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ATQ's Pac-10 Preview Spectacular: University of Arizona

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Arizona Wildcats


Head Coach:  Mike Stoops 12-22@UA

2006 Record:  6-6 (4-5 Pac-10)

2006 vs. Oregon:  37-10 Wildcats at Autzen

2007 vs. Oregon:  11/15 in Tucson

Returning Starters:


8 offensive, 10 defensive

2007 Schedule:


10/1 @Brigham Young

9/8 Northern Arizona

9/15 New Mexico

9/22 @Cal

9/29 Washington State

10/6 @Oregon State

10/13 @USC

10/20 Stanford

10/27 @Washington

11/3 UCLA

11/15 Oregon

12/1 @ Arizona State

Here's where this whole thing gets pretty difficult.  I think that we can all be pretty confident of Stanford, UW, and WSU finishing at or near the bottom of the conference.  After that, we have a bunch of teams that all kind of look very similar in their outlook.  Some people want to put ASU in this seventh spot, but I don't believe that Dennis Erickson will let that happen.  Some want to put Oregon State here.  While that's tempting, they just have too much talent returning.  Ditto UCLA, even though their coaching sucks.  Some also want to put the Ducks here, which is fine by me, because Oregon always does better amidst low expectations.  In any case, I pick USC to be #1, and I'm pretty sure that Cal and Oregon will be in the top five.  Other than that, I stand to be dead wrong on the rest, and am going by educated gut feelings more than anything else.

That being said, I decided that past behavior is the greatest indication of future behavior, and that is why I predict Arizona for this spot.  They return ten starters from a very good defense, and that is definitely a shining point for this team.  They also return eight starters on offense.  That, however, is a bit misleading as a) the offense isn't very good and b) the best player on the offense, quarterback Willie Tuitama, is about as injury prone as they come.  Finally, for the low esteem in which I hold Bill Doba and Karl Dorrell, I can undeniably, unequivocally, say that Mike Stoops is without a shadow of a doubt the worst game coach in the Pac-10.  I'm sure some Arizona homers will stuff my email box with trash about how the Wildcats trashed the Ducks at Autzen last year.  I remind these fans that this was much more about Oregon having no heart than it was about any brilliant strategy on the part of Mr. Stoops.  

Still, that defense will be a bright spot, and will keep the `Cats in a lot of games.  Arizona has also tinkered with its offense.  They have hired a former Texas Tech assistant and plan to run a spread offense.  They are going to try to pass the ball 70% of the time.  The question is, will it work?  And can we really expect them to beat USC in LA?  Cal in Berkeley? OSU in Corvallis?  ASU in Tempe?  Oregon and UCLA do come to Tucson, but I can't really say that Arizona is more talented than either of those teams.  Still, even if they simply beat the three teams below them and sweep their non-conference slate, the Wildcats will find themselves on the cusp of a bowl game.  And if they can pull an upset or two?  Ending the bowl drought would get Stoops some security in the desert.

Offense

Quarterbacks

Willie Tuitama will be under center again for the Wildcats.  He's immensely talented, as shown by the fact that, when Tuitama's healthy, Arizona usually wins the game.  He has a great arm, and is a good decision maker, as shown by his 136.99 PER and 93 consecutive passes thrown without an interception.  As noted earlier, the problem with Tuitama is his health.  He had three concussions last year, causing him to miss two games entirely and miss parts of three others.  To be fair, he was running for his life a lot of the time because the offensive line was bad, but it still has to be concerning.  Another concussion could be devastating to his career.  However, if the O-line can keep him healthy, he's as good as anyone in the league.  The spread offense will also take a lot of pressure off of him.

If Tuitama is not healthy, then the Wildcats are, for lack of a better word, screwed.  Redshirt freshman Tyler Lyon should be the backup.  He's was a three star talent coming out of high school and had a great spring game, but he's still a freshman.  Third string QB Kris Heavner started a number of games back in 2003, but has played little football since.

Running Backs


We know all to well that running back is an underutilized position in the spread.  Apparenty, Chris Henry thought that, too, and decided to go to the NFL.  That's actually all well and good for UA, as, stastically, Chris Jennings was the better back.  He averaged 4.3 ypc last year but, more importantly, can catch the ball.  Sophomore Xavier Smith will be Jennings' backup.  Smith is supposedly highly regarded by coaches, and is seen as the future at the position.  Don't expect them to run as much as in the past, but the RB position should be in good shape.

Receivers


Syndric Steptoe has finally graduated (after 87 years as a Wildcat).  However, Arizona does return two playmakers at wide receiver.  Mike Thomas, last year's leading receiver, is the kind of speedy receiver who should be able to find holes in the spread.  He's small at 5'10", but the spread should play to his advantage.  Anthony Johnson is a bigger target at 6'2".  Both have significant experience.  However, we know that to run the spread successfully, you need at least five receivers who can contribute a significant number of snaps.  Who is going to step into those roles for Arizona?  Redshirt freshman Delashaun Dean might have the most upside of the bunch.  He almost was a rotation player last year, but redshirted after knee surgery.  Two Terrells, Terrell Turner and Terrell Reese were in the rotation at times last year.  Are they ready to embrace bigger roles?  They're going to have to be for the spread to be successful in the desert.

Offensive Line


The offensive line was not so great last year.  The most telling statistic, besides Tuitama's three concussions:  Arizona allowed 31 sacks for a whopping -249 yards.  That has to get better this year, or Tuitama will be spending more time getting CAT scans than he will throwing passes.  They return four starters on the line.  Senior Peter Graniello is the elder statesman on the offensive line.  He's been a starter for two years and was honorable mention all-conference.  He'll be the best player on the line at left tackle.  Sophomores Eben Britton and Blake Kerley were inconsistent last year.  Kerley is especially undersized at center.  Also returning is junior guard Joe Longacre, a two year contributor.  The question mark is at left guard, where a couple of players could get the nod.  Bottom line is that this unit was bad last year.  If they are bad this year, Arizona's offense is screwed.

Defense

Defensive Line

The defense was very good statistically last year.  However, one thing that has to be concerning for Mike Stoops is that they had six games last year where they failed to record a single sack.  That statistic is quite amazing to me.  The `Zona defense was that good despite not getting any pressure on the quarterback.  The Wildcats return all four defensive lineman, and three of them are seniors.  Louis Holmes led the team with four sacks last year.  When your team leader only has four, that's not a great sign.  Yaniv Barnett, Lionel Dotson, and Jonathan Turner also return to a unit that is clearly the defense's weakest.

Linebackers


The linebacker corps are among the best in the conference.  Spencer Larsen is a beast.  He's a four year starter, second team all conference, and was the team leader last year in both tackles and tackles for loss.  He's the glue that holds this defense together, and helps make up for the case of suckitis on the defensive line.  Robert Palmer is another player that many feel has also conference talent, and senior Dane Krogstad is a three year starter.  This is a very solid group.

Secondary


Arizona has the best secondary in the Pac-10-well except for maybe SC.  Antoine Cason is picked by some publications to be an All-American in 2007.  He's a great cover corner who has played every snap but two in his career.  Wilrey Fontenot is another four year starter at the other corner.  He's almost as good as Cason.  This will be a great group that will give teams with suspect running games fits.  Dominic Patrick returns at free safety, though he missed spring ball with and injury.  Strong safety is the only position up for grabs on the defense, and four players will strive for that spot.  But what you need to remember is that those corners are ooh so good.

Special Teams


Not a whole lot to say here.  Nick Folk, who was the kicker and punter, is gone.  Both jobs will be decided in camp.

Prediction


The defense should be good.  The offense should be decent IF Tuitama stays healthy.  But they are running a brand new offense, and have a coach who simply isn't very good.  Eight wins is the ceiling for this team, but a lot of things have to go right for that to happen.  History shows that 5-6 wins is a much more realistic benchmark.

--Dave