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August 5, 2008

Early Arizona Preview

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. After Arizona flailed away under John Mackovic, Mike Stoops was supposed to come in and bring some of his Oklahoma and Kansas State magic to Tucson, and build the football program into an approximation of the Wildcat basketball program. Unfortunately for U of A fans, the basketball team slid, and the football team has run in place for the most part. There was some early improvement, but it is stalled for several reasons. Now Stoops is firmly on the hot seat, and will likely be fired if the team doesn't make a bowl games this season. Can they do it?

Last Season

The Wildcats began the 2007 schedule with a sloppy 20-7 loss to BYU, in which the mustered only 32 yards rushing. That was a sign of things to come. Arizona rebounded with a shellacking of lowly NAU, only to embarrass themselves in a home loss to New Mexico, a game in which they rushed for 38 yards. Cal spanked the Cats in Berkeley, but the running game broke out with 221 yards in a rout of Washington State. The season effectively died over the next three games, when a nine yard rushing effort fueled an easy win for Oregon State, a late punt return cost them a chance to beat the Trojans, and missed opportunities led to a ego bruising one point loss at home to Stanford.

The losing streak meant that Arizona had to win out to be bowl eligible. They almost did. They blasted Washington for 510 passing yards in a win in Seattle, took advantage of the Bruins' QB quandary with a victory in Tucson, and shocked the college football world by upending #2 Oregon after Dennis Dixon went down for good. But Arizona State proved too much of a challenge, and a late comeback attempt fell an onside kick recovery short. The Cats finished 5-7, their ninth consecutive season without a bowl game. The cattle calls for Stoops' head were underway.

Quarterback

Last season featured the move to the Texas Tech Red Gun offense, which is a shotgun spread offense that features short passing. The scheme was a good fit for Willie Tuitama because it enabled him to see the field more, to get in a rhythm earlier in games because of the more frequent passing, and it minimized the punishment that he took, which resulted in injuries in his two previous seasons. In 2007, he completed 62% of his passes for 3683 yards, 28 TDs, and 12 INTs. His comfort zone with the offense should result in an even better season this time around. He is a big mobile kid with a good arm, and in my opinion, he could be a sleeper in the NFL. When the Wildcats were able to keep him in the game, he rewarded them with solid play.

Redshirt freshman Bryson Beirne and sophomore Tyler Lyon are battling it out to be the QB of the future. Both played well in the spring and could step in to pinch hit if needed. Neither in my opinion is the kind of talent that Tuitama is.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

The good news for Tuitama is that he has a bevy of returning guys to throw the ball to. Mike Thomas was the team's big threat last season, leading the team in receptions, yards, and TDs. He's a little guy who can burn, and some may remember 2005 at the Coliseum, when he sped right past a Trojan CB for a long TD. Terrell Turner chipped in with 50 catches last year, and he will be a solid contributor. Sophomore Delashaun Dean added 37 catches to the starting three, and the staff really likes his progress. Terrell Reese and B.J. Dennard give the team as deep a WR corps as the Pac-10 has when it comes to game experience.

Add Rob Gronkowski at tight end, and the Cats have a potent group. He was a crucial weapon for the team last season, hauling in six TDs and averaging over 18 yards per catch as a true freshman. That is an astounding number for a tight end with 28 catches. A.J. Simmons moves from the defensive line to back Gronkowski up. The Cats also use an H-Back at times, and Brandon Lopez will get the nod there. Arizona will have no shortage of targets this season. They are solid in that respect.

Running Back

Here's where the talent gap comes into play. Nicholas Grisgby ain't scarin' anyone. He's a little guy with some burst, and not much in the way of tackle breaking ability or home run hitting prowess. He's a good receiver, but only averaged 5.7 yards per catch. Glyndon Bolansky got some carries in the spring, but he isn't the answer. The coaching staff is hoping that freshman Keola Antolin can push the guys ahead of him. There's not a lot of bullets in the gun at RB for Arizona, which is bad news, because they only averaged 77 yards rushing per game last season. If that doesn't improve, Stoops is as good as gone.

Offensive Line

Most of the offensive line returns, but they have to play better than they did last season. Giving up 31 sacks last season was an improvement from 2006, but it's still too many in the context of this quick delivery offense. The running game was brutal in 2007, even by Red Gun standards. Aberaging under three yards per carry is not acceptable. Right tackle Eben Britton anchors the unit, as a returning second team all conference lineman. Joe Longacre and Colin Baxter are the incumbent guards, but they will be pushed by some good talents in sophomore Jovon Hayes and JC transfer Mike Diaz, who practiced with the team in the spring. Blake Kerley is entering his third year as a starter, and he's not a bad player. The all important left tackle spot should be filled by juco J'Marcus Webb, a guy who played a lot as a true freshman at the University of Texas. If i t doesn't work out with him, James Trethaway, who played some last season, will get a shot. This group has the potential to be pretty good, and should be better than last season.

Defensive Line

Now we step into the problem areas. Arizona's defense took a big step back last season with veterans in key positions. Now they only have three returning starters. Jonathan Turner made six starts last year and has made 25 in his career, but he is a platoon player at best, getting only three and a half sacks from the end position. Sophomore Ricky Elmore is slated to bookend Turner, but he barely did anything last season, and started his career as a lightly recruited offensive lineman. Brooks Reed will compete for that job as well. The tackle position is a mess. Junior Donald Horton had some schools after him when he was in high school, but he has done next to nothing in college. Things are so bad that Earl Mitchell is Horton's back up…and Mitchell played tailback last season! Lolomana Mikaele and Kaniela Tuipulotu will battle it out at nose tackle, but ne ither are top flight talents. The Wildcat coaches are counting on true freshman Solomon Koehler to contribute this season in the middle. There is no quality depth at all. This could be the worst defensive line in the Pac-10.

Linebacker

Middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer returns to QB the defense, but he is nothing special in my opinion. The other two spots are wide open. On the strong side, Adrian McCovy has the inside track to start, but this all everything recruit has been a major disappointment in Tucson. Some are hoping that JC backer Vuna Tuihalamaka will supplant McCovy. Vune did play well in the spring game and has a reputation for being a headhunter. Junior Xavier Kelley will likely start at the Will spot after playing a little last season. Yet another JC, Sterling Lewis will take a run at the position as well. This group is as mediocre as mediocre gets. It's going to take some good coaching to make the front seven workable to compete against Pac-10 offenses.

Secondary

To make matters worse, The Cats lost Thorpe Award winner Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot at CB, and those two might have been the team's best players. Former Trojan commit Devin Ross is a talented replacement on the weak side, and he played nickel back last season. Marquis Hundley will get a crack at the other side, but fans are looking forward to seeing freshman Robert Golden on the field, and he could steal the spot from Hundley. Mike Turner, a wide receiver last season, will also be in the mix.

Cam Nelson is back at strong safety, but he's better against the run than he is against the pass. Nate Ness is a solid free safety though, and he tied for the team lead with five INTs last season. This group is going to have to come together fast because they will be tested if the front seven is as shoddy as I think it will be.

Special Teams

Senior kicker Jason Bondzio had a nice season last year and kicked very well from long distance. Punter Keenyn Crier was first team all Pac-10 as a redshirt freshman, averaging almost 44 yards per punt with a net of over 38. He had a huge game against the Trojans last year. Thomas and Ross were excellent kickoff returners last season, and one of them will likely pick up the punt returning duties for the departed Cason. Special teams should give the Wildcats a needed boost.

Outlook

The Cats start with two chippies at home before travelling to Las Cruces for a rematch with the Lobos. The conference schedule is favorable. Cal, USC, Oregon State and ASU all come to Tucson. Arizona was 3-1 in conference play at home last season. Other than a trip to Oregon, the road schedule is manageable with dates against UCLA, Stanford, and WSU. Still, I doubt that Arizona can win more than five games. The offense should allow them to score, but their defense is going to be a huge weakness this season, and the Cats are due for one inexplicable loss a year. Last year was the year to break through, and it didn't happen. Unless the defense comes through in a big way, Arizona will probably be searching for a new coach in December.

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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