TUCSON – As junior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles noted Sunday, the Arizona Wildcats can’t do anything about last year’s disappointing 3-9 season “because it already happened.”
But there’s plenty they can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The first step – which happened way before Sunday afternoon, when the Wildcats reported for training camp – involves attitude. Coach Rich Rodriguez wants his players to have the same sense of urgency the team had in 2014, when it shocked the Pac-12 by winning the South Division. It hasn’t been quite the same since.
“If you’re a competitor and they’re keeping score, it’s gotta be really, really important to you,” said Rodriguez, whose team opens camp Monday. “Not that it wasn’t for us. But I think we probably weren’t mad enough about losing at times. This group is going to be ultra-competitive, and I’m going to try to force that issue.”
Rodriguez reiterated many of the themes he emphasized at Pac-12 Media Days earlier in the week – that Arizona needs to regain the edge that might have dulled over the past two seasons. His players seem to have gotten the message.
The four players who met the media Sunday all said last year’s experience – which included an eight-game losing streak – has brought the team closer together. Every player shares a common bond: None wants to finish last again.
“We don’t like how we went out last year,” junior receiver Shun Brown said. “Guys started to get hurt, and heads started to hang.”
“Everybody wants to win,” junior cornerback Jace Whittaker said. “That’s everybody’s thing this year.
“There was a lot of individuality last year, I felt like. Everybody was kind of more about ‘me.’ This year it’s more like, we want to win as a team.”
Flannigan-Fowles expects team chemistry to improve, citing more intermingling among offensive and defensive players in the locker room. He and Brown hang out frequently and often go to breakfast together at Waffle House.
Whittaker said workouts were “10 times harder” this offseason than the previous one, and several players discussed the extra work they put in outside normal business hours.
“Nobody wants that taste in their mouth two years in a row,” Whittaker said. “We didn’t put all this work in this summer to finish in last place.”
The media predicted a second straight last-place finish in the annual poll revealed earlier in the week. The Wildcats don’t mind being underestimated.
“A lot of people (are) sleeping on us right now,” Brown said. “But during the season we’re going to wake them up.”
Newly hired Chuck Cecil won’t be an on-field coach for Arizona, but Rodriguez expects the program to benefit from Cecil’s “expertise” in a personnel role.
Rodriguez said Cecil will do “some administrative stuff” as Arizona’s director of player development/defensive analyst, but mainly he will help the coaches and players do their jobs better.
“He’ll get natural respect,” Rodriguez said. “He’s in the (College Football) Hall of Fame. He was an All-American here. He played in the NFL.
“But I think he’ll get even more respect when they (hear) him talk and work with him. Every athlete wants to be around people (who will) help them get better, both on and off the field.”
Rodriguez said he’s been trying to hire another ex-NFL assistant with coordinator experience to fill a second analyst role but hasn’t been able to because the coach helped train a current walk-on. New NCAA rules prohibit the hiring of “individuals associated with a prospect.”
Rodriguez described the NCAA’s process to change rules as “insane” and “a whole lot worse than what’s going on in Washington, D.C.”
Specifically regarding the restriction on hiring, Rodriguez said: “Any rule that limits the ability to hire people is a bad rule. … I don’t want to repeal anything. Let’s create jobs. Let’s put people to work. ‘Make Coaching Great Again.’ That’s my hat.”
Dawkins is ‘front-runner’
Rodriguez described incumbent Brandon Dawkins as the “front-runner” in the quarterback battle but added that “he’s still going to have to compete” for the job.
That competition will come primarily from returnee Khalil Tate and newcomer Donavan Tate (no relation). Freshmen K’Hari Lane and Rhett Rodriguez also will get reps at the outset of camp.
Rich Rodriguez said he will throw “all the offense at all of them and see what they absorb.” After about a week and a half, he will pare down the competition.
Arizona’s newcomers worked out with coaches for about an hour and 20 minutes Sunday. The 40-plus players had their first names taped to their helmets.
Rodriguez studied Arizona’s training methods from the past two years to see what the program could do differently to avoid injuries. There will be more emphasis on nutrition and hydration.
To try to stay healthy this year, tailback Nick Wilson has hit the weight room harder, done extra conditioning and is practicing yoga. Wilson said he’s beaten many of his personal bests, and yoga has made him more flexible.
Cornerback Jace Whittaker had high praise for fellow corner Lorenzo Burns, saying he put in tons of extra work in the offseason. “He’s hungry,” Whittaker said.
Nothing has changed regarding injured DE-LB DeAndre’ Miller (foot). The hope remains that he’ll be back for Week 1.
Rodriguez left the door slightly open for receiver Devaughn Cooper to return to the program. Cooper left the team earlier this month. Rodriguez believes Arizona has enough receivers regardless.