By Kaelen Jones
College football in the desert didn’t do too hot last season.
The University of Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils combined to win just eight games in 2016, marking the lowest joint total between the rival programs since Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez have held their respective posts.
Despite the down year, CBS Sports college football analyst Rick Neuheisel says both schools are “positioned nicely” for future success.
“They’ve both proven they can win, because they’ve done it in the short time that they’ve been there,” Neuheisel told Sports360AZ.com’s ‘Brad Cesmat during a phone interview Wednesday.
The former UCLA football coach went on to mention how both Graham and Rodriguez have produced, despite entering 2017 in what could be considered uncertain times. He also pointed out how both programs have had a tough time solidifying their quarterback position.
“Ultimately, for Arizona to be the team that we all envisioned them to be with that offense, as long as they can find a defense to go with it, you have to have a dual-threat quarterback,” he said.
Neuheisel also says the Wildcats’ shaky defense (whose 469.3 yards allowed per game in 2016 ranked 115th nationally) was a cause for concern in the recent campaign as well, saying it’s “been tough for (the Wildcats) to put together the defense to go along with what we know as always gonna be a pretty prolific offense.”
The 56-year-old noted senior quarterback Brandon Dawkins as a baseline for what Rodriguez’s offense needs.
“The Dawkins kid is interesting,” he said. “To me, he’s the kind of player you need (in Rodriguez’s offensive system).”
As for ASU’s quarterback situation, Neuheisel says having multiple players jockeying for the starting gig is “a great problem to have.”
The addition of Blake Barnett is something he says makes the offseason more exciting in Tempe, but didn’t necessarily say it was the former Alabama transfer’s job for the taking.
“His arm strength, I thought, was suspect,” Neuheisel said, before adding Barnett’s athleticism should allow him to transition smoothly into the Sun Devils offense.
He said he expects a “spirited competition” for the starting gig, however discussed how having turnover within the coaching staff affected results on the field for the Sun Devils last season.
“Getting those pieces right and obviously, going through a year where they where they had the kind of injuries they had at their quarterback position — those things are hard to control,” Neuheisel said. “But when you’re also losing coaches and the voices in these players’ ears, it becomes very problematic.”
Nevertheless, Neuheisel reiterated he thinks both Graham and Rodriguez can return the state’s highest collegiate programs to playing competitive football.
“This is basically the state of college football right now. It’s what have you done for me lately,” he said. “You don’t have to think back too far to remember a time when both of these coaches, Todd Graham, Rich Rodriguez, were the champions of the South in the Pac-12. …
“It just requires a little bit of good luck.”
Arizona has already begun its spring offseason program, while ASU will start its sessions on March 14.