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Rich Rodriguez makes big changes to shake up Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Within a Pac-12 South Division of mostly disappointed teams this winter, Arizona probably suffered the most severe case of the blahs.

While a 7-6 finish and a bowl win is far from a disaster, the Wildcats' 3-6 Pac-12 mark, including a loss to rival Arizona State, placed Arizona in 10th place in the conference, ahead of only Colorado and Oregon State. That demotion came a year after winning the South, earning a Fiesta Bowl berth and enjoying linebacker Scooby Wright III's postseason awards junket that made him the nation's most decorated defensive player.

But Wright was injured almost the entire 2015 season, and the defense yielded 111 points during an 0-2 start to conference play. It was pretty clear by Halloween that nothing special was going to happen in Rich Rodriguez's fourth season. The defense was simply bad, and the scrappiness that distinguished the 2014 squad seemed to be missing.

The worrisome news didn't slow down when the season sputtered out, either.

Wright opted to enter the NFL draft a year early, as did top receiver Cayleb Jones. Rodriguez flirted with the South Carolina opening, then dispatched his entire defensive staff. The recruiting class ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-12, fifth in the South Division.

The number of returning Arizona players who earned at least honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2015? Zero.

Rodriguez enjoys joking that the Wildcats can find common ground like the "Island of Misfit Toys" from the old "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Christmas special. As a coach, he is known for getting more out of his players than their recruiting star rating would suggest was possible. But he also knows college football is a business of shiny things and short attention spans. He fired his defensive staff, including longtime coaching companions Jeff Casteel and Bill Kirelawich, not only because Arizona's defense needed to update schematically but also because it needed more charisma and aggressiveness in recruiting.

It's difficult not to notice the youth of the new hires, led by 38-year-old coordinator Marcel Yates and secondary coaches Jahmile Addae and Donte Williams, both 33 years old.

“The ability to take recruiting to another level was a factor in the hiring," Rodriguez said.

So the most notable aspect of Arizona's offseason is that a no-name team has become pretty darn interesting, and not only because there's been no clarification of the Wildcats' base defensive scheme heading into 2016. Rodriguez, widely regarded as among the finest offensive coaches in the business, is showing no signs of slowing down at 52. He's showing zero signs of being risk-adverse, of fearing change, of being unwilling to make tough decisions that might make his football team better.

While Arizona might enjoy the best weather in all of college football, Rodriguez continues to advocate for an indoor practice facility, mostly because it will help recruiting simply by being something else fancy to point at. That the Wildcats might use it only 10 times a year is not the point.

While some fanbases might turn against a coach who flies across the country to interview for another job, the most popular reaction among Wildcats fans was to let out a sigh of relief when Rodriguez and the Gamecocks didn't connect.

“It’s not like I didn’t tell (athletic director) Greg Byrne I was going to talk to them," Rodriguez said. "I was curious. I think it was educational.”

Rodriguez was his old fiery self during spring practices last week. He encouraged, he barked and berated the offense with a colorful rant when Yates' defense got the best of it. He then gathered his players, took note of the recent controversies at Tennessee and told them there was no place on his team for those who didn't respect women, a message that was likely appreciated by his wife and daughter, who were watching from the stands.

USC and UCLA are going to start the season as South Division favorites almost by default -- when in doubt, go with the LA teams. Yet, as Rodriguez noted himself, Arizona isn't the only team with big questions. With eight teams across the Pac-12 changing quarterbacks, including four in the South, having a two-year returning starter in Anu Solomon -- who has proven more than serviceable when he's healthy -- is something for the Wildcats to feel good about.

No South team will be in the preseason conversation for the third iteration of the College Football Playoff. No South team is expected to be ranked in the preseason top 10, perhaps even the top 15.

Arizona? It likely will be slotted in the South's No. 5 spot, exactly where it finished last season, with Colorado looking poised to potentially -- finally? -- move up. So expectations will be low for Rodriguez in year five.

Maybe that will be a good thing, a cure for the 2015 blahs?

“We’ll be flying way under the radar," Rodriguez said, "and that’s OK."