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Originally published August 17, 2012 at 8:03 PM | Page modified August 18, 2012 at 3:40 PM

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Rich Rodriguez won't find getting Arizona to next level easy

Arizona's new coach Rich Rodriguez is picking up the pace, to try to turn around Wildcats.

Seattle Times college football reporter

Arizona at a glance

Last year: 4-8 (2-7 in Pac-12).

Coach: Rich Rodriguez (first year at Arizona).

Leading lights: QB Matt Scott, LB Jake Fischer, S Tra'Mayne Bondurant.

Key stat: Wildcats are without their 2011 leader in passing, rushing, receiving, sacks and tackles.

The schedule: Home date with Oregon State on Sept. 29 looms big, because Arizona has road dates at Oregon and Stanford around that game starting the league race.

Bud Withers

About this series

This is the sixth in a 10-part series previewing Pac-12 football teams.

Up next: California

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Between bites of a sandwich recently at Pac-12 football media day in Los Angeles, Arizona's new football coach laid out his agenda in the starkest possible terms.

"I think we've got a lot of guys that like football," said Rich Rodriguez. "I don't know if we've got a lot that love it."

It's that distinction Rodriguez is called upon to parse, two years after he was fired from Michigan, almost one year from when his predecessor at Arizona, Mike Stoops, was dismissed.

"I think you'll see a bunch of guys that play as hard as they can on every snap," said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was said to be a bad fit for Michigan, and maybe an understanding of Arizona football needs nothing more than that, a discussion of "fit."

It's puzzling why it didn't ultimately work for Stoops, who told The Daily Oklahoman recently, "I never felt that stable at Arizona. I hung in there and fought the good fight. Even through our success, I never felt at ease."

Stoops took over the ravaged regime of John Mackovic in 2004, and the Wildcats were competitive almost immediately. There was no Paul Wulff/Washington State-style cratering early in his tenure.

He went .500 in his third year, got Arizona to bowls in years five, six and seven, then the bottom fell out. Arizona lost 10 straight to FBS teams in 2010-11, the volatile Stoops seemed to wear out his team and an athletic director who didn't hire him (Greg Byrne) took the opportunity to make a midseason move last year.

Later, Byrne tapped Rodriguez to get the Wildcats to the next level, which would include somewhere they've never been — a Rose Bowl.

A smorgasbord of statistics from 2011, reflecting many aspects of their makeup, would suggest the next level won't happen overnight for the Wildcats:

• They were last in the league in total defense, allowing 460.5 yards a game.

• Arizona was 11th in rushing offense at 94.5 yards.

• The Wildcats were last in Pac-12 net punting (33.8 yards) and had only 66 yards in returns themselves.

• Arizona had the worst field-goal percentage (10 of 18).

• It had a league-low 10 sacks.

That's a lot of deficit to make up.

Rodriguez began by establishing a new standard for conditioning at Arizona. His spread offense, heavy on the run, favors a pace like Oregon tries to run, and in fact, says linebacker Jake Fischer, "Every (spring) practice felt like we were playing against Oregon.

"A lot of times, the running back (on the previous play) didn't even reach the line of scrimmage, and they're already snapping the ball."

It's Rodriguez's theory that teams experiencing a coaching change likely have lapsed some in conditioning at the end of the season.

"I don't want marathon runners, but at the same time, if there's 170, 180 plays in a game, I want our guys to be able to play them fast on every snap," he says.

The last couple of years of Rodriguez's reign at West Virginia lends a glimpse into what he hopes to do in Tucson. The Mountaineers, amazingly, out-rushed opponents by 5,122 yards over the 2006-07 seasons.

Pat White engineered those offenses, and Rodriguez could have a vague facsimile in 6-foot-3 senior Matt Scott, whom Stoops decided to redshirt last season while Nick Foles slung the ball. In his five starts of 2009-10, Scott rushed for 444 yards.

"I put up big numbers (in high school in a similar offense), and I'm ready to do the same here," Scott says. "It's a dream come true, I guess you could say."

"Best decision that coaching staff made," Rodriguez said lightly, "redshirting Matt Scott."

On defense, the Wildcats will run the 3-3-5 alignment of Jeff Casteel, who spent more than a decade at West Virginia, including all of Rodriguez's time there.

Some 16 starters are back. If he hasn't already, Rodriguez plans to find out how many of them love football.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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