So after three weeks, three scrimmages (two public) and a full fall camp the big question is whether my opinion of the Arizona football team has changed. After the smoke has cleared, the answer is “not really.”
Biggest Concerns BEFORE Camp:
My two biggest concerns before camp were the offensive line and the pass rush. In both cases the Wildcats were not only replacing all of their starters, but doing so with inexperienced players. I said over the summer that if the offensive line and pass rush is good, Arizona can challenge for the Pac-12 South championship. If those did not come through, then it could be a long fall.
Last year I believed the offensive line was a problem. That experience did not equal talent. In the end that proved to be the case, the line was mediocre. This year overall talent is not in question. The group of players that Robert Anae is working with may be the most talented in over a decade. They just lack experience and overall strength.
After watching them for a few weeks I feel a little better about the group, but still caution fans that there will be a lot of growing pains. There will be breakdowns. There will be times they get overmatched. There will also be times they absolutely control the game.
I do believe they will be much better at pass blocking than run blocking, but that has been the case since Dick Tomey left.
As for the pass rush, they have looked good at times, but how good are they really. Two players who have really impressed me in camp are C.J. Parish and freshman Reggie Gilbert. Parish has proven to be a versatile, smart player who the Wildcats can use in a variety of ways. Gilbert is a terrific athlete, who I think will be second team by the start of the season. I see him passing Dan Pettinato, if he hasn’t already.
Muhammed Usman is also a specimen, but how can this group do against experienced linemen who are both athletic and strong? Again, I think this is a group that will have moments of brilliance and periods that completely frustrate Wildcat fans.
I must also add, that if some “talk” is true, then the Wildcat coaching will aid the defensive ends in the pass rush. Some of the things I have heard (and seen) are terrific, but until I see it on game day, I am not 100% convinced that Mike Stoops will leave his comfort zone.
Things I Was Confident About BEFORE Camp
Of course I felt great about Nick Foles and the receiving corps. I feel the same about Foles as I did before, and feel better about the receivers. Tyler Slavin had a great camp. Gino Crump looked like he can help and Juron Criner looks as good as ever.
think Austin Hill is a player, though he is likely a year away from really helping. I wish Terrence Miller had been a little more consistent and I did not see a lot from Garic Wharton, though his best days are also down the line.
Things I Am Worried About AFTER Camp
I am still worried about the offensive line and pass rush, but add kicking game and defensive backs to the list.
None of the Wildcat kickers have really impressed. Alex Zendejas and Jaime Salazar look very similar in terms of leg strength and ability to make kicks. Neither has been bad, but neither has stood out. What we can’t tell from camp is the mental aspect. We know Zendejas has some issues upstairs, especially on extra points, while we have no idea how Salazar will react to real games. Kicking is 50% mental, and it is hard to duplicate the mental aspect in practices.
Punter Kyle Dugandzic has a strong leg, but still lacks consistency. That is troubling with the NAU game about 10 days away. John Bonano is still not impressing with kick offs, though I do like the Cats’ return men.
Overall the defensive backs are solid. The injury to Jourdan Grandon is a concern, as he was clearly in the lead to be the team’s nickel back. Early in camp there were some communication issues and Shaquille Richardson looked to have some issues covering deep, especially when filling in at nickel, but now that he is at corner replacing the injured Jonathan McKnight, he’ll have to correct those issues.
I really like freshman Cortez Johnson, and walk-on Jared Tevis will likely have a scholarship before he graduates.
Overall, the group WILL be better than last year. They are big and athletic, but still young.
Before camp I though this was a team that could win as few as four games and as many as eight. The schedule does them no favors, but I think there is talent there, though it may really start to gel in 2012 and 2013. A safe bet is picking 6-6, but a gut feeling says a winning record is a real possibility.
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