Arizona Wildcats football: Most important player, breakout star, newcomers to watch

By Anthony Gimino, The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 18, 2017 at 5:46 PM
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Nobody disputes that this is a crucial season for Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.

Entering his sixth year with the Wildcats -- and with new athletic director Dave Heeke watching -- Rodriguez is trying to reignite the team and the local passion after a 3-9 season that included a 1-8 mark in the Pac-12.

Arizona won 10 games and the Pac-12 South in 2014, but too many misses on the recruiting trail -- and way too many injuries -- eventually dragged the Cats to the basement of the division last season.

There isn't a lot of obvious all-conference talent on this squad, and no clear gotta-have players for the 2018 NFL Draft. But changes on the coaching staff and in recruiting philosophy in the past couple of years have netted ample first- and second-year players who at least look the part of being able to compete in the Pac-12.

"The biggest concern probably is we have some talented guys on both sides that are going to help us that are new," said Rodriguez, who is 36-29 at Arizona but just 19-26 in conference play.

"But you really don't know for sure what's going to happen when the bright lights come up. The only way to get experience is by playing, and we're going to force some of those young guys to get experience early. I'm excited for them but a little nervous as a coach too."

Particular areas in which Rodriguez will have to deploy players with little or no experience are wide receiver and linebacker. Rodriguez said his freshman linebacker group reminds him of the talented 2013 class that included Scooby Wright.

In camp, true freshmen linebackers Tony Fields, Colin Schooler, JB Brown and Anthony Pandy all have made good impressions, working with the first- or second-team units with redshirt freshmen Jacob Calacion and Gavin Robertson, a converted safety.

When senior DeAndre' Miller gets healthy (out of camp with a foot injury), he will be a key player at the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position. Otherwise, at linebacker, it's pretty much all those young guys and junior Brandon Rutt, who has seen a sprinkling of playing time.

"Our blessing is we have a bunch of young guys," said new linebackers coach Scott Boone. "Our curse is we have a bunch of young guys."

Arizona's defense was torched last season for 38.3 points per game, part of the problem being a lack of a pass rush without blitzing. That might still be an issue this season.

But the Wildcats should greatly improve on their 24.8 scoring average of 2016, when injuries and one dismissal took away their top two quarterbacks and top three running backs for significant stretches of the season. Now, Brandon Dawkins is back at quarterback and the trio of Nick Wilson, J.J. Taylor and true freshman Nathan Tilford forms a strong running back combination.

In all, including walk-ons, Rodriguez talks about adding about 50 new players from last season. The hot-seat coach might need to quickly turn youth into progress in 2017 in order to further reap the benefits of his youngsters in 2018.

"I don't think you should bury your head in the sand and kind of pretend it wasn't there," he said of last season. "It was there. You've got to evaluate yourself, your staff, your program, and everything that you're doing so you don't go through it again.

"I think our staff has done a good job of that. Our players have done a phenomenal job of that so far. ... It's kind of a reboot."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER:

QB Brandon Dawkins -- The junior started nine games last season, mostly in place of injured Anu Solomon, and did enough in the offseason to apparently hold off sophomore Khalil Tate. Dawkins' strength had been his running skills -- team-highs with 944 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns last season -- but his 53.8 completion percentage limited the offense. He has worked on tightening his throwing motion, but any improvement in going through his reads won't be evident until games begin. "There is no throw I can't make," Dawkins said. "It's just being able to anticipate a throw and be able to get it there on time to get a completion out of it. ... That's going to be the biggest step for me to take."

BREAKOUT STAR:

RB J.J. Taylor -- He was just beginning to show his incredible cuts and spins last season as a true freshman when he suffered a broken ankle in the fourth game against Washington. He ended up rushing 38 times for 261 yards and two scores. "It's amazing how quick he can cut, how elusive he is," said running back Nick Wilson. Taylor and Wilson, who has battled injuries since rushing for 1,375 yards as a freshman, figure to split the majority of the carries.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH:

LB Tony Fields -- The all-state linebacker from Desert Pines High in Las Vegas enrolled early, which helped him catch the coaches' eyes and get a jump on his classmates at the position. He carried his strong spring practice into fall camp and is likely to start at weak-side linebacker. "I think Tony has a chance to be really good," linebackers coach Scott Boone said. "Tony's biggest strength is how hard he plays, and his biggest weakness is how he tries to make every play. He has to learn that his plays will come to him."

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