**DJ Boyer begins his annual countdown of the Top 40 teams in College Football. Welcome to the 2014 Fierce 40!!**
#40 Arizona Wildcats
It was a successful campaign for the Wildcats who finished only 4-5 in the Pac 12 but were 8-5 overall culminating with a 42-19 Bowl win on New Years Eve over Boston College. Only two of the five Wilcat losses were by more than seven points, showing they were competitive.
Rich Rodriguez looks as if he is starting to find some comfort in Tucson. After his unsuccessful stint at Michigan following his glorious tenure at West Virginia, we can see this isn't the first time Rodriguez has been to the rodeo. The coaching staff has started to stabilize, a bit more than the personnel Rodriguez has had to work with at quarterback which seems to be a lot of one year starters and then having the player move on.
One thing that has been constant at the quarterback position for Rich Rodriguez is change. Arizona had a pair of one year starters over the last two seasons and the Wildcats look like this will happen again as Jesse Scroggins looks like he will have the reigns in 2014. Scroggins is a 5th year senior who was at conference rival USC. He looks like he has the job won but nothing is quite set in the stone for the Wildcats yet. Anu Soloman is an incoming freshman who will have the opportunity if Scroggins falters, with what appears to be a short leash, to start the season. Scroggins is very athletic and you have to be able to move with the ball in the Arizona offense. The running back spot will be a little more difficult as Ka'Deem Carey left for the NFL after his junior season (although he was draft eligibale after his sophomore season and many thought he would leave at that point). Carey was the first ever Arizona Wildcat to win Offensive Player of the Year for the PAC 12 Conference and his 2,000 yards of offense will be hard to get back. Arizona should come close but they will do it with a stable of runners. Pierre Cormier and Zach Green will lead a quad-headed running back attack that has a nice blend of size and speed. This year will be interesting as the attack will shift from more of a running style to a quick, up-tempo passing style
Best Draft Prospect: N/A
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
This is the strength of the team and it's something we are not accustomed to seeing from the Wildcats. The one true star of the group is Austin Hill, who is back for his senior season after missing 2013. Aside from Hill there isn't a true standout, but collectively this could be the best group of pass catchers in the conference and by far they are the deepest. Samajie Grant and Nate Phillips are both back after freshman seasons where they caught 47 and 51 passes respectivly for eight touchdowns. Phillips looks like he will have a year of tutelage under Hill before ascending to the leader of the group beyond 2014. DaVonte Neal will be joining the group after transfering from Notre Dame and big things are expected from him down the road, Another transfer Cayleb Jones comes from the Texas Longhorns so props to Arizona from taking quality talent from other top programs in Division I. Trevor Wood adds to the inexperience but is talented catching the football as he is penciled in as the starting tight end. The tight end position will see a shift from larger prospects helping in the running game, to younger more athletic tight ends that are built more like h-backs and will assist with the short and quick passing game.
Best Draft Prospect: Austin Hill WR 4th Round 2015.
The Wildcats made their bread and butter with a crafty offenisve line over the last few seasons, don't think it was just Ka'Deem Carey running around with all of the god-given talent in the world. The Wildcats have made the offensive line a focus in their recruiting classes and it has paid huge dividends. Arizona has another strong unit for 2014 and they are led by left tackle Mickey Baucus who is currently projected as a 3rd round pick in the upcoming draft and has a place in our Preseason All-Conference Team standing at an imposing 6'8". What makes Baucus special is he has some size but is not the classic mauler. He has amazing technique and is more of a tactician that can use his size and base when he really needs it. Another important aspect for this line is freshman right guard Jacob Alsadek is currently the starter and the only member of the line that is not a returning starter from 2013. Arizona lacks a little size with the reserves but the experience is there so if Arizona stays healthy they should have one of the top three or four units in the conference.
Best Draft Prospect: Mickey Baucus OT 3rd Round 2015.
The defensive line is going to be a problem for the Wildcats as the depth is not there. The Wildcats did not have a single player register over 5 sacks last year and only had 24 as a team. Reggie Gilbert is the top returning sack man with 4 from last year and he is very good against the run as he was a second Team All-Pac 12 player on our preseason list. Gilbert is far and away the best player on the line, and to contend and get back to a bowl game, the Wildcats are going to need some other players to really step up this season. In running the 3-4, the priority for the defensive linemen is occupying blockers and opening up gaps for linebackers, but even that unit is depleted. Dwight Melvin and Dan Pettinato need to see their stats and production jump from a season ago and both will be first year starters. Aiulua Fanene will be a key reserve as Arizona will have to continue to be stout against the run, if they struggle with their pass rush as expected.
Best Draft Prospect: Reggie Gilbert 7th Round 2015.
The linebackers don't seem to be much of an improvement over the defensive line and that has to be frustrating for Wildcat fans since they run a 3-4 base defense. It just doesn't look like the configuration they run matches the personnel they have on the field. Two starters return and the bright spot has to be Scooby Wright who made an impressive 83 tackles as a freshman last season. Tra'Mayne Bondurant will be moving between the linebacker and secondary, as Arizona will go with five defensive backs when necessary given the bevy of big time arms in the Pac 12. Most of the other linebacker spots may not have clear cut starters and we will see mutiple people playing in the positions. The linebackers look to be in better shape due to the depth on their bench. If Arizona continues to improve on defense like they did last year, this area of the football field could turn into a strength by next season.
Best Draft Prospect: Scooby Wright 6th Round 2017.
The secondary is loaded, maybe not with the NFL talent that jumps out at you but there is a lot of saavy experience and it will be the strongest area on the defense. Jonathan McKnight is not seen as a legitimate prospect right now to be drafted but he would certainly be a draft camp invitee and will get some looks from NFL teams. The safeties Jourdaon Grandon and Jered Tevis are both returning seniors that are smart and Arizona will need to rely on their play recognition skills since top end speed is something that neither possess. Cam Denson was a huge recruit for Arizona and the freshman was one of the most sought after wide receivers in the nation. With the depth the Wildcats possess they are converting Denson to cornerback, and in a year or two he could blossom into a big time recruit for the NFL at the next level. There is some talent in the secondary but they are inexperienced and Arizona will have to be smart with how they incorporate them this season.
Best Draft Prospect: N/A
DaVonte Neal is the real excitment here as the transfer looks like he will be the primary return man on kickoffs and punts. If he has the big play ability Arizona is expecting, he has the chance to change the outlook or outcome in a few contests. The kicking game is solid yet unspectacular with kicker Casey Skowron, who is a wildcard as he is a first year starter and will have a short leash. Punter Drew Riggleman shows good ball placement near the goal line and inside the 20, but he will have to improve his speed in the transfer of getting punts off or he could have a few blocked this season.
Best Draft Prospect: N/A
The schedule is not in the favor of Arizona from a home/road standpoint, with conference powerhouses Oregon and UCLA both road games this season. The good part is that Arizona's tougher games don't seem to be back-to-back so they don't have one of those grueling three-four game stretches that wear down teams. Three of the last four games are at home and this includes Washington and rival Arizona State. If Arizona stays around .500 once again in-conference, a decent bowl bid should be in the cards for the Wildcats.
Mickey Baucus will obviously attract the most attention this season and he looks like a solid 3rd rounder right now. His size makes him very attractive and he could see his value go up a bit to where being a second round selection is not a stretch. It will be important to see how Austin Hill bounces back after missing a season due to injury. The production has always been there with Hill and the attack for Arizona will ensure he is showcased. Expect Hill to try and showcase his blocking ability since there are other capable receivers there. Reggie Gilbert could see himself as a nice late round pick if he can demonstrate he has improved rushing the passer. The secondary has a lot of experience but again we don't see a host of draft picks here, although most certainly there will be players getting camp invites. The draft for future years looks nice in the secondary and at the wide receiver position.