We have addressed the notion that the Arizona Wildcats’ non-conference schedule hasn’t been conducive to getting answers. Not that we’ll stop trying.
As coach Rich Rodriguez’s team gears up for a two-week prep for the Pac-12 opener at Washington, here are three things we think we’ve learned:
1. It’s B.J. Denker’s time
RichRod had pushed for a quarterback competition, needed one, but the battle fizzled in fall camp.
It’s not like he could choose among multiple candidates who gave him a great chance to win; a legit challenger simply never emerged to knock B.J. Denker off his tenuous No. 1 perch.
Denker wasn’t great in August, and “adequate” will have to do for the performance of the passing attack through three games (and we’re including the inexperienced receivers here, too). Mostly, he understands the zone-read offense and hasn’t thrown an interception in 55 pass attempts.
And he has touchdown runs of 30, 35 and 35 yards.
So, there’s that.
Rodriguez, after saying for several months that he was open to all manner of quarterback time-shares, has shown no inclination to have a quick hook. Deal with it: Unless he goes on a turnover binge, Arizona is going to live and die with Denker.
This might be something like how some felt about UA point guard Mark Lyons last season. Perhaps you didn’t always love everything he did, but he was by far the best option, and the Cats were lucky to have him.
Rodriguez’s track record suggests he gets the benefits of the doubt when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks. His actions through three games suggests he has evaluated redshirt freshman Javelle Allen, junior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Nick Isham and true freshman Anu Solomon … and they aren’t particularly close to Denker right now.
“I felt like it has always been my team, whether I’m the starter or not,” Denker said.
“That’s the mindset you have to have — you have to be the leader on the team. That kind of comes with the position. I’m not playing every game to see if I’m going to stay the starter. Obviously, my play is getting better, which is what has to happen with every game through the season.”
2. Ka’Deem Carey is going to have a hard time winning the Pac-12 rushing title
The junior is one tough rascal to bring down, but defenses are going to be relentless in trying to stop him. UTSA didn’t allow Carey much wiggle room at all, although he still carved out 128 yards on 27 carries.
“Ka’Deem Carey may run hungrier than any back in college football, and there are a lot of good ones,” Rodriguez said.
Carey, the nation’s leader rusher last season, is averaging 149.5 yards through two games after missing the opener because of suspension. He won’t start showing up in the NCAA stats until after the Washington game, when he’ll qualify by playing in 75 percent of his team’s games.
The game in Seattle will be the best running back matchup of that weekend. The Huskies’ Bishop Sankey is the current NCAA rushing leader at 184.5 yards per game.
In Sankey’s favor is that he has what Carey does not this season — an offense with multiple top-notch weapons (like Arizona had last year).
Sankey, quarterback Keith Price, receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins form one of the best offensive skill combinations in the country. Opponents can’t gang up on Sankey like they will try to do to Carey.
3. The defense could be sneaky good
So far, so good. Arizona is third nationally in scoring defense at 8.7 points per game a year after ranking 102nd, allowing 35.3 points per game.
Yes, all the toughest competition is still to come, but there are encouraging signs — the six interceptions, the improved depth, a unit that is flying around with greater purpose and confidence in the second season of coordinator Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 scheme.
Bandit safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant has been the big-play star, with three interceptions, three tackles for loss and six pass break-ups.
The Cats are tied for fourth nationally in turnover margin at plus-2 per game (eight takeaways and two giveaways).
“For us to win games in our league, we have to create some turnovers and then offensively take care of the ball,” Rodriguez said.
What shouldn’t go unnoticed is the contribution of senior nose guard Tevin Hood, the team’s 300-pounder in the middle of the line. Arizona doesn’t have anyone else defensively who approximates his size, making his emergence into a full-starter invaluable.
Hood has 10 tackles, including two for loss, and a forced fumble.
“Hoodie has done a good job for us,” Casteel said. “In any odd-front defense, you better have a good player in the middle.
“He has a better understanding (this season) of what we need out of a nose guard. He’s a little stronger. He really worked his tail off over the winter, spring and summer to be ready to play. I think that has helped his game.”