Know Your Foe: Arizona

Arizona Head Coach Rich Rodriguez

Whether it's quarterback Matt Scott's concussion or the relationship between head coaches Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham, as usual there are no shortage of story lines going into the Arizona State–Arizona match up. To discuss some of those of talking points and more we invited WildcatAuthority.com Publisher Jason Scheer to answer questions from Sparky's Huddle members.

There was certainly a lot of buzz surrounding the hiring of Head Coach Rich Rodriguez. Sitting at 7-4, 4-4 in Pac-12 do you feel that he has met or even exceeded expectations in his first year in Tucson?

Scheer: I think he has absolutely exceeded them and the fan base seems to generally agree. This is a team that is extremely thin on defense and dramatically changed the scheme on both sides of the ball. In addition, Arizona has played a top-ten schedule in terms of difficult, which caused most people to predict a five-win season. Instead, it is entirely possible that Arizona could win nine games this season.

Arizona has competed in every game it has played except for UCLA, which was easily the biggest disappointment of the season. It went on the road and competed against a Stanford team most thought win would easily, beat a solid Oklahoma State and USC team, and almost beat Oregon State as well.

Each coach obviously has his own vision of what will benefit the program. How would you describe Rodriguez in that regard and how will that affect the Arizona program moving forward?

Scheer: Rodriguez has made his vision pretty clear so far. When he first got to Arizona, he let the players know that it was his way or the highway. No offense to Mike Stoops, but Rodriguez has done a much better job of getting the players to buy into what he is saying and then going out and doing it on the field.

When he was first introduced at Arizona, Rodriguez promised a team that will always play hard and also an offense that would move quickly. That is his vision for the future and so far he has taken a big step in starting that progress towards his goal.

Quarterback Matt Scott has obviously been one the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 this year. For being such an unknown in his first three seasons backing up Nick Foles, do you just consider him late bloomer or someone that just lucked into a new offensive system that fully compliments his skills? How would you describe Scott as a signal caller?

Scheer: Scott was actually more impressive than Foles in practice, but the coaching staff went with Foles because it believes that he was more of a gamer. The decision turned to work out just fine, but Scott has not necessarily been a quarterback that was not good enough to start. The fact that he was redshirted and then able to play for a coach that has a system that fits his skills worked out perfectly for Scott.

I would not necessarily say he is a late bloomer, because I think he has always had skills. However, he has gotten better since arriving at Arizona and the system he is playing in now obviously helps. When Scott is able to run, he is most effective, but beyond his skill level, his attitude as a leader and guy that wants to win has been his most impressive attribute.

The play of wide receivers Austin Hill and Dan Buckner has greatly contributed to Scott's success. Can you talk about their play and is this tandem's play just as big of a surprise as Scott is?

Scheer: Austin Hill was described by the previous coaching staff as a receiver that had the potential to be one of the best in the conference. This season, he has proven that they are right. However, nobody really saw this big of a season coming. Hill is easily Arizona's best receiver and there have not been many, if any, teams that have proven it can stop him.

Buckner, on the other hand, was a highly rated player coming out of high school and had high expectations once he transferred from Texas. I don't think his success has been a surprise at all and you can probably find some people that actually thought he would have done better.

Whether that is fair or not is up to you, but Hill and Buckner are pretty different as receivers and have a different story coming up as well.

There has definitely been a lot of speculation about the health of Scott who last week returned from a concussion and was exhibiting symptoms that could imply that he perhaps isn't 100 percent healthy yet. There was also speculation that he played with a concussion a couple of weeks ago before he was eventually sidelined. What if your opinion on this whole matter?

Scheer: can tell you with 100 percent honestly that Scott has the reputation of being a "puker." Now, I do admit that it is a bit questionable that he gets hurt against USC, throws up, and then gets a diagnosed concussion against UCLA. However, the medial team at Arizona ran numerous tests on Scott during the USC game and even throughout the week and he was just fine.

I'm not a doctor and I don't attempt to act like one. If the Arizona medical staff, who is in charge of clearing Scott, says that Scott is fine, then I have to believe it, just as I would any other school.

In a league full of talented running backs, Ka'Deem Carey is still ranked above the rest. What makes him such a gifted ball carrier?

Scheer: It's interesting because Carey is not as fast as a lot of backs out there and there are numerous backs that have a better second gear than him. However, I'm not sure there is a back on the college level that keeps moving like Carey and he is easily one of the strongest players in the country at his position.

The guy reminds you of a NFL back because he is always moving his legs and is almost always able to get an extra yard or two. In addition, Calvin Magee has done a great job of helping Carey improve in finding the holes and being able to cut back through them.

The Arizona defense has struggled all season. Was this expected due to talent level or do you think this group has underperformed?

Scheer: I think this was expected not necessarily because of the talent level, but also because it is an entirely new scheme. Any time you have a completely new scheme, players are going to struggle. It does not help the situation when a transfer linebacker that was among the best in the country in tackles chooses not to play football anymore. Then, Rob Hankins gets injured and Hank Hobson has missed the majority of the season as well. Throw in the Adam Hall injury and all of a sudden you have a thin defense.

At one point against Utah, Arizona had five walk-ons on the field at once. They have earned that time, but it frankly should never happen. Arizona just has zero depth on the defensive side of the ball and it has been hurting it all year.

The defense had some of its players go down against Utah. What is the status of those players and how will their possible absence impact this week's game?

Scheer: We don't find out about injuries until Wednesday and Rodriguez has been very honest about it throughout the season. My guess is if the players are close to healthy, they are going to give it a shot. This is the last game for almost a month and it is a rivalry game as well, so it is going to be hard to keep a guy like Tra'Mayne Bondurant off the field.

It's no secret that there is a history between Rodriguez and Todd Graham and there have been some rocky moments during that time. Graham has downplayed that aspect and its impact on the rivalry. Is Rodriguez doing the same or can you read between the lines that this coaching match up has more charge to it than anyone is publicly admitting?

Scheer: Rodriguez has done a great job of downplaying the relationship between him and Graham. He basically said the only reason the game is personal is because it is a rivalry. We all know that there is likely more to it than that, but Rodriguez has been careful all year to not make any game about him, and he is doing the same this week.

There has not been one coach that really wants to talk about his relationship with Graham and while much of this has to do with how they likely really feel about each other, it is not going to be something that is played out through the media.

Arizona's recruiting class is ranked in the Top 25, but you can argue that this ranking is due more to quantity (26 pledges) than quality (2.73 average star ranking per commit). Do you feel that this is a fair assessment and do you think that settling for seemingly lower caliber recruits this early in the recruiting calendar is a big gamble?

Scheer: Arizona wanted to lock up this class early and fill needs, which is exactly what it has done. It needed a quarterback, so it got one of the best in the country in Anu Solomon. The Wildcats needed linebacker, so it did just that. Rather than wait and miss out on filling needs and struggling at the end, the coaching staff went out and evaluated and found players it likes.

Some may feel that the players Arizona has recruited are not ready to contribute, but the coaching staff obviously feels different. Rodriguez has done well with diamond in the rough type players before and with more success, he will be likely to get more highly ranked players.

Personally, I don't think it is a big gamble because they will be able to redshirt a good portion of the recruits and did a good job of filling needs.

What do you see as the keys for Arizona to win this game?

Scheer: It all starts on the defensive side. Against Utah, Arizona made it a one-dimensional game. It will likely look to do the same on Friday because the defense is then able to better predict what is going to happen. Arizona needs to make sure it tackles in open space and plays well in the gaps.

On offense, establishing the run is the big key. Once Arizona establishes Carey, the offense opens up. Blitzing Arizona has been a mistake for a lot of teams this year because the offensive line often picks it up, which creates huge holes. If Arizona forces ASU to play the run more while staying aggressive, Scott should have success passing.

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