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Arizona football notes: All coaching hands on deck for special teams

Rich Rodriguez

Rich Rodriguez wears many hats as a head coach, including being involved in special teams. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

The Arizona Wildcats finally have a full coaching staff, but nobody carries the official title of special teams coordinator.

That’s because everybody does. In a way.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez, who announced his final four assistants Wednesday, is splitting special teams duties, with the bulk of the responsibility going to defensive backs coach Tony Gibson and tight ends coach Spencer Leftwich.

Gibson will be in charge of what RichRod calls the defensive special teams — punt block/return, kickoffs and extra point block. Leftwich will handle the “offensive” special teams — the punt team, kick returns and place-kicking.

“But, really, all the coaches are involved in some respect,” Rodriguez said. “I’m involved in every special team.”

The special team units were a cause of much consternation in the past two seasons, but the Wildcats seem to have the personnel to be more stable in that area.

Kyle Dugandzic returns after averaging 46.0 yards per punt in his first season after transferring from junior college. John Bonano solved the place-kicking woes at midseason, making 8 of 12 field goals with a long of 47. He took the drama out of extra point attempts, making all 24 of his tries after the Cats missed five in the first six games.

The new coaching staff will have to evaluate the return game, which could include cornerback Jonathan McKnight. Not only was he the team’s best cover man in fall camp, he was slated to be the primary punt returner before suffering an ACL injury in late August. The team’s top kick returners, including sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey, are back.

More good news: The 2010 starting long-snapper, Chase Gorham, is back with the team. He left early in 2011 camp for what were described as personal reasons.

Arizona vs. Kansas

Gibson, who was the only defensive assistant on staff until Wednesday, was the lead recruiter on Akron transfer linebacker Brian Wagner, who has one season of eligibility left as a graduate student.

“It got down to between us and Kansas,” Gibson said. “And then Kansas thing we were fighting because his old coaching staff was there.”

Former Akron coach Rob Ianello — an ex-UA assistant who was fired after two seasons with the Zips — landed at Kansas to work with new head coach Charlie Weis. Ianello coached under Weis at Notre Dame.

But Wagner chose the Cats and enrolled for the start of classes Wednesday.

Wagner, who will be the nation’s leading returning tackler, is exactly what the kind of experienced playmaker needed at linebacker, where Arizona has a mere four scholarship players. Wagner could end up at any of the three linebacker spots.

“A guy like him can do a lot of things for us,” Gibson said. “Just a good football player. Any time you have a chance to get one of those guys, you jump on it. It was a good fit for both of us.”

Mark your calendar

Arizona’s first spring game under Rodriguez is set for Saturday, April 14.

After 15 practices with new schemes on offense and defense, it might not look pretty — but spring games rarely do, anyway.

“This is going to be an important spring because we’re teaching so much, from a fundamentals standpoint, a technique standpoint, a scheme standpoint,” Rodriguez said.

“The big difference in this spring from future springs is there is going to be more evaluation going on from us as there is teaching. That’s a fine balance. In the future, we won’t have to do as much evaluation.”

Go Big Blue?

Rodriguez was watching with mixed emotions as his old team, Michigan, beat Virginia Tech 23-20 in the Sugar Bowl.

The Wolverines finished 11-2 under first-year coach Brady Hoke – the kind of season Rodriguez thinks he could have produced, had he been retained after his third season. He was 15-22 at Michigan, although he has said he was building up to the kind of big year the Wolverines had in 2011.

“It was frustrating to watch a team you thought you would be coaching, and you knew they were going to have success, and you don’t get to coach them as they become older and they become mature,” Rodriguez said.

“That part of it is frustrating. But you’re happy to see your kids have smiles on their faces. It’s like your own kids at home. You want your kids to be happy.”

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