Solomon, Arizona have plenty to prove this spring

Two-year starter Anu Solomon could face a challenge at quarterback from redshirt sophomore Brandon Dawkins. Casey Sapio/USA TODAY Sports

Since beating arch-rival Arizona State on Nov. 28, 2014 to win the Pac-12's South Division -- widely considered the deepest division in college football at the time -- Arizona is just 7-8. That record includes a 3-7 mark against conference teams.

That's a big reason that coach Rich Rodriguez overhauled his defensive staff this offseason, dispatching a veteran crew led by 55-year-old Jeff Casteel and replacing it with a younger group led by 38-year-old Marcel Yates.

That's a big reason there's some chatter that two-year QB starter Anu Solomon might face a challenge from redshirt sophomore Brandon Dawkins this spring.

After three years of improvement under Rodriguez, the Wildcats took a step back in 2015. It's no secret. It's the lead story in Tucson this spring. The Wildcats can either wilt amid the growing doubt among fans or rally against it. While the chief aim of spring practices, which started Friday but will be off this week, is a focus on fundamentals, the Wildcats will take the field hoping to renew the positive momentum that was lost last year.

“Oh, heck yeah," Solomon said. "We -- myself -- have lots to prove. We were, as you said, Pac-12 South champions. We were held to a high standard last year and we fell down.”

Perception might not completely match reality with Solomon, though. While some might feel his sophomore campaign was a disappointment after a strong showing as a redshirt freshman, the numbers suggest improvement. While his production went down, his efficiency went up -- most notably his yards per attempt rising 1.1 yards (8.1 vs. 7.0 in 2014). He ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in both traditional passing efficiency measures and ESPN.com's QBR metric after ranking 12th and 10th, respectively, in the Pac-12 in 2014.

And he improved while the Wildcats offense battled injury issues, most particularly running back Nick Wilson.

Still, while just about every discussion of what went wrong last year begins and dwells upon the defense, Solomon knows that the offense struggled to find its rhythm throughout the 2015 season.

“We weren’t completing drives," he said. "I wasn’t in command of all things. Everything was not going into place as we wanted it to.”

In 2014, Solomon's numbers fell off late in the season as he battled a variety of nagging injuries. In 2015, those nagging injuries weren't an issues, but something even more worrisome was.

“The only thing that was wrong was the concussions," he said.

Solomon missed two starts -- Stanford and Arizona State, both losses -- and parts of two other games -- UCLA and Utah -- due to concussions. Dawkins' work against Arizona State, which included 305 yards passing, was just good enough for some to wonder if Solomon might be challenged for the starting job. The Wildcats also have true freshman early-enrollee Khalil Tate competing this spring.

Stranger things have happened, but a healthy Solomon has typically been effective, and the Wildcats' offense should again be strong this fall.

Solomon said the offensive line, which is replacing two starters, will be a strength and the corps of receivers remains deep, led by veterans Trey Griffey, Samajie Grant and Nate Phillips. There's also plenty of chatter about tight end Trevor Wood, who missed last season after shoulder surgery.

Said Solomon, “I think he’ll be another Gronk.” That's former Wildcats great and current NFL star and man-about-town Rob Gronkowski.

As for Solomon's focus this spring as he tries to become a three-year starter, it's nothing fancy.

“The simple things. My fundamentals. Timing," he said.

In terms of timing, spring would be a good time for the Wildcats to regain the 2014 mojo that seemingly leaked away last year amid an injury-ravaged season.