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March 28, 2006

Arizona in better shape this year

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Arizona coach Mike Stoops said the Wildcats' back-to-back 3-8 records are not acceptable.

But he also pointed out that the Wildcats lost five games last year by seven points or less.

''We are closer every time we step on the field than we were two years ago, I don't think there is any question about that,'' Stoops said as spring workouts began Monday. ''I don't think we played particularly well last year. I think we could have played a whole lot better. We missed out on a whole lot of opportunities. But we are close and I think people realize that.''

For the first since Stoops' arrival over two years ago, the Wildcats are not trying to identify their key players. Arizona has eight offensive starters back and nine on defense.

The Wildcats also possess more depth along both lines and at linebacker. But perhaps most important, sophomore Willie Tuitama gives Arizona a solid presence at quarterback, which it has not had for several years.

''As opposed to the last two springs I feel like being here two years we are much further ahead than any time. The first year you are getting guys lined up,'' Stoops said. ''I feel like we can go out there and run about 80-90 percent of our stuff we ended up with last year. We are further ahead of the game than during any of our time here.''

Tuitama, whose redshirt was removed five games into the 2005 season, is the cornerstone for an offense that became more productive at the end of the season.

Tuitama completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing much of the regular season finale against Arizona State with a shoulder and rib injury.

Tuitama is healthy again, as is co-Pac-10 wide receiver Mike Thomas, who caught an Arizona school record 52 passes for 771 yards and five scores, before breaking his hand late in the season.

''We feel we can really take the program to the next level with Willie,'' Stoops said.

The biggest question mark is at running back. The Wildcats are trying to replace Mike Bell, who is looking to be drafted after becoming the school's fourth all-time leading rusher with 3,163 yards.

Junior Chris Henry gets the first chance, but he only rushed for 119 yards last year after gaining a reputation for fumbling early in the season. If he doesn't work out, redshirt freshman Xavier Smith will get plenty of carries.

The two don't have much experience, but they are more explosive. ''We probably have more speed in the backfield than we ever have,'' Stoops said. ''Those guys are game breakers and can take the ball the distance.''

Defensively, the Wildcats are relying on a secondary returning three starters, including cornerback Antoine Cason.

Stoops feels the Wildcats can make the biggest gains at linebacker with Ronnie Palmer, Dane Krogstad and Spencer Larsen. The three were never healthy enough to play in consecutive weeks as a unit in 2005.

''I believe there are a lot of little things that happened during games that prohibited us from winning,'' Stoops said. ''I think our kids realize that now. If you want to win you have to take care of your business.''

For more coverage of the Arizona Wildcats, check out GOAZCats.com.

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