When the Arizona Wildcats took the field for their season opener against NAU, Matt Scott was thousands of miles away, Austin Hill was in a knee brace on the sideline, and Ka’Deem Carey was in street clothes, serving a one-game suspension.
Nobody knew how things were going to go.
And while things never quite clicked like they did in 2012, when the Wildcats averaged 526.2 yards per game and scored 38.2 points a contest, the UA offense thrived under coach Rich Rodriguez’s up-tempo, spread style.
The Wildcats ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in total offense with 458.5 yards per game and 33.5 points per game, good for sixth-best in the league.
This all came after a fall camp that left Rodriguez concerned and underwhelmed with the group.
“I’m concerned with everything on offense,” an annoyed Rodriguez said after a mid-August practice at Fort Huachuca. “I guarantee you I could get 10 guys off the post here that could block better than we are blocking. Easy. I could do that tomorrow. Maybe tonight.”
That frustration turned into satisfaction with his group that more than held its own.
Here’s a position-by-position look at the Wildcats’ offense, how it fared, and who plans to return next season.
Who’s leaving: B.J. Denker
Who’s expected back: Connor Brewer (transfer), Nick Isham, Jesse Scroggins and Anu Solomon
Who’s coming: Brandon Dawkins and Jerrard Randall
The big number: 266.5. Denker averaged 266.5 yards of total offense per game. The senior threw for 193.5 yards per game and rushed for 73. He rushed for more than 100 yards in a game twice during the season.
The lowdown: Denker came close to losing his grip on the starting job after a shaky performance at Washington but recovered a week later at USC and never looked back. In the end, the Torrance, Calif., native threw for 2,516 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions and added 949 yards and 13 TDs on the ground.
Brewer and Solomon seem to be the leading candidates to replace Denker next season, but Randall and even Scroggins should get a chance as well in spring drills. Brewer was a four-star recruit out of high school and transferred to Arizona after redshirting a season at Texas. Solomon redshirted his first season in Tucson and is now ready to compete for the starting job.
Final grade: B. Denker took a lot of heat from coaches and fans, especially early in the season, but the senior put together an above-average season.
He outplayed Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in a win over the Ducks in November and was the offensive MVP in Arizona’s 42-19 victory over Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl.
Who’s leaving: Kylan Butler and Daniel Jenkins
Up in the air: Carey
Who’s expected back: Jared Baker, Pierre Cormier and Zach Green
Who’s coming: Jonathan Haden and Nick Wilson
The big number: 13. A running back went over 100 yards in all 13 games this season. Jenkins ran for 139 yards in the season-opener against NAU and Carey, who was suspended for the NAU game, rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the next 12.
The lowdown: Carey was named a consensus first-team All-American for the second straight year and rushed for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. The Canyon del Oro High School grad now faces the decision whether to return for his senior season or declare for the May NFL draft. He has to make the call by Jan. 15.
If the running back returns, there will be no doubt who the starter will be. If he declares for the draft, the competition for the starting job will be wide open. Cormier and Green both redshirted this season and would get a serious look in spring drills. Wilson is a four-star recruit with serious potential, but he won’t be here until the summer.
Final grade: A. Carey’s 1,885 yards this season were more impressive than his nation’s-best 1,929 yards last year with quarterback Scott next to him and Hill at receiver. Carey went over 100 yards in 16 straight games and became the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards and all-purpose yards. An “A” is the best grade we give out and Carey earned his.
Who’s leaving: Terrence Miller
Who’s expected back: Paul Elvira (redshirt), Trevor Ermisch, Clive Georges, Josh Kern (tight end), Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey, Hill, Johnny Jackson, Cayleb Jones (transfer), DaVonte Neal (transfer), Nate Phillips, David Richards and Garic Wharton
Who’s coming: Darrell Cloy (tight end), Kaelin Deboskie, Cameron Denson, Tony Ellison, Jordan Morgan, Jace Whittaker and Trevor Wood (tight end)
The big number: 14: The receivers combined to catch 14 of Denker’s 16 touchdown passes this season. Phillips, a true freshman from Chandler, led the way with seven.
The lowdown: Phillips and Grant, another true freshman, emerged as the Denker’s favorite targets throughout the season. The duo combined for 98 catches, 1,069 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. Griffey started the final four games of the season and should be a primary target next season.
Jones and Neal sat out this season after transferring and worked with the scout team. Both should start next season and be immediate impact contributors to a receivers group that lacked impact guys this year. Hill should also be fully healthy after missing the season recovering from ACL surgery.
Final grade: C. While the freshmen were strong, some of the veterans left a lot to be desired. Richards was hampered by injuries most of the season, and Miller didn’t get going until the second half of the season. Wharton and Jackson were up and down all season. This group really missed Hill and struggled to make plays for Denker and the offense at critical times.
Who’s leaving: Eric Bender-Ramsay and Chris Putton
Who’s expected back: Jacob Alsadek (redshirt), Jacob Arzouman, Mickey Baucus, Beau Boyster, Cayman Bundage, Fabbians Ebbele, Faitele Faafoi, T.D. Gross, Steven Gurrola, Zach Hemmila, Lene Maiava, Trent Spurgeon and Carter Wood
Who’s coming: Layth Friekh, Kaige Lawrence, Jordan Poland and Levi Walton
The big number: 104. The offensive line will bring back 104 career starts next season, led by Baucus (38) and Ebbele (37).
The lowdown: The line paved the way for 5,960 yards of total offense this season, but Rodriguez wasn’t always happy with the group. Several times after games, Rodriguez commented that the group up front was not getting the push it needed against the opposing defensive line. Those comments decreased as the season went on, and the line put together its best performance in the finale against Boston College.
There’s a good chance Maiava could slide into Putton’s spot at right guard, and the other four starters should remain in their current positions. Whichever quarterback becomes the starter will have a deep, experienced line in front of him.
Final grade: B-. Ebbele was inconsistent during the first half of the season and rotated with Maiava at times. By the end, Ebbele locked down the right side, bringing stability to the group. Baucus was strong all season at left tackle and will be the anchor again in 2014. Denker was sacked just 17 times in 13 games in 2013, and the UA averaged 5.3 yards per rush. Both are strong numbers even with the struggles of the line at times.