His innovative offense now the norm, Rich Rodriguez must keep evolving

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LOS ANGELES -- Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez developed the zone read concept in 1990 while running the program at tiny Glenville (W.Va.) State. Now, as the zone read nears its 25th birthday and enjoys an exalted place in football’s strategic pantheon, Rodriguez has accepted that his wrinkle has become the status quo.

“At Glenville State in 1990, there were 500 people in the stands and I’m related to 490 of them, and that’s before social media,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday at Pac-12 media days. “So, for seven years we loved it. I don’t know if anybody else is doing it, but then we went to Tulane and games came on TV and now every other school and high school, college and even [teams] in the NFL are running some version of it, but that’s a good thing because we can learn from it.

“But the uniqueness of it has worn out.”

Nearly every offense now has at least a package of plays that require the quarterback to read an unblocked defensive end while deciding whether to keep the ball or allow the tailback to take it. In fact, most major-college teams base their run game off the concept, and more -- hi, Florida -- come into the fold each year. During his time at West Virginia, Rodriguez’s teams stunned opponents with their hurry-up pace and their ability to force defenses to guard the width of the field while still trying to stop a power-running game. Even at Michigan, where almost everything went wrong, Rodriguez’s offense averaged 5.6 yards a carry and 6.8 yards a play in the final season of his tenure. Yet even then, RichRod’s offense still felt like a change-up. It forced defenses to alter their mindsets between games against offenses that still preferred two backs and the pro set.

Now? It’s the norm, whether it’s a run-heavy scheme such as the one Rodriguez uses at Arizona or Mark Helfrich uses at Oregon or a pass-happy scheme such as the ones favored by Mike Leach at Washington State or Sonny Dykes at Cal. If anything, Stanford, with its legions of tight ends and extra offensive linemen, is currently the oddball that forces defenses out of their practice groove.

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So, what is Rodriguez to do in a league that keeps getting better and understands intimately how his offense works? He has to tweak it. Fortunately for him, his personnel leaves him no choice. Gone is running back Ka’Deem Carey, who was willing to shoulder the load for as many as 48 carries in a game (in last year’s 42-16 win over Oregon). Gone is quarterback B.J. Denker, whose legs forced defenses to stay honest instead of loading up to smother Carey.

With less than two weeks before the start of preseason camp, Rodriguez has no idea who will start at quarterback for the Wildcats. It might be USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, Texas transfer Connor Brewer, LSU-transfer-by-way-of-juco Jerrard Randall or Rodriguez recruit Anu Solomon. “Everyone's going to ask about the quarterback,” Rodriguez said. “I could be coy and tell you I don’t know -- but I really do know. The truth is I really don't know. We’ll figure that out.” 

Rodriguez does know he has a loaded receiving corps. Austin Hill racked up 1,364 receiving yards and averaged 16.8 yards a catch in 2012, but a torn ACL suffered during spring practice wiped out his ‘13 campaign. Hill is back and healthy. In Hill’s absence last year, Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant all developed into reliable targets. Meanwhile, Notre Dame transfer DaVonte' Neal and Texas transfer Cayleb Jones are eligible to play after sitting out last fall.

“The receiving crew last year, with Austin getting hurt and playing all those freshmen, we were really nervous about that,” Rodriguez said. ‘We like to play at least seven or eight [receivers] in every game. And we thought, oh my gosh, those true freshmen with Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant, and Trey Griffey really played pretty well. Now those guys are back a year older with some other guys that sat out and we’re going to be so much deeper there that we’ll be able to play seven or eight easily and not worry about the quality of play.”

The personnel suggests a move toward a more pass-heavy offense. Arizona ran 62.8 percent of the time last year, and with good reason: Carey was the ultimate workhorse, averaging 5.4 yards a carry despite carrying 349 times. But now Carey is gone. Jared Baker, Terris Jones-Grigsby and a bunch of freshmen will have to pick up the slack. “Well, we won't have one guy that can carry the ball as much as Ka'Deem did, 30 or 35, or in the Oregon game, 48 times,” Rodriguez said. “We just don't have that one guy in our program right now that can do what Ka'Deem did. But that being said, there is some talent that can do it. And there are three or four, maybe even five different guys carrying the ball as opposed to what Ka'Deem did last year.”

Arizona will also have to change a mindset that tends to befall teams that haven’t had much success. In 2012 and ‘13, the Wildcats followed important wins with embarrassing losses. In ‘12, they shocked USC and followed it with a 56-point loss to UCLA. In ‘13, they whipped Oregon and then got thrashed, 58-21, by Arizona State for the Territorial Cup. “We’d just live off the win, and we’d feel we were owed something because of that win,” Hill said. “We’re the underdog going into most games. We’re not considered the powerhouse team. We need to realize that.”

Hill believes Arizona players should understand better now. “I think it comes with experience,” he said.

Of course, the rest of the Pac-12 South seems to be getting better at roughly the same rate as the Wildcats. Arizona State has a lot to replace on defense, but the offense should score plenty. USC should be improved in Steve Sarkisian’s first year. UCLA appears loaded. From the North, the Wildcats miss Stanford in the regular season, but they do visit Oregon on Oct. 2. Add the rise in quality to the fact that the Pac-12 is currently the only Power Five league that plays nine conference games and a championship, and the path to the playoff is a slog. “Hell no, I don’t like it,” Rodriguez cracked. “I wish everybody wasn’t worth a damn.”

Rodriguez knows that for his team to shock the league and play its way into championship range, it will have to improve faster than those other programs. “There are a bunch of good coaches and good players in our league,” Rodriguez said. “How do you make that leap over someone else? You’ve just got to get the right players and do a good job as a staff. I think we’re there.”

Rodriguez has had two full recruiting cycles to stock his team with players who fit his style. Arizona’s new football facility was finished last year, and it finally puts the Wildcats on par with their league rivals in that respect. Well, except for maybe one. “Everybody’s got new stuff,” Rodriguez said. “Oregon changes it out like Porta-Potties. Like every four or five years they say, ‘We need a new one.' [Here, Rodriguez makes some sort of Star Wars Death Star crane sound.] And they go do it. But it’s a challenge to stay up with it.”

That’s one of the most interesting aspects of the influx of coaching talent into the Pac-12 recently. Everyone can’t win, so some pretty good coaches will have to prove their worth in the next few years. “The Pac-12 is probably better than it’s ever been and it’s not going backward,” Rodriguez said. “It’s forcing all of us as coaches to keep making sure that we’re pressing the envelope to keep our program up.”

Rodriguez, the maverick who -- over time -- became the guy who invented the status quo, must keep evolving.