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2017 Wildcats Preview: Arizona looking for bounce-back season

In this Oct. 29, 2016, file photo, Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins (13) throws during the first half against Stanford in Tucson. (Rick Scuteri/AP, File)

In this Oct. 29, 2016, file photo, Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins (13) throws during the first half against Stanford in Tucson. (Rick Scuteri/AP, File)

2017 ARIZONA REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE

Sept. 2 Northern Arizona 8 p.m.

Sept. 9 Houston 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 15 at UTEP 7:15 p.m.

Sept. 22 Utah 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 at Colorado TBA

Oct. 14 UCLA TBA

Oct. 21 at California TBA

Oct. 28 Washington St. TBA

Nov. 4 at Southern Cal. TBA

Nov. 11 Oregon St. TBA

Nov. 18 at Oregon TBA

Nov. 25 at Arizona St. TBA

TUCSON — Arizona was in a good place three seasons ago, competing for the Pac-12 South, winning 10 games.

The last two seasons have hurt — literally.

Plagued by more injuries to key skill players than maybe any coach in the country, Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez spent the past two years reaching deep into his depth chart to find someone to play with each week.

Last season, in his mind, it was more than just the injuries.

The players accepted losing a little too easily and that will have to change if the Wildcats want to get back on track.

“I think as a coach, you sit back and say, well, we had injuries and we had this happen,” Rodriguez said. “But it is what it is. We better have a chip on our shoulder so it doesn’t happen again. I would have thought that the attitude was poor, but it needed to be a little bit more competitive. Losing needed to hurt a little bit more.”

It’s been a painful couple of years for the Wildcats.

Injuries, particularly in the offensive backfield, have piled up at Arizona and the losses have come with them. After reaching bowl games in Rodriguez’s first four seasons in the desert, the Wildcats went 3-9 last season and lost eight straight games to match the longest losing streak in 117 years of football.

The projections for Arizona aren’t great — it was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South — but Rodriguez has the pieces to rev up his yard-churning zone read offense with a cache of explosive runners and more athletes on defense.

A few more things to look for from Arizona in 2017:

DAWKINS RETURNS

Quarterback Brandon Dawkins shared time last season with Anu Solomon, but appears to be the clear front-runner to be the starter this season now that Solomon has transferred. Dawkins proved to be a score-every-touch type of runner while battling injuries last season, but was indecisive and often off target as a passer. He has worked hard to be a better pocket passer, which showed in preseason camp. Dawkins has a chance to be a dynamic force if he can avoid injuries this season.

RUN GAME

Arizona took a unique game plan into its rivalry game against Arizona State last season, attempting just three passes. The ploy worked, leading to a 56-35 rout and setting the Wildcats up to run wild this season. In addition to Dawkins, powerful Nick Wilson is healthy after two injury-plagued seasons and sophomore J.J. Taylor is back from a broken ankle after showing flashes of brilliance in four games last season.

PASSING GAME

To make the run game work, the Wildcats will need to find a way to take some of the pressure off through the air. Dawkins and then-freshman Khalil Tate barely completed 50 percent of their passes last season and need to make better decisions through the air this year. Making that task difficult is that Arizona won’t have a lot of experience at receiver now that Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey and Nate Phillips are gone.

GETTING DEFENSIVE

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in Rodriguez’s time in Tucson has been finding ways to stop teams. The Wildcats have been forced to try outscoring teams because of defensive deficiencies and were among the worst FBS teams in scoring and total defense last season. Arizona has added some athleticism and should be better in its second season under defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, but there are still question marks.

KEY GAMES

Arizona opens at home against Northern Arizona on Sept. 2, but has a potentially tough game after that against Houston. The Wildcats open the Pac-12 at home against Utah on Sept. 22 and have tough road games against Southern California on Nov. 4 and Oregon on Nov. 18. Arizona closes at rival Arizona State on Nov. 25.

PREDICTION

Get a little more out of the passing game and find a way to at least slow opposing offenses, the Wildcats may not be as bad as their predicted finish in the Pac-12 South.