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April 12, 2014
Wildcats set to close camp with spring game
After 15 practices and a number of questions about the various open competitions, Arizona will show its fans just how much progress has been made in Saturday's annual spring game.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Arizona Stadium. Admission is free. The festivities also will include an alumni flag football game at 11:15 a.m., and "hard edge" fan challenges - including a chance to out-throw a current UA quarterback for $250 and 10 contestants will be selected at noon for a 50-yard field goal competition for $500.
Gates 1 and 2 open at 11 a.m.
"What the heck, let's have some fun Saturday," said Wildcats third-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, who expects to run off approximately 70 plays. "I have an ulterior motive, really. If there's a guy out there kicking 50-yard field goals as a student, I need to get him on the team. And if there's a quarterback who can throw it farther than my quarterbacks, I need to look at him too."
A random fan also will be selected by Rodriguez to call a play.
"If they call it and it works, they still can't have my job," he added. "I'm not giving that up."
Arizona returns 20 players who started at various points in 2013 and 46 letterwinners overall. But thousands of eyes will be drawn to a pair of positions that will have new starters in 2014. Who those players will be, however, is anyone's guess.
The Wildcats have a five-man competition for the starting quarterback job last occupied by B.J. Denker. Four of the five - minus JUCO transfer Jerrard Randall - were on last season's roster and find themselves at various points in their respective collegiate careers.
Jesse Scroggins, who made his debut at last year's spring game, is a fifth-year senior looking at his final chance to be a Division I quarterback. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, a four-star recruit coming out of high school in 2013, is looking to begin his journey.
Then, there is redshirt sophomore Connor Brewer, who sat out last season after transferring from Texas, and the longest-tenured signal caller on the roster and lone option with Division I starting experience, fourth-year junior Nick Isham.
"We're looking for someone that has some consistency, tries to make smart, sound decisions," UA quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said. "Get the football where it needs to be, in the right place, at the right time, and basically take care of the football, in the process."
In the backfield, the challenge is perhaps more daunting, but one that Rodriguez knows is impossible to conquer. For the first time in three years, Ka'Deem Carey, last year's Pac-12 Conference player of the year. will not be handling the handoffs.
Among those unavailable will be fourth-year junior Jared Baker, who is working his way back from a torn ACL and will not be available until fall camp. Also expected to sit out is early-enrollee freshman Jonathan Haden, who's dealing with transcript issues with the NCAA clearinghouse, much to Rodriguez's puzzled dismay.
"It's like quarterback, it's a very fluid situation," Rodriguez said.
"It's wide open. That's as open as any position we have."
A position not short on capable bodies or competition is wide receiver - even without the services of last year's leading receiver Nate Phillips, who will be dressed but is not expected to do much, Rodriguez said.
On the field will be a host of size and speed, headlined by the return of fifth-year senior Austin Hill, who is fully healed after tearing his ACL prior to last year's spring game but will not have a heavy workload either. Joining him will be a rotation that could go eight to nine players deep, receivers coach Tony Dews said.
The skillset of some of the faster receivers could allow for some creative opportunities in the running game, as well.
"I think they've been around us long enough to know that we don't care who you are, where you're from, what your last name is, who gives money to the booster club," Dews said. "The best guys are going to play. With this offense, there's enough plays to go around.
"A couple guys add a dimension of explosiveness we didn't always have."
The protection up front for the Wildcats is the closest thing to complete. Depth is the bigger concern. UA returns four of its five starters and redshirt freshman Jacob Alsadek is making an early case at one of the guard spots.
The Wildcats lost four senior starters from last year's unit, which ranked 63rd in the country in total defense in 2013.
The most returning experience is in the secondary, which is looking to replace cornerback Shaquille Richardson. The group of safeties remains intact, along with key contributor William Parks, who Rodriguez said is essentially like a fourth starter. The starter opposite cornerback Jonathan McKnight is still to be determined in a battle that includes Devin Holiday, who contributed as a true freshman last season.
"We just have a lot of experience and a lot of depth back there," fifth-year senior free safety Jourdon Grandon said. "I just feel like we'll be the strength of our D this year."
The linebackers are dominated by youth, but promise. Scooby Wright, a Pac-12 honorable mention selection as a freshman, is the lone returning starter. But in the mix alongside him have been fellow sophomores DeAndre' Miller and Jake Matthews and junior Keoni Bush-Loo, among others.
New to the group is JUCO transfer Antonio Smothers.
"They'll be competing for it," Rodriguez said of Miller and Matthews.
"Antonio's really gotten better. He's a physical presence and could probably help us as a pass rusher, too."
The three-man line presents the biggest question mark on defense, despite the presence of senior bookends Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato.
"There will be some young guys probably competing there," Rodriguez said.
Aside from field goals, don't expect to see much action in this department.
The options in the return game include Neal and Johnson, the fastest player on the team.