New uniforms, new artificial turf, new north end zone facility, new quarterback, new season.
Coach Rich Rodriguez’s second year with the Arizona Wildcats kicks off Friday night against NAU with fancier new accessories and hopes that the team can build on last season’s 8-5 record.
Much of that victory total could very well depend on the guy handling the ball every offensive snap, and it would be no surprise if RichRod kicks the tires on three quarterbacks — B.J. Denker, Jesse Scroggins and Javelle Allen — through the early part of the season.
That’s a topic that has been covered thoroughly for the past month, so let’s move on to five other things to watch vs. the Lumberjacks:
1. Blocking and tackling
Rodriguez put his team through less live hitting in fall camp than he has ever done, which is a national trend.
“The colleagues I have talked to have all cut back a little bit in the amount of live hitting they do — the true tackling to the ground,” he said. “I think, more than anything, that’s because of the concussion issues.”
Arizona didn’t have one full scrimmage. The upside is that the Wildcats stayed clear of a significant injury to a key player. The downside is it’s harder to know if the team is truly up to speed on the football basics.
“It makes me a little nervous going into our first game with our blocking and tackling and all that,” Rodriguez said. “We just felt we had to do less from the standpoint of our depth and making sure our guys were healthy going into the first game.”
2. NAU RB Zach Bauman
Speaking of tackling, let’s see what Arizona’s more experienced defense can do in the first game against the Lumberjacks’ Bauman, who is second in school history with 3,676 career rushing yards. He needs 119 to set the school record.
“He runs hard. He’s a tough, physical player,” Rodriguez said.
“He reminds us of our backs a little bit. Some backs you have to really tackle. I mean, you have to wrap up, get your hat on him and get him on the ground. He’s a really good player.”
Arizona allowed 206.15 rushing yards per game last season, ranking 105th among 120 teams in the FBS.
This is Bauman’s second shot at the Cats. Bauman (5-10, 200) carried 27 times for 99 yards in Arizona’s 41-10 victory over NAU in 2011. He also caught four passes for 20 yards in that game.
3. Nate Phillips
The Wildcats have eight true freshmen on the depth chart and could end up playing a few more beyond that. One of the guys at the top of the newcomers list is Nate Phillips from Basha High in Chandler.
Arizona lists Phillips as a co-starter at a slot position and the lead returner for punts and kickoffs.
“I think just an explosive player,” he said when asked about what he brings to the return game. “I don’t think that is necessarily what they lacked, just what they were trying to find.”
Phillips has excelled in the return game since his sophomore year in high school, earning All-Arizona honors from the Arizona Republic last year as a kick returner. Rodriguez calls Phillips a “confident guy” on special teams, and Phillips won’t deny that a little cockiness helps in the return game.
“I mean, on punt return, you’re the man back there, so you do have to have a little bit of that,” he said.
Phillips caught 148 passes for 2,884 yards in his final two seasons of high school but still went under the recruiting radar, rated only as a two-star recruit. He said knowing his assignments — and learning in the offseason from the team’s veteran receivers — helped him catch the coaches’ eyes early in camp.
There’s that, and he set a UA receiver record early in camp by benching 225 pounds 16 times. This was a two-star athlete?
“It kind of drives me,” he said of the low rating, “but I didn’t buy into it that much.”
4. Ka’Deem Carey
Whether he faces some sort of a suspension for offseason misdeeds might remain a mystery right up to the point where he is — or isn’t — on the field for the Wildcats’ first snap. Rodriguez isn’t saying.
Carey is trying to follow up on last season’s national-leading total of 1,929 rushing yards, the fifth-best mark in Pac-12 history. The betting odds put his over-under number at 1,650 this season.
Another number to watch: 1,471. That’s how many rushing yards he needs to pass Trung Canidate (3,824) as the leading rusher in school history.
Carey has had just about the quietest camp possible for a returning consensus All-American running back, as he was made available for interviews just on the school’s media day. We’ll see if his running will be allowed to do his talking Friday night.
The Cats are deep at running back and like their two-back look with Carey and senior Daniel Jenkins.
“With those two in particular, that would be a pretty good set,” Rodriguez said. “Just trying to get the best 11 on the field, and Daniel Jenkins and Ka’Deem are two of our best 11.”
5. Newcomers, newcomers, newcomers
Arizona’s depth chart lists 20 players who have never taken a snap for the Wildcats. Two of those are quarterbacks — Scroggins and Allen, who are listed as co-starters with Denker. And we’ve mentioned Phillips.
As for the rest, here is a top five (plus one) list of anticipated debuts:
1. True freshman LB Scooby Wright. Has impressed the coaches with toughness, instincts. “He’s a true football player,” Rodriguez said.
2. Redshirt freshman WR Clive Georges. Arizona needs his speed on the outside to stretch defenses and make them pay for ganging up on Carey.
3. True freshman WR Samajie Grant. Has impressed early, just like Phillips, and is listed as a co-starter with Georges at a receiving spot.
4. Redshirt freshman DE Kyle Kelley. The Cats need a pure pass rusher. Is he the answer?
5. Senior PK Jake Smith/sophomore P Drew Riggleman. Meet the favorites to be your new kicking specialists.