LB
Ware is 6'2" and 215 pounds, and his highlight tapes indicate he has the perfect makeup to play in the middle of Arizona's 3-3-5 defense. A standout in the Los Angeles area, he is likely to be asked to come right in and start, similar to how the Wildcats inserted freshman Scooby Wright into the lineup from Day 1.
Naijiel Hale, DB
Arizona's five-man secondary is only losing one starter but has the tendency to play as many as eight defensive backs on passing downs. The arrival of Hale will provide added depth to a unit that was burned far too many times on third down or deep routes. He is 5'10" and 175 pounds, but despite his lack of size, he's known as a shutdown corner.
Stars of the Future
DaVonte' Neal, WR
Neal almost ended up at Arizona out of high school, but family pressure caused him to attend Notre Dame. He played as a freshman on the Fighting Irish's 2012 national runner-up team, but after that year, he decided to move closer to his Phoenix-based family.
Neal was unsuccessful in appealing to the NCAA to let him play right away at Arizona, so he instead had to redshirt in 2013. He'll be part of a massively deep talent pool at wide receiver in 2014. Besides holdovers such as Nate Phillips, Trey Griffey and Samajie Grant, the unit will include Austin Hill (who missed all of this season after tearing his ACL in the spring) and incoming 4-star recruit Cameron Denson.
Anu Solomon, QB
Solomon was one of the most prized recruits from Arizona's 2013 class, but the presence of senior B.J. Denker made it possible to redshirt the 6'2" product from Las Vegas. But with Denker graduating, Solomon is likely to be penciled in as the starter heading into spring camp.
He was a dual-threat quarterback at Bishop Gorman High School, which he led to four state titles.
Will Parks, DB
Parks saw time in every game this season, usually as a third-down insert in obvious passing situations. But when starting safety Jared Tevis went down with an injury, Parks stepped right in and played almost as well for the two games that Tevis was out.
The offseason coaching carousel has just gotten started, but as of now it doesn't appear that any of Arizona's coaches will be taking a ride on it.
Head coach Rich Rodriguez received a contract extension after his first season in Tucson and still has four years remaining—not that contracts hold much weight in today's college sports landscape.
And several of the Wildcats' assistants are in the upper half of the Pac-12 Conference's pay scale, including defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. None of them appears to be on the hot seat as far as being removed, either.
A big part of what to expect from Arizona in 2014 will hinge on two things: who will play quarterback and whether Ka'Deem Carey will be back.
Carey, who led FBS in rushing as a sophomore and was named the 2013 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in his junior season, is considered the second-best draft-eligible running back in the 2014 NFL draft, according to CBSSports.com.
If he comes back, Arizona could ease in whoever gets the nod at QB. If not, then whoever starts under center will have more of a load to shoulder, although he'll have a deep and talented receiving corps to work with.
All told, Arizona should have more than half of its starters back for 2014, which is enough of a foundation for coach Rich Rodriguez to feel the program is moving in the right direction. He told the Arizona Daily Star's Daniel Berk: "The foundation that we wanted to build to have a program of championships is there. We have to do our job as coaches and players to take it to the next level."
The Wildcats will have a chance to get off to another fast start before Pac-12 play begins in 2014, as the nonconference schedule (although slightly better than this season) is still on the weak side. Arizona is scheduled to open with UNLV at home and then visit UTSA before hosting Nevada.
The Pac-12 schedule won't be finalized and released until January, although Arizona knows which teams it will face and where. Arizona State, California, Colorado, USC and Washington will come to Tucson, while the Wildcats will travel to Oregon, UCLA, Utah and Washington State.