Rich Rodriguez makes no excuses for Arizona's 2016 collapse

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez makes it clear shortly after he sits down behind his desk in the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility that he doesn't need underhanded pitches from a reporter to talk about his football team. He knows the score. Or scoreboards.

The Wildcats are 10-15 since winning the Pac-12's South Division in 2014, including a horrific 3-9 finish last year. That season and seeming program downturn annoy no one more than him.

He sees no need to sugarcoat or spin things. When injuries are pointed to -- three different starting quarterbacks, a receiver forced to take over at running back -- he calls it "excuses." The Wildcats nearly beat Washington before losing in overtime in the 2016 conference opener and they stomped rival Arizona State in the season finale, but in between there were seven consecutive losses, some of the humiliating variety.

“It was a terrible year," Rodriguez said. "There’s a lot of reasons why. We can’t hide from why. We’ve got to fix it and move forward."

The chief reason is talent. Arizona lacks it. When the Wildcats walked off the field after pushing the Huskies to the brink in a 35-28 fest of big plays, it was difficult not to see the overall size difference. The Huskies looked like the College Football Playoff team they would become. The Wildcats, whose starting noseguard tipped the scales at 247 pounds, looked like they belonged in the Group of 5.

With 14 returning starters, Arizona could be much improved in 2017 if it stays healthy. But the program's long-term health depends on a recruiting upgrade, something Rodriguez has been talking about for more than a year. That inspired him to overhaul his staff after the 2015 season. It inspired an upgraded recruiting haul in 2017, a class that is expected to produce several starters and contributors. It's also a source of a new emphasis of reaching into the state of Texas, branching out from the West Coast to find players who, to use Rodriguez's term, "love football."

“Part of the problem we had last year was mistakes in recruiting or bad luck in recruiting," he said. "That’s been our priority to fix over the last two years. And it falls on me. I'm responsible for everything in our program. We had simply dipped a little bit in recruiting.”

That dip is most evident on defense, where second-year coordinator Marcel Yates found himself outmanned at all three levels. It was a shock for the former Boise State coordinator to see a Pac-12 unit so inferior to his former team from the Mountain West. Injuries, of course, aggravated things. Scheme could only do so much when guys couldn't get off blocks.

“It was probably my roughest year as a coach in my 16-year career," Yates said.

The Wildcats staff was shaken up again this offseason, but this time the departures were voluntary and touched both sides of the ball. For Yates, however, it was something of a blessing. With new hire Scott Boone taking over the linebackers, Yates is pairing with Jahmile Addae to coach the secondary.

In Yates' 4-2-5, base nickel scheme that incorporates some odd front looks, he feels more comfortable in the cockpit coaching the position he played at Boise State and has been coaching since 2001.

"This defense is based off of the secondary and I’m a secondary guy," Yates said.

A defense that yielded 38 points per game -- 43.7 points in conference games -- is an obvious issue, but it shouldn't be overlooked that the Wildcats finished last in the Pac-12 in scoring with just 24.8 points per game.

While quarterback Brandon Dawkins is officially competing with sophomore Khalil Tate for the starting job, the general feeling is the job is Dawkins' to lose. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior is an outstanding runner -- he was fourth in the Pac-12 with 94.4 yards rushing per game -- but the Wildcats' passing game was feeble in 2016.

“Our throw game is going to be a lot better this season than what it was," Dawkins said.

If that is the case, the pieces are in place for significant improvement on offense, particularly with a veteran line returning and a strong stable of running backs. Dawkins' first major test will be the offseason, when he can lead the team into the film and weight rooms when coaches aren't around.

With a team not laden with dominant athletes, an obsession with detail is going to matter more. That starts with leadership, something that Rodriguez is circling in red ink for the coming offseason.

“Part of the problem is I don’t think I’ve done a good job of fostering leadership," Rodriguez said.

With turnover at both athletic director -- Greg Byrne left for Alabama and was replaced by Dave Heeke -- and school president, Rodriguez no longer reports to the people who hired him in 2012. While it's premature to say he's on the dreaded "hot seat," it is fair to say he won't be long for Tucson with another 3-9 season.

Said Rodriguez, "There’s no use in dwelling on it, but it should never happen again. I won’t let it happen again.”