July 27, 2006

Arizona is no longer a sleeper in the Pac-10

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LOS ANGELES Pac-10 coaches routinely summed up the strength of the conference at Thursday's media day by mentioning national runner-up Southern California, 10-game winners UCLA and Oregon and bowl teams California and Arizona State.

The nine coaches routinely added one footnote to the discussion: Don't forget about Arizona.

Coach Mike Stoops and the Wildcats won't catch the Pac-10 by surprise this year despite suffering through six consecutive losing seasons including matching 3-8 records the last two years.

Because the Wildcats lost five games by seven or fewer points last year and handed 8-0 UCLA a 52-14 drubbing, league coaches expecting a breakout season from Arizona.

"I don't think there's any question that they've improved and they're on the right track," Washington coach Tyrone Willingham said.

A former assistant under Iowa's Hayden Fry, Kansas State's Bill Snyder and brother Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, the younger Stoops is a little more cautious in handicapping his third year as a head coach.

"You go through stages," Stoops said. "We went through one of those stages of playing people close and just not getting it done. Even though they were losses, our team gained great confidence. Before you beat those teams you have to learn how to play them close."

A big part of the optimism is a Stoops family trademark the defense, led by nine returning starters.

In a league known for its passing, the Wildcats will field the two most experienced cornerbacks in the conference. Rivals.com second-team preseason All-American Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot have started a combined 44 games the last two seasons.

Add to that the tutelage of defensive coordinator and secondary coach Mark Stoops, who coached defensive backs Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Phillip Buchanon and Antrel Rolle while at Miami.

"Arizona has a good defense and good defensive scheme and now they have an experienced secondary," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose team threw six interceptions against the Wildcats last year. "When you play them you have to be on time with the ball and the receivers have to be doing their deal right to get open because those guys are good."

On offense, the Wildcats lost Mike Bell, who has led the team in rushing the last four years. They will rely on quarterback Willie Tuitama, who was thrust into to starting role with four games left in his true freshman season.

In the final five games last year, Tuitama was 82 of 142 for 1,105 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions.

"Offensively, a lot of emphasis is put on Willie," Stoops said. "It's great to have a guy you can trust back there. Willie is young, but he can handle it. We've never had a quarterback where we can build this offense around."

While the rest of the league is already expecting an improvement from Arizona, Stoops will find out in a hurry where his team stands.

The Wildcats open against BYU, followed by a trip to LSU. After a home game against Division I-AA Stephen F. Austin, Arizona will play host to Southern California in its conference opener.

A tough stretch to start the season is becoming tradition in Tucson. In 2004, Arizona played Utah and Wisconsin in the first three games. The Wildcats faced the Utes and Purdue early last season.

"We haven't had a schedule conducive to turning the program around (or) gaining confidence early," Stoops said. "But we've played some quality opponents and won some big games. Our team knows how to win."

Click here for more coverage of 2006 Football Media Days.

For more coverage of Arizona, check out GOAZCATS.com.


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