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Arizona Football: Biggest Takeaways from Wildcats' 2015 Spring Game

Fresh off its best season in 16 years, Arizona continues to keep its foot on the gas in the quest to become a regular member of college football's elite. Friday night's spring game was just one step in that direction.

The Wildcats ran 100 plays in a glorified scrimmage, with the offensive squad earning a 96-68 win using a modified scoring system that gave points for scores, big plays and defensive stops.

"I saw some good, I saw some ugly, I saw some bad," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said afterward. "We know what we have, and we also know what we don't have."

Last year produced the program's first Pac-12 title of any sort, winning the South Division, then making its first major bowl appearance since 1994. One year does not make for prolonged success, as Arizona has never had back-to-back seasons with 10 or more victories, but the 26 wins the past three years is the most since 1973-75.

"This was definitely a smooth spring for us," senior safety Will Parks said.

Here's a look at what stood out most during Friday's outing, as well as the spring in general:

 

Solomon's improved decision-making

One of the biggest knocks against quarterback Anu Solomon during his freshman year was in the decision-making department, as he'd often hold the ball too long and take a sack—such as on Arizona's final play in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State—or try to force in a throw instead of throwing it away. Other times, Solomon would get too excited and overthrow an open receiver, resulting in a 58 percent completion rate.

The redshirt sophomore looked far more confident on Friday, getting rid of the ball quickly and showing little hesitation when deciding to run or throw. He finished with 175 yards and two touchdowns on 19-of-25 passing, adding 20 yards on three carries including a 16-yard run on the scrimmage's first snap.

"He was pretty sharp," Rodriguez said of Solomon, who last season tied the school record with 28 TD passes and had the second-most yards (3,793). "There were a couple of times he probably could've been a little more decisive in his throws, but Anu is a smart guy. He's gotten better and, with a great summer, I think he will be even better this fall."

Solomon admits he still has to work on game management and making correct choices—"it's something that I'm struggling with," he said—but through film study and repetition he expects to continue making progress.

"I think it's been night and day for him," senior receiver David Richards said of Solomon. "He's become a leader out there. He's still learning, but I think he knows it really well."

 

Offensive wrinkles

Arizona ranked 26th in total offense last season, averaging 463.6 yards per game, but it was 85th in red-zone efficiency and only scored touchdowns on 33-of-60 possessions. A lack of diversity in the play-calling near the goal line contributed to this, as the Wildcats' short-yardage offense frequently fell short.

There are no shortage of skill-position players at Arizona's disposal this season, and in the spring game it broke out some looks that hadn't been seen in Arizona Stadium in quite some time. Namely, the use of tight ends.

"We had more catches by a tight end than in the history of Arizona football," Rodriguez joked. "More than even when Gronk (former Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski) was here."

Junior Josh Kern was the main recipient of this emphasis on tight end passing, with five receptions for 31 yards, while sophomore Trevor Wood had a touchdown catch.

Arizona also used receivers Samajie Grant and Tyrell Johnson in the backfield on sweeps and pitches, partly because the Wildcats held top running back Nick Wilson from competition after an injury-plagued freshman year.

"We'll use them a both positions," Rodriguez said.

 

Defense will continue to bend, but break less

Arizona's defense didn't get much praise last year, despite having a player (linebacker Scooby Wright) who won the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski awards last year, because it was 105th in yards allowed and gave up more than 28 points per game. The Wildcats aren't trying to develop a top-10 defense, just one that can make a few plays here and there.

That was the case on Friday, as a rotation made mostly of reserves spent most of its time trying to prevent big gains rather than reverse the field. The lone exception was when redshirt freshman defensive tackle stripped quarterback Brandon Dawkins near midfield, nearly scoring a big-guy touchdown before Dawkins chased him down and popped the ball loose near the 10-yard-line.

The Wildcats return most of its front seven, but a newcomer who figures to have an instant impact is junior college transfer Paul Magloire. Magloire had a game-high nine tackles and should contend for a starting stop on the defensive line.

"I think overall we found some guys that we need to get in the rotation," Rodriguez said. "Hopefully they will work hard this summer and be ready in August."

 

Turn off the play clock

Rodriguez had hoped to run 90 to 100 plays Friday, and they hit the century mark in just over 70 minutes of real time before heading into the stands and turning the play-calling over to the fans. It was about the only time Arizona took its time on offense, averaging between 10 and 12 seconds between snaps.

Last season Arizona ran an FBS-best 1,139 plays, averaging 81.3 per game despite being 119th in time of possession.

"I think we can play faster than we have before," Rodriguez said.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Arizona Football: Biggest Takeaways from Wildcats' 2015 Spring Game

Fresh off its best season in 16 years, Arizona continues to keep its foot on the gas in the quest to become a regular member of college football's elite. Friday night's spring game was just one step in that direction...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Nike Unveils New Mach Speed Uniforms for TCU Horned Frogs for 2015

Thanks to Nike, the TCU football team is going to look like a bunch of Horned Frogs in 2015.

Nike's lastest technology has allowed it to incorporate TCU's Horned Frog pattern into its uniforms. Via Nike, TCU's new Mach Speed uniforms are a "digital evolution of the program's existing lizard skin pattern."

[Nike]

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SEC Football: Predicting the Biggest Upsets in the Conference in 2015

We lovers of sports spend copious amounts of time predicting what will happen in any given game. We look at every possible statistic that could sway the game in favor of one team. So many times, the team predicted to win does just that, and our efforts later seem wasted. Why, then, do we do it?

We know that sometimes, the favorite on paper loses.

In the SEC, there's a gap between the best and the rest, but it's not as wide as in most other conferences. Just last season, nine of 14 SEC schools were ranked in the AP poll at some point. But there's still a gap.

Since the season isn't yet upon us, we don't know how the conference will play out, but we can use the past to predict the future. We can look at trends, and we can look at what's already been predicted for the upcoming season. That's what I've done today to determine which SEC games are the most likely to be won by the underdog.

I've ordered the slides chronologically, beginning with the earliest game. I've also taken this composite preseason poll into account when determining what would qualify as an upset.

The beauty of a deep league is that there will be so many more upsets than these. Have I missed any? Please share your own views in the comments section below.

 

Begin Slideshow

USC's Expectations Are High for 2-Way Star Adoree' Jackson

Adoree' Jackson, a two-way player at USC, can do it all for Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans. The talented wide receiver/defensive back put up some respectable numbers in 2014. But what can we expect from him in 2015? 

Los Angeles Times USC reporter Lindsey Thiry joined Adam Lefkoe as they discussed Jackson and what he brings to the table for the Trojans. 

What are Adoree' Jackson's expectations in 2015? Check out the video and let us know!  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC's Expectations Are High for 2-Way Star Adoree' Jackson

Adoree' Jackson, a two-way player at USC, can do it all for Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans. The talented wide receiver/defensive back put up some respectable numbers in 2014...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Under-the-Radar Players Who Will Have Breakout Seasons for the Florida Gators

The Florida Gators are undergoing a rebuilding effort for the first time in a long time. Jim McElwain has taken over at head coach, and he is looking to return the Gators to a top-tier team. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Barrett Sallee joins Stephen Nelson to discuss some under-the-radar guys who could have an impact on Florida next season. 

What kind of team do you think the Gators can have? Check out the video and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

What Michigan State Must Improve to Beat Ohio State, Seize Big Ten in 2015

Bodog (h/t Odds Shark) lists Ohio State as a 4-1 favorite to win the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship, in part because the Big Ten—unlike the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12—sports no other team among the top seven favorites.

The Big Ten team with the best chance of beating OSU, Michigan State, lost by 12 points at home to the Buckeyes last season and must travel to Columbus next year.

Sparty handed Ohio State its first loss of the Urban Meyer era in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game. After three years, it is still the only Big Ten team that knows the taste of Meyer's blood.

But as last year's meeting made painfully clear, it has a long way to go before it can reassume the Big Ten throne.

Here's where it most desperately needs improvements.

 

Pass Defense

It's alarming how fast this secondary went from strength to weakness.

One year after fielding the "No Fly Zone," a secondary replete with NFL talent, the Spartans allowed a staggering number of big plays:

Next year, the Spartans lose All-Big Ten defensive back Kurtis Drummond and projected first-round NFL draft pick Trae Waynes. In other words, a secondary that already struggled to contain big plays loses by far its two best weapons for containing big plays.

Who will step up to replace them?

At safety, Montae Nicholson and RJ Williamson seem locked into starting roles. The much bigger questions lie at cornerback.

Former starter Darian Hicks, whom Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett replaced in the starting lineup, must put last year behind him and regain the form he showed last offseason. Sean Merriman of BTN.com named Hicks the star of last year's spring game, and Hicks flashed potential at the start of the season too.

His struggles seemed to be the result of a mental block more than anything else.

Elsewhere, Sparty could use a smooth transition to cornerback from Demetrious Cox, who converted after spending his first two seasons at safety.

Fortunately, Cox found the perfect mentor in former teammate Darqueze Dennard, the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award recipient as the best defensive back in college football.

"I've already hit up Darqueze," Cox said in November, when he first learned of his position change, according to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press. "Like, 'Look, if you've got time, we're working out this summer.' And he's all for it, he's excited."

Last year, in the 49-37 home loss to the Buckeyes, Michigan State allowed six consecutive touchdown drives.

Not all included big plays—in fact, many were methodical—but the prospect of the big play, which MSU knew it struggled to defend, loosened the defense so much that Ohio State looked like the Green Bay Packers.

Next year, it has to get better.

 

Connor Cook's Consistency

Connor Cook played an average game against Ohio State last season. He played a spectacular game in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game.

Guess which game the Spartans won?

Cook is one of the best quarterbacks in college football, but he's not one of the most reliable. His accuracy, footwork and throwing motion vary from one snap to the next, which leads to inconsistent results.

He stands out most with his intangibles: his will to win and leadership qualities. It's not every quarterback who plows through a safety to set the tone against his school's biggest rival:

But it's also not every quarterback—or at least not every quarterback with first-round NFL potential—who infuriates evaluators with bad decisions, poor mechanics and occasional ugly plays:

There is no way—no way—Michigan State will beat Ohio State unless Cook plays like an NFL quarterback. The Spartans lose their top two running backs (Jeremy Langford, Nick Hill) and receivers (Lippett, Keith Mumphrey) from 2014, so Cook must bear an even bigger load.

Ohio State's defense made Marcus Mariota look average in the CFP National Championship. All Cook has to do is outperform the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner—and in The Horseshoe, no less.

Will it be easy? No. Is it likely? Not really.

But is it possible?

Cook is one of the only players for whom the answer is "Yes."

 

Defensive Identity

The 2014 Spartans weren't soft. That word has never been used and never will be used in reference to a Mark Dantonio-coached team.

But the 2014 Spartans were comparatively soft, albeit against the impossible standard of 2013. They didn't protect the middle of the defensive line and tackled inconsistently at every level.

The loss of Pat Narduzzi, one of the best defensive coordinators in college football, hurts. Narduzzi spent 11 seasons under Dantonio and won the 2013 Broyles Award, but he left this winter to become the head coach at Pittsburgh.

How will his co-replacements, former linebackers coach Mike Tressel and former defensive backs coach Harlan Barnett, restore the Spartans' defensive identity? It sort of got away from them last season—and that was with Narduzzi storming the sideline.

A defensive line led by Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas, Malik McDowell and Demetrius Cooper is big, strong and nasty enough to combat Ohio State's offensive line. That group can hang with anyone.

The real questions lie at linebacker, a historically strong position for the Spartans that last year suffered a drop-off.

Who will replace Taiwan Jones up the middle? How is tackling? Can he set the defensive temperature at 100 degrees Fahrenheit the same way Max Bullough, Greg Jones and company have in the past?

This defense wasn't mean enough to beat Ohio State last season. No defense was mean enough to beat Ohio State last season, unless you want to count Virginia Tech's.

To stop running back Ezekiel Elliott in Columbus, the Spartans must play like bullies and be the hammers instead of the nails.

Otherwise, that game could get ugly.

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Which College Football Teams Will Take Steps Back in 2015?

The 2014 college football season was full of surprises, from the emergence of Mississippi State and Ole Miss to the disappointing USC season. Teams rise and fall each and every season. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Adam Kramer and Barrett Sallee predict the teams that will fall off record-wise in 2015. 

Which teams will not enjoy the same success? Check out the video and let us know! 

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