Rich Rodriguez’ offense has always been built on the ground.
Rodriguez was well known during his tenures at West Virginia and Michigan for unleashing a high-octane, read-option rushing attack upon his opponents. Revered as an offensive mastermind, Rodriguez’ objective was clear when he accepted the Arizona job in 2011: score points.
However, Rich-Rod’s first season in Tucson was characterized much differently than his previous stints as a play-caller. For the first time in his career dating back to 1997 at Tulane, a Rodriguez team passed the ball at a rate equal to that which they ran at. Balancing 544 carries against 538 attempted passes, this offense was unlike anything Rodriguez had showcased in the past.
However, the 2013 season has been a regression to the norm for Rodriguez and his Wildcats team. Without the since departed Matt Scott, who helmed the offense at quarterback in 2012, the new-look Arizona offense is on track to throw just 204 passes this season, a 62% decrease from last season’s rate.
Though many factors may play into the situation, including the relative inexperience of senior quarterback B.J. Denker – who had attempted just 37 passes before this season – and Rodriguez’ history in the NCAA, one of the major inhibitors of the Wildcats’ passing game has been the receiving corps.
Though through two games seven different receivers have been on the receiving end of a Denker completion, none have caught more than four, yielding a paltry 17 completions against inferior foes Northern Arizona and UNLV.
The desperation of the receiver situation has been exacerbated by the ongoing ordeal of Notre Dame transfer DaVonte’ Neal. Neal, an Arizona native who transferred back to Tucson from South Bend, has been denied hardship for the second time by the NCAA, who ruled that Neal’s family situation is not dire enough to necessitate hardship. It is likely that because of this Neal will be forced to sit out the remainder of the 2013 season.
Neal played in all 13 games of Notre Dame’s 2012 campaign and would be a welcomed addition to Arizona’s tepid passing offense which ranks 122nd out of 123 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Though Neal’s appeals have been revoked each of the two times he has attempted to be reinstated, he will appeal to the NCAA a third time.
Regardless of Neal’s standing, there may be a future for the Wildcats’ receiving corps starting in 2014. ESPN’s Erik McKinney ranks Arizona’s incoming class of pass catchers to be the best in the Pacific-12. The Wildcats have early commitments from ESPN Top-300 athlete Cameron Denson, as well as from receivers Tony Ellison and Jordan Morgan. Additionally, top tight end prospects Trevor Wood and Darrell Cloy, Jr. are both expected to be headed to Tucson next summer.
That being said, none of this bodes well for the current set of Wildcats receivers. That just means one more year of relying on Rodriguez’ first instinct: the ground game.