School has started. The Arizona Wildcats football team is in regular-season mode, practicing on campus in the late afternoon. The season-opener against NAU looms on Sept. 3.
The Cats got through the “camp” portion of fall in pretty good shape. Backup quarterback Bryson Beirne might miss a couple of games because of a knee sprain; Jourdon Grandon, a redshirt freshman who was competing for the starting nickel back spot, might not be ready for the season because of a knee injury.
The team’s two public scrimmages were — as things often are at this time of the year — uneven and largely uninspiring. It could be an entirely different story when real football begins.
The schedule itself is one of Arizona’s great concerns, with the Wildcats playing top 10 teams Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon in September. Then Arizona has road games vs. USC and Oregon State.
But the Cats can’t do anything about the schedule. Here are three lingering concerns that they can do something about:
1. The offensive line
There’s no way around this.
Coach Mike Stoops said recently he was pleased with the progress of the offensive line — especially the starting five — but there hasn’t been enough of the thing Arizona needs the most: Time.
Someday, this core group of linemen — led by junior center Kyle Quinn, who owns the only career start of the group — will be very good. Whether that day comes during September, at mid-season or sometime in 2012, nobody knows. You can’t rush experience.
Stoops has said the line improved at protecting the passer during camp, but he said after Saturday’s scrimmage that the run blocking needs to come around.
It appears that the starting five is unchanged from spring: redshirt freshman left tackle Mickey Baucus, sophomore left guard Chris Putton, Quinn, junior right guard Trace Biskin and redshirt freshman Fabbians Ebbele.
The backups are even younger still, although the camp move of tight end Jack Baucus to right tackle adds depth, and Stoops singled out true freshman Lene Maiava, from American Samoa, as another promising prospect.
“People say we’re too young,” Quinn said early in camp. “But we’re young, we’re healthy and we have fire. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to compete.”
2. The place-kicking
Stoops says his least favorite topic to talk about is injuries; his second-least favorite subject might be the kicking game.
“The kicking game was sporadic, inconsistent,” Stoops said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “And that’s disappointing. I thought we would be more consistent in our kicking game.”
He thought that because Arizona brought in junior college transfer Jaime Salazar to compete with — or to simply wrest the starting job from — Alex Zendejas. One way or another, the kicking would be better, right?
At this point, who knows?
The inconsistency through practice and scrimmages means neither kicker has claimed the job. Neither has a leg that makes you go, “Wow.”
Salazar made a 37-yard field goal in Saturday’s scrimmage, although the kick was low, reminiscent of some of Zendejas’ efforts. He later missed wide left from 37 but it didn’t officially count because of a penalty. He tried again from 45 yards … and was wide left again.
Zendejas missed badly from 50 — short and way right, drawing boos from the approximately 7,000 in attendance — and made a 37-yarder.
And keep in mind there is a new snapper for place-kicks this season (junior Brian Chacon) and a new holder (punter Kyle Dugandzic), so the whole snap-hold-kick operation is a work in progress.
None of it inspires confidence … and Stoops would be wise to be aggressive in going for it on fourth down in field-goal range.
3. The defensive ends
New starters C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman have earned positive reviews — Parish for his speed off the edge, and Usman for his chiseled physique and explosiveness.
But neither has played much at the Pac-12 level, with Parish sitting out most of last season with a concussion after being moved to fullback and Usman not ineligible until late last year, getting into the final three games.
There is no experience to be found in the backup spots, with junior college transfer Lamar De Rego, redshirt freshman Dan Pettinato and perhaps a pair of true freshman – Reggie Gilbert and Dame Ndiaye. Gilbert mixed in some with the first team in Saturday’s scrimmage, when Usman did not play because of an ankle injury.
These guys have to replace the production of three drafted defensive ends — Brooks Reed (second round), Ricky Elmore (sixth round) and D’Aundre Reed (seventh round).
The pass-rushing skills are one thing; stopping the run with a pair of 245-pound ends is another.
Parish said his explosiveness off the ball helps in stopping the run — “hit them before they hit me,” he said of opposing offensive tackles and tight ends — and then it’s just a matter of leverage.
“Me being 6-2, I’m going to be going against guys who are 6-7, 6-8,” he said. “If I can get up under them and get that leverage, I know I am strong enough and have the capability to stick with him. I just need to have leverage on them, and I’ll be able to do anything.”
Sounds promising. But it’s all just talk until the season begins.