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All in: Seniors help Rich Rodriguez find success in first season at Arizona

Matt Scott

This season wouldn’t have been possible without the play and leadership of Matt Scott. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Soon after Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez, the seniors-to-be filed into his new office, one-by-one, to hear the same message.

Center Kyle Quinn remembers Rodriguez saying something like this:

“This is your team. It’s the seniors’ team. I may not have recruited you guys, and this is your last year, but I want you guys to have the best senior year possible. You’re my guys.”

This is always the worry with a coaching change — the tenuous relationship between the new coach and the old players. The guy with the long-term plan doesn’t always have use for the short-timers. The short-timers tune out the guy with the long-term plan.

“We really bought into his philosophy and his mindset,” Quinn said.

“We were eager to change,” said senior defensive lineman Chris Merrill. “We knew we had to buy in for change to be implemented.”

“It started with us,” added senior fullback/defensive end Taimi Tutogi. “We talked to the guys and said, ‘Look at this guy’s record; he’s done a lot of good things at previous schools.’ The guys followed their leaders.”

Compare that to the situation at Washington State, where first-year coach Mike Leach said last month some of his seniors have an “empty-corpse quality.”

At Arizona, the senior class has helped pulled the Wildcats up from a 4-8 record last season to a 7-4 mark this year heading into Friday night’s regular-season finale against Arizona State.

It’s not that this senior class is supremely deep or talented — there are only five seniors who have started a majority of the games, none on defense. Several seniors are merely deep reserves, but they haven’t poisoned the well while filling small roles.

“I thought it was a good group of guys, but I didn’t know if they could play or not and what their contributions would be on the field,” Rodriguez said of his first impression of the seniors.

“But I loved their attitude. I thought they had a willingness to listen and learn and to lead in the right way. Particularly if you’re a senior and you’re not playing a whole lot, you could go a couple of different ways.

“You could buy into the team concept and help us out that way, or you could kind of go the other way and be a detriment. I think our guys chose to go the right way.”

This was hardly a seamless transition. Rodriguez asked the Wildcats to learn a new scheme on offense, a new scheme on defense, to practice differently — fast-paced all the time — to condition differently and harder than ever in the offseason. What’s more, the coaching staff has a different collective personality than that of the previous staff, another factor that could lead to unease and unhappiness.

“The guys that are here are happy that they stayed. I know it’s the best decision I’ve made,” Tutogi said.

“I’m just happy that Coach RichRod is doing what he is doing. It’s been a 360 (degree) difference from last year. Guys have stepped up. Now I wish I would have redshirted my freshman year. That’s just a product of how Coach RichRod coaches and his philosophy. I like that it’s a family.

“I’m sad, but I’m happy for the younger guys, because that’s what they are going to get for the rest of their career.”

The whole feel-good vibe has been a stark contrast to Rodriguez’s first year at Michigan.

These are some of the things that have been different at Arizona: UA didn’t have a public, anguished coaching search; Rodriguez nailed his introductory press conference; he’s had the full support of the administration; he hasn’t been publicly bad-mouthed by former players; his good ol’ boy personality has played well to the masses; he inherited an experienced senior quarterback … and any grumbling has stayed behind the scenes.

The proof of the buying-in is in the win-loss record and an on-field effort that can’t be called disappointing. Much credit goes to the seniors.

“He asked a lot of us as a group,” Tutogi said.

“It’s been easy when you’ve got a group of guys like the ones you’ve got. We didn’t know what guys were going to think when Coach Rod came in because you have a lot of different opinions with a lot of different coaches. But it started with us.”

Arizona rotates captains on a weekly basis but on Wednesday named captains through the bowl game — Scott, Quinn, Biskin and junior linebacker Jake Fischer, a fourth-year player who is the leader of a defense that does not start a senior.

“A few of the guys have been not just good leaders but great leaders. I think that has really helped us in a year of transition,” Rodriguez said.

“We’ve been fortunate to make steps as a program while the seniors have been all in.”

* * *

Arizona’s 2012 senior class


Player Pos. Comment
Dominique Austin DL Little-used before 2012; out with injury after starting 5 games.
Addison Bachman OL JC transfer stepped in nicley when Quinn was injured this year.
Trace Biskin OG Two-year starter is also one of the team’s smartest players.
John Bonano PK Is 18 of 30 on FGs after taking job at 2011 midseason.
Dan Buckner WR Spent first two years at Texas; has 100 catches at UA.
Lamar De Rego DL JC transfer has had a minimal on-field impact.
Kyle Dugandzic P Two-year starter has a 44.6-yards career average.
Chris Merrill DT Mostly a deep reserve through his career; 13 total tackles.
Willie Mobley DL Ohio State transfer has had modest impact; 17 tackles in 2012.
Greg Nwoko RB Career-ending hip injury after being moved to LB in camp.
Kyle Quinn C A two-year starter and leader of the offensive line.
Drew Robinson TE JC transfer helped in Tutogi’s recent injury absence.
Jaime Salazar PK JC transfer lost starting kicking job early last season.
Matt Scott QB Will he be UA’s first first-team QB of Pac-10 era?
Elliott Taylor RB Walk-on from junior college has helped on special teams.
Taimi Tutogi DE After three years on offense, is helping as a third-down DE.
Christian Upshaw DL Lot of scout team for walk-on from Western New Mexico.
Jowyn Ward DT Saw spot duty (11 tackles) for three years; moved to OG in ’12.
Mark Watley DB Made 27 tackles last season but hasn’t seen field much in 2012.
Shane Zink OL Mature player stepped in to start 7 games this year.

*Note: WR Terrence Miller not listed because it is expected that he will get a medical hardship for this season, able to return as a fifth-year senior in 2013.

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