Pac-12 Media Days: A Knack for Mining Hidden Gems Could Be Key for Rich Rodriguez and Arizona

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HOLLYWOOD, California – Two-time All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey leaves a Grand Canyon-sized void in the Arizona Wildcats backfield–and head coach Rich Rodriguez is well aware.

“I don’t have a Ka’Deem,” Rodriguez said Wednesday at Pac-12 media days. “And quarterback–if I had a starter, I’d tell you.”

Oh, by the way: Arizona must also replace its starting quarterback, as it has every offseason since Rodriguez arrived in Tucson before the 2012 season. B.J. Denker was the Wildcats’ second-leading rusher in 2013 with 949 yards and 13 touchdowns. He scored another 16 through the air.

For an offense typically built from the ground, replacing almost 3,000 yards in rushing production is a major undertaking; even for a coach with the offensive credentials of Rodriguez.

But Rodriguez has a proven knack for mining hidden gems, a quality that should ensure Arizona remains one of the most offensively potent teams in the Pac-12. And the question isn’t so much if as who.

Take Denker. A year ago when Rodriguez was fielding similar questions about his vacant starting quarterback position, Denker was mostly an afterthought. The sparsely recruited JUCO transfer backed up Matt Scott in 2012, but USC transfer and 4-star freshman prospect Anu Solomon garnered more offseason attention.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Denker, but by season’s end, his command of Rodriguez’s spread offense was a driving engine powering the Wildcats to an 8-win finish. Denker was also a star of Arizona’s upset of Oregon in the regular season’s penultimate week.

Rodriguez is playing both the quarterback competition–a multiple-man race with no clear frontrunner in sight–and the running back situation close to the chest. He’s more than willing to talk about the receiving corps, however.

“The crew I feel the most confident in is our seven or eight receivers: Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey…Austin Hill coming back, Davonte Neal, Cayleb Jones, David Richards,” Rodriguez rattled off.

Last year, a dearth of experience at receiver and Hill’s ACL tear forced first-year players Phillips and Grant into starring roles. The duo will remain integral to the passing attack, but the influx of transfers and Hill’s return mean defenses will be left guessing.

Meanwhile, everyone is left guessing about the quarterback. Scroggins and Solomon are back in the mix, with transfers Connor Brewer (Texas) and Jerrard Randall (LSU) involved.

No two are alike in their playing style, so at least for Week 1, Rodriguez has a level of gamesmanship he can employ as UNLV tries to game plan. After that, it’s likely Rodriguez remains committed to a clear No. 1.

With the available talent at receiver, Rodriguez could stray from his typical M.O. of playing a quarterback able to rush as (if not more) effectively as he passes.

The receiving corps is that good, said safety Jared Tevis.

“I think they’re one of the best [the Arizona defenders] have ever faced,” Tevis said. In a conference with the prolific passing attacks the Pac-12 is known for, that’s lofty praise.

The ball might be in the air more than normal for a Rich Rodriguez-offense, but he won’t turn into conference counterpart Mike Leach overnight.

Tevis seemed equally confident in the committee of running backs at Arizona as he is in the wide receiving corps.

“It’s hard to fill shoes that big [as Carey’s],” Tevis said. “But we have a ton of guys with talent and potential. We have a transfer from UNLV [Adonis Smith], my buddy Terris Jones[-Grigsby] could be the guy who fills that role.”

There are no shortage of possibilities, and Rodriguez’s track record suggests he’s the guy to find the right fit.