UA was coming off a five game losing streak at the end of the 2010 campaign and were entering an absolutely brutal schedule to begin 2011. The only win in the first six games was against FCS opponent Northern Arizona and the Wildcats weren't even remotely competitive in many of those contests.
While there were numerous determining factors in place for Arizona's poor start, injuries played just as much of a part of it as anything.
Now with those injuries behind them, there are several players returning to the field this year that could play a huge part in the 2012 season.
In the secondary, Jonathan McKnight returns to give the defense much needed quality and depth in the secondary. McKnight has yet to prove himself in college as he tore his ACL at the end of Fall Camp last season. At the time, McKnight appeared to be the best defensive back in camp and had leapfrogged Shaquille Richardson for the starting cornerback spot opposite of Trevin Wade.
When McKnight went down, the defense took a hit as it lost one of its rising stars in the secondary. Now healthy, McKnight will battle for a starting job in Jeff Casteel's new system. At the very least, McKnight will get plenty of playing time and if he can show he has regained his athleticism and speed, he could thrive this year.
The return of linebacker Jake Fischer is not only going to be a boost, but an absolute necessity to a position that desperately needs experience and leadership. His absence was noticed throughout the season as both Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls were a tad more inconsistent in 2011 without having Fischer on the field with them.
Now, with both Earls and Vassallo departed, Fischer is needed more than ever.
Fischer has adapted to the new scheme very well in the offseason and is likely to be one of the leaders on defense. His quickness from sideline to sideline will provide something UA hasn't had since he was on the field two years ago and he has worked his way into the best shape of his career.
Justin Washington wasn't missed for the entire season, but an ailment in the offseason a year ago caused him to lose weight and a lot of his strength. Washington could be a big piece to the defensive puzzle as he is so versatile when playing at 100 percent. He has the size to plug holes, but his power and athleticism provide pressure the opponent's backfield.
Another defensive lineman coming off an injury who could make an impact is Willie Mobley. Mobley was supposed to be a key rotational player along the defensive line in 2011, but missed the season due to an ACL tear. Mobley is a talented lineman who was once in line to play a role at Ohio State before ultimately transferring to Arizona. If he is recovered, Mobley could see plenty of the field in the upcoming season.
Then there is Greg Nwoko. Expected to provide a power option out of the backfield last season, Nwoko also tore his ACL and sat the season out. When Rich Rodriguez arrived, many wondered what Nwoko's role would be given the new coach's general approach with running the ball.
There has been some talk of Nwoko switching to the defensive side of the ball to help fill a void at linebacker. With Nwoko's size and quickness, he seems to be a good fit at the position and there is a really good chance he would be given a great opportunity to play.
For now, Nwoko is listed as a running back, but no matter what position he takes on, a fully healthy version of him should help the team in some fashion.
Keeping these players healthy is going to be key. While they have already lost Adam Hall (again) for the season, the others have shown they are recovered and ready to go. They are veterans that have familiarized themselves with their teammates and have played big roles in the past or shown plenty of potential. 2012 could be a pretty good year for the Wildcats, but it's going to take a good bill of health for that to occur.