For our weekly Five Questions, Five Answers feature this week, we turned to Arizona beat writer Daniel Berk of the Arizona Daily Star. Some great insight about the Wildcats, and we certainly appreciate Berk for his time. You can find Berk on Twitter @DSBerk and at the Daily Star’s website.
1. On paper, at least, Arizona’s nonconference schedule looks pretty soft. And yet outscoring those three opponents 131-26 is certainly impressive. What’s stood out most in those three games?
It was definitely tough to learn a lot with that nonconference schedule, but there were a few things that stood out. First, the overall depth of the team is much improved from last season. On both sides of the ball last year, guys were playing too many snaps and wearing down in the second half. The coaches have more to choose from this season and that’s shown up. Something else that stood out is Arizona’s lack of big-time talent at the skill positions on offense other than Ka’Deem Carey. Last season, there was Matt Scott, Austin Hill, Dan Buckner and Carey. This year—to this point at least—it’s just Carey and then a lot of parts still trying to prove themselves. Things are going to be very tough on Carey if a couple of other guys don’t step up in Pac-12 play. Finally, I’d say the ability to force turnovers on defense has been something that’s caught my eye. This defense still isn’t the biggest or talented, but it as a few playmakers on the back-end in Tra’Mayne Bondurant and Jourdon Grandon that are capable of making some game-changing plays. That wasn’t there last season in the first year of the new 3-3-5 odd-stack defense that coordinator Jeff Casteel uses.
2. There seemed to be a lot of excitement around Tucson when Rich Rodriguez was brought in. In Year 2 now of the RichRod era, what’s the buzz about him and the program?
There’s still quite a bit of buzz around RichRod and Arizona football at the moment. I think long-term, folks here are really excited about the direction he has the program headed. He would be the first to tell you that he came in at a really good time. They were just breaking ground on their new facility (the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility) and it was just completed in July and is state-of-the-art. They’ve also installed new FieldTurf at Arizona Stadium and remodeled the north end zone to make the stadium much better looking. I do think fans are waiting for him to get that program-changing quarterback like he did at West Virginia with Pat White and Michigan with Denard Robinson. I’m not sure that guy is on the roster right now. But the recruiting here is as good as it’s been in years and they have a really good class coming in next year. He’s also done a great job of entrenching himself in the community. People love him here and he’s very approachable and eager to sell his product to a town that loves its basketball. Now, if the UA struggles a lot in Pac-12 play this season and doesn’t make a bowl game, some of that buzz will certainly go away.
3. It’s easy to focus on Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s rushing king in 2012. But Daniel Jenkins is averaging 6.8 yards per carry, just behind Carey’s 7.0. How good has that rushing duo been?
Daniel Jenkins is a really good No. 2 back, but as long as Ka’Deem Carey stays healthy, he’ll be the main man back there and get the majority of the load. Jenkins had a 91-yard run against NAU in the opener. Take that away and his average drops down to 4.5. Carey’s 7.0 is more legit in my eyes right now. But Jenkins is certainly a nice option to have if Carey needs a breather, gets hurt or runs into any more off-field trouble. The biggest thing to me that stands out about that duo right now is that Carey is even better than he was last year. He’s added about 10 pounds of muscle and has managed to gain some speed as well. RichRod really likes having both of those guys in there together, so don’t be surprised to see Jenkins line up next to Carey some on Saturday or even in the slot as a receiver.
4. And then there’s new starting QB B.J. Denker, the “mystery man” of Pac-12 football. He has five rushing touchdown against two passing touchdowns. How much of a concern is the UA passing game going into Pac-12 play?
It’s a big-time concern right now. The lack of a passing game has—without a doubt—been the No. 1 storyline with this team through three games. Denker has played close to mistake-free football (one fumble) and has made really good decisions, but he hasn’t been able to get anything going downfield in the passing game. Against UNLV it was obvious the coaches were trying to get that downfield passing game going and he was just having trouble hitting the open man, which he admitted to after the game. He won the job because he has the best understanding of the offense and shouldn’t lose you any games with turnovers, but at some point he needs to become a threat with his arm. That said, he is a threat with his legs and has been impressive on the ground through three games. But Arizona knows Washington and every team after will stack the heck out of the box if Denker can’t make some downfield passes to keep defenses honest.
5. Arizona ranked last in the Pac-12 and 122nd in the nation last season in total defense (but, to be fair, the Wildcats defended more plays than all but one team in the nation last year). There’s a lot of experience on that defense now. Is there a sense that this turnaround is legit?
The defense is certainly better than it was last year; how much better remains to be seen. They’re deeper, more comfortable with Casteel’s scheme and have a few freshmen (Scooby Wright, Devin Holiday, Derrick Turituri) that have come in and really improved this unit. They are still very undersized, especially on the defensive line and there’s a concern within the coaching staff that the bigger offensive lines in the Pac-12 will have their way with Arizona’s front. I think the staff will have a good feel on whether the turnaround is legit or not in two or three games. But a guy like Bondurant has played at an all-conference level so far this season and the starting cornerbacks—Shaq Richardson and Jonathan McKnight—are improved from last season. I don’t see the defense turning into one of the best in the Pac, but I also don’t think it will be 122nd again at the end of the season.