Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series previewing the Pac-12 football season.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — If nothing else, the Arizona Wildcats have been consistent in two seasons under head coach Rich Rodriguez. They’ve posted back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the Pac-12 South, going 8-5 overall and 4-5 in conference play each time.
Even so, Rodriguez insists the Wildcats are improving.
“I think we’re getting better. Sometimes you’re getting better and it doesn’t show in your record because your opponents have gotten better, too,” he said. “But I think we’re better as a program. We’re better individually talent-wise and I think our guys are up in a system, so to speak.”
Rodriguez noted that two years ago everything was completely foreign to the players, as it is whenever a new staff takes over.
“But they bought in quickly,” he continued. “Now the guys that have to learn our environment and culture are the handful of freshmen or transfers that are new.”
OFFENSE: Arizona is looking for a starting quarterback and a way to replace the statistical impact of career rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey.
“We still have a few things we’ve got to figure out in August camp,” Rodriguez acknowledged.
Finding a quarterback to step in for the graduated B.J. Denker tops the list. Candidates include former signal-callers at LSU (junior Jerrard Randall), Texas (sophomore Connor Brewer) and USC (senior Jesse Scroggins), as well as freshman Anu Solomon.
Four starters return on the offensive line — topped by sizeable senior tackles Mickey Baucus (6-8, 305) and Fabbians Ebbele (6-8, 311). The comeback of senior wide receiver Austin Hill, who missed the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL after he made 81 catches as a junior, could be pivotal.
DEFENSE: The Wildcats certainly know how to patrol the air. They picked off 18 passes last season and returned five interceptions for touchdowns. Four senior starters return to the defensive backfield — Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Jourdon Grandon, Jonathan McKnight and Jared Tevis.
Another senior, defensive end Reggie Gilbert, is the veteran up front. The linebacker corps is led by sophomore standout Scooby Wright (83 tackles).
Rodriguez, though, is searching for another element to add to his defense.
“We don’t have that one scary pass-rusher guy yet,” he said. “We’re still looking for that.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior Drew Riggleman averaged 40.1 yards per punt last season. ... Arizona allowed an average of just 3.3 yards on punt return coverage in 2013. ... Opponents missed 15 field goals against the Wildcats last year, including the final seven in season-ending games against Oregon, Arizona State and Boston College.
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2013 record: 8-5, 4-5 (4th, South)
2014 Pac-12 media poll: 4th, SouthComment on this story
Returning starters: 14 (seven offense, 6 defense, 1 kicker/punter)
Head coach (record): Rich Rodriguez (136-94-2, 16-10 at Arizona)
Aug. 29 — UNLV
Sept. 4 — at UTSA
Sept. 13 — NEVADA
Sept. 20 — CALIFORNIA
Oct. 2 — at Oregon
Oct. 11 — USC
Oct. 25 — at Washington State
Nov. 1 — at UCLA
Nov. 8 — COLORADO
Nov. 15 — WASHINGTON
Nov. 22 — at Utah
Nov. 28 — ARIZONA STATE
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Sunday: North Division