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It’s Adapt or Die for the Arizona Wildcats

Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire

Any college football season has a life of its own, sprouting unforeseen evolutionary branches that challenge any team’s path to success. Adapt or die, right?

For a program like Arizona — which has climbed higher in recent years but still isn’t at the top of the food chain — that could very well be a midseason motto: Adapt or die.

Coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff have seemingly faced some extinction events — multiple injuries that nearly exhausted the amount of raw material on hand to compete in the Pac-12 — but the Wildcats at midseason seem very much alive.

That’s because Rodriguez and his staff have gone about “creating” some new football players.

And it started after last season.

Let’s explain.

The Wildcats needed more cornerbacks, so junior DaVonte’ Neal came over in the spring from wide receiver, where he was good, hardly great. This season, he’s been the team’s best and most consistent corner, with 33 tackles and one interception, through a 4-2 start.

Senior Johnny Jackson, buried for a couple of years at defensive back, moved back to his original position of wide receiver during fall camp. Just like that, he has a team-high 22 catches for 328 yards and four touchdowns.

Projected starting center Carter Wood suffered a season-ending injury early in camp. The new guy is Cayman Bundage, a three-year starter at left guard who had never played center.

With former four-star recruit Jamardre Cobb struggling to sniff playing time at linebacker late in camp, the coaches told him to move to fullback. Fullback? Sounded like a sentence to Siberia in a RichRod spread offense. But he knows what to do with a 250-pound fullback (remember Owen Schmitt at West Virginia?), and now Cobb is giving the offense a physical blocking edge it previously lacked. He put Oregon State defenders on their backs on three consecutive plays last week in the team’s 44-7 victory.

Left tackle Freddie Tagaloa, a mammoth Cal transfer struggling a bit with a knee injury and outside speed rushers, got a new position last week: Left guard. It’s a more natural fit, emphasizing his physical strength and not his pass protection finesse, but the move wasn’t possible until redshirt freshman Layth Friekh matured ahead of schedule as Tagaloa’s replacement at left tackle.

Short of linebackers because of injuries? Hey, safety Paul Magloire, you’re our new weakside linebacker.

And, hey, outside linebacker Jake Matthews, how would you like to be our fifth starting middle linebacker of the season?

Arizona made those two changes at linebacker last week, which contributed to the team’s best defensive performance of the season, holding the Beavers to 249 total yards. Sure, it’s only Oregon State, but the win and the performance seemed to be a get-right game for Arizona, which tries to evolve further Saturday at Colorado, which has lost 13 consecutive conference games.

To quote Rodriguez, who loves to quote Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.

Seems like it.

The Pac-12 South is a kind of a mess. Arizona seemed down and out when it opened with losses to UCLA and Stanford by a combined score of 111-47. But now the Bruins have two league losses. So does USC. The front-runner will be determined Saturday when Arizona State (4-2, 2-1) plays at Utah (5-0, 2-0).

Arizona still has to play ASU and Utah, which comes after a current stretch in which it plays at Colorado, is home to Washington State and then goes to Washington. The Cats aren’t good enough to play badly and win any of those games, but if they play like they did against Oregon State … then, well, there’s a chance.

While dealing with a myriad of injuries and the disheartening losses to start conference play, Rodriguez said he’s never had a problem connecting with his players.

“They show up to work,” he said. “Even when we were playing so badly those two weeks, they still showed up to work with a good attitude.

“They understood it. I didn’t have to say anything. They understood it. I just didn’t think we were as competitive and had an edge about us for a couple of weeks. We got a little of that back last week.”

Much of that edge was supplied by safety Will Parks, whose huge and perfectly legal hit on receiver Jordan Villamin, could very well lead off the team’s postseason highlight video.

“We talk all the team about physical and having a hard edge,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what our identity has to be.”

As the Wildcats hit the back stretch of the season, they’re still evolving. Six key players are at different positions than they were less than two months ago. Some of the moves have been drastic, some minor, but they’ve been necessary as Rodriguez navigates a lack of depth and all the injuries.

All-American middle linebacker Scooby Wright (knee, foot) has played in only two games. He might be able to come back in a few weeks, if at all. Quarterback Anu Solomon missed more than six quarters over the UCLA and Stanford games, but he is back from his concussion. Starting running back Nick Wilson, though, is questionable this week because of a foot injury after leaving last week’s game while trainers looked at his shoulder.

Those are Arizona’s three most valuable players.

Hey, nobody said this season would be easy.

But the Wildcats keep adapting. They’re still clinging to life.

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