Rich Rodriguez has landed an impressive recruiting class for Arizona. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)
Tucson, Ariz. — Rich Rodriguez inherited a program in need of a pick-me-up when he arrived at Arizona in 2011.
The roster was thin, the players woefully out of shape. The winning tradition had taken a hit with a disastrous start the previous season. The facilities were close to being on the embarrassing side, some of them hidden from recruits.
Heading into his third round of spring practices, Rodriguez, a former coach at Michigan, has Arizona headed back in the right direction.
Bolstered by a second straight bowl victory and upgraded facilities that are state-of-the-art, not hide-in-the-dark, Rodriguez landed one of the best recruiting classes in the country this year and has kept expectations rising.
“Everything is on the upswing,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like, OK, they’re winning, they have this new facility, the coaching the staff is stable and the chemistry on the team has been good since I got here. Guys can sense that when they’re around us and I think that has helped.”
Arizona has been building toward this since Rodriguez returned to coaching to lead the Wildcats.
Coming off a 4-8 season that led to the firing of coach Mike Stoops, Arizona had a solid first season under Rodriguez in 2012. Despite having to scramble in pulling together an initial recruiting class, Rodriguez led the Wildcats to eight wins, including a regular-season victory over No. 10 USC and a thrilling win over Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl.
Arizona’s roster was still a little thin heading into last season, particularly on defense, yet the Wildcats put together another solid season, winning eight games and rolling over Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl.
Arizona also completed work on a $72 million expansion and renovation of Arizona Stadium that includes ventilated seats in an expansive locker room, a cafeteria and a lounge for the players and even underwater treadmills in the training room.
The combination of winning and no-longer-subpar facilities gave Rodriguez, already a stellar recruiter, the extra boost he needed to land a recruiting class that was rated 28th nationally by Rivals, 29th by Scout.
“Not that facilities are the be-all, end-all, but you’ve got to have something that at least shows a commitment inward from the school standpoint,” Rodriguez said. “And now they can see that. We’re not just talking, hey, we’re committed to football, they can physically see that when they show up to the building, we’re ready to play on the big stage.”
Now Rodriguez is ready to see what all the young talent he has can do.
When the Wildcats start spring practice on March 3, Rodriguez and his staff will be looking closely at two prominent positions: Running back and quarterback.
At running back, the Wildcats will attempt to fill the shoes of Ka’Deem Carey, arguably the nation’s best running back the past two seasons and in the program’s history.
The two-time All American led the nation in rushing in 2012, was second this season with 1,885 yards and leaves Tucson owning or sharing 26 Arizona single-game, season and career records.
Arizona’s top returning rusher is Jared Baker, who rushed for 127 yards on 27 carries but is out for spring drills after tearing his ACL in the regular-season finale against Arizona State.
That leaves the Wildcats with a young group of running backs, including highly touted freshman Nick Wilson, and a rotate-them-in philosophy by Rodriguez instead of the know-who’s-getting-it approach he had with Carey.
“From a production standpoint, it doesn’t matter who you’ve got coming back, that guy was the best in the country in our opinion, so it’s hard to duplicate that,” Rodriguez said. “At the same time, we have some talent and we’re going to be more talented at some other positions to take some pressure off that.”
At quarterback, Arizona will have its third different starter in three years.
Matt Scott was superb in Rodriguez’s quick-snapping offense in 2012 and B.J. Denker did a solid job with it last season.
Rodriguez says he likes to collect quarterbacks and he certainly has in the desert, with up to eight ready to compete for the starting job in spring drills.
Arizona landed a talented transfer when Connor Brewer left Texas for Tucson and the Wildcats also have Anu Solomon, a part of the 2013 recruiting class, and Jesse Scroggins, a former USC recruit.
The Wildcats also have Jerrard Randall from Northeast Mississippi Community College and touted freshman Brandon Dawkins.
“We’re going to have a bunch of them, seven or eight at least, and we’re going to give them all reps,” Rodriguez said. “We take a bunch of quarterbacks, but we don’t take them to take them. We really rep them all so they all get a look. We put them all under stressful situations and see how they come out.”