UA FOOTBALL

Arizona football: Spring practice key for Cats

Foundation for team's identity, began to form before the summer
2012-10-31T00:00:00Z 2012-10-31T08:10:41Z Arizona football: Spring practice key for CatsRyan Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 31, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The Arizona Wildcats have faced more than their share of adversity this season.

So, what's allowed them to - sorry, Matt Scott - puke and rally?

Quarterbacks coach Rod Smith put it this way:

"We're trying to set a mindset of how we play, how we train, how we live every day. It's a hard edge.

"And what you hope is that the kids carry that and, basically, it breeds among the players so when you recruit guys in here, there's an expectation and a standard that everybody has to live up to. It starts with your mentality."

Players and coaches agree that the foundation was set in the spring. Over the course of 40 days in March and April, the Wildcats installed a read-option offense and 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense. Players got to know their new coaches, and - slowly - familiarized themselves with a frenetic practice pace.

New expectations were set, and the bar was raised. It wasn't always pretty.

First-year coach Rich Rodriguez admitted this week that his spring goal was "to test them a little bit mentally."

"To see, 'Will they respond or will they go into a shell when we're getting on them hard about this or that?'" Rodriguez said. "These guys, they want to get better."

And they seem to be getting better every week.

So far this season, the UA (5-3 overall, 2-3 Pac-12) has upset 18th-ranked Oklahoma State and 10th-ranked USC and has played two of the conference's best teams - Stanford and Oregon State - to within a touchdown.

The Wildcats will travel to No.25 UCLA this weekend, then finish the season with winnable - if not exactly easy - games against Colorado, Utah and Arizona State.

Thanks to Saturday's upset of the Trojans, the Wildcats have a real chance to finish with a winning record - and, maybe, a shot at the Pac-12 South Division title.

During the spring, the Wildcats:

• Ran. Speed and conditioning are the two cornerstones of Arizona's offensive and defensive attacks. Naturally, the Wildcats spent their springs getting in shape. The pace of Rodriguez's practices demanded it: The coach debuted a new 20-period, 100-minute practice schedule and introduced players to a traffic light that dictated whether they should go full-speed, half-speed or stop.

• Developed thick skins. The new coaching staff took a hands-on approach during the spring, a change from former coach Mike Stoops' more lax approach.

Rodriguez was especially hard on his quarterbacks, the trigger-men in the no-huddle offensive. Things were even, um, louder on the other side of the ball; the Wildcats had one of the nation's worst defenses in 2011, and - as if it's possible - had less talent as it prepared for 2012.

"Coach (Jeff) Casteel, he's pretty straight-forward, pretty harsh in his coaching style. We responded to that," nose tackle Tevin Hood said about UA's defensive coordinator. "A lot of people might get down on themselves and get inside their feelings; that's really unneccesary."

• Discovered some depth. Arizona's coaches repped all players for the same amount of time, first team through fourth string, during the spring. It's a good thing: Arizona has leaned on down-the-depth-chart players and walk-ons through this season's first eight games.

The spring was especially good for wide receiver Johnny Jackson, linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson and safety Jared Tevis: All three walk-ons won over their coaches with stellar play. Tevis was awarded a scholarship shortly thereafter.

• Found an identity. Rodriguez began spring drills by painting a navy blue line near the Jimenez Practice Facility's entrance; inside it, he said, players were allowed to only focus on football. The coaching staff has since instituted a pair of phrases - "Hard Edge" and "Spot the Ball" - that emphasize the team's tough image.

It all started in the spring.

"I think it played a major role," Hood said. "If the coach has a hard edge, you have to have a hard edge. Otherwise, you won't make the cut."

On StarNet: Chat with Ryan Finley about college football at noon Thursday at live.azstarnet.com

Up next

• Who: No. 24 Arizona (5-3, 2-3) at No. 25 UCLA (6-2, 3-2)

• When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

• TV: Pac-12 Network

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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