Top 50 Countdown: No. 48 Arizona

Coach: Mike Stoops | Staff
In 2006: 6-6, 4-5 Pac-10.
Returning starters: Offense: 9. Defense: 10.
Key losses: RB Chris Henry, WR Syndric Steptoe, S Michael Johnson, K/P Nick Folk.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: The arrival of new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes from Texas Tech should make Arizona a more pass-oriented team. The Wildcats are hoping Dykes will help rejuvenate quarterback Willie Tuitama, who struggled through an injury-riddled season last year. The Wildcats also need to replace running back Chris Henry a second-round draft pick despite having an inconsistent college career and find receivers who can adapt to Dykes' system.

ARIZONA TOP 10
Antoine Cason is a favorite to win the Thorpe Award given to the nation's top defensive back.

1. CB Antoine Cason
2. LB Spencer Larsen
3. OT Eben Britton
4. DE Louis Holmes
5. CB Wilrey Fontenot
6. WR Mike Thomas
7. LB Ronnie Palmer
8. H-Back Earl Mitchell
9. DT Yaniv Barnett
10. QB Willie Tuitama
Best player: OT Eben Britton: He started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last year and earned Rivals.com second-team Freshman All-America honors. He returns for his sophomore season ready to help lead an offensive line that returns all five starters.

Most overrated: QB Willie Tuitama. After closing the 2005 season on a rush, Tuitama was billed last year as one of the nation's most promising young quarterbacks. Tuitama responded by throwing just seven touchdown passes along with six interceptions in an injury-riddled 2006 campaign that has forced him to prove himself all over again.

Most underrated: H-back Earl Mitchell. Versatility has helped Mitchell find a niche as a back who combines blocking and receiving skills. His soft hands should allow him to find a home in Dykes' offense.

Must step up: RB Chris Jennings. Chris Henry wasn't the most consistent player in the world, but his decision to enter the NFL Draft after a late-season surge left a hole in the Wildcats' backfield. Arizona must hope this former walk-on is ready to inherit a featured role after splitting carries with Henry last season.

Shoes to fill: The entire receiving corps. Dykes likes to run plenty of four-receiver sets, but Arizona doesn't have a lot of depth at that position. The Wildcats also must replace Syndric Steptoe, who collected a team-high 55 catches last year. Mike Thomas is almost certain to start at one receiving spot, but he can't catch all the passes. Who else will emerge as a target for Tuitama?

Impact newcomer: TE Rob Gronkowski. This four-star prospect was the jewel of Arizona's most recent signing class. Arizona's renewed emphasis on the passing attack should allow Gronkowski to assert himself in a hurry.

Position battle: Wide receiver. Dykes' penchant for using multiple receivers at Texas Tech (eight different Red Raiders caught at least 20 passes last year) should create plenty of opportunities for the likes of Anthony Johnson, B.J. Dennard, Bobby McCoy, Terrell Turner, Terrell Reese and Delashaun Dean.

New in 2007: Dykes' arrival gives Arizona one of the nation's more drastic scheme changes. Texas Tech quarterbacks traditionally lead the nation in passing yardage, while Arizona ran the ball more than half the time last season.

Grade the units:
QB: B-minus. Tuitama has the potential to make this grade much higher if he can stay healthy for an entire season.
RB: C-minus. Jennings burst onto the scene by rushing for 201 yards against Stephen F. Austin last year, but he never reached the century mark again. Arizona has such a lack of depth at this spot that a freshman could provide an immediate impact.
WR: C. Thomas would give the Wildcats at least one reliable receiver if he recaptures his 2005 form, but the rest of the receiving corps is an unknown quantity.
OL: B-minus. Arizona's offensive line was adequate last year despite starting three freshmen (Britton, guard Daniel Borg and center Blake Kerley). Now that the Wildcats return all five starters, the line should prove better than average and could rank among the best in the Pac-10.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: Cornerback Antoine Cason leads a defense that returns 10 starters from a unit that helped the Wildcats lead the Pac-10 in turnover margin last year. DE Louis Holmes and LB Spencer Larsen also figure to play huge roles on a defense that allowed more than 28 points just once last season.

Best player: Cason. His decision not to enter the NFL Draft made him the instant favorite to win the Thorpe Award that goes to the nation's top defensive back.

Most overrated: Holmes. This former five-star prospect signed with Arizona as the top junior-college recruit in the nation. After collecting four sacks and five tackles for loss last year, Holmes has received preseason All-America consideration. Holmes is a very talented player with huge upside, but he still has to deliver numbers that match his considerable hype.

Arizona Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 at BYU
Sept. 8 Northern Arizona
Sept. 15 New Mexico
Sept. 22 at Cal
Sept. 29 Washington State
Oct. 6 at Oregon State
Oct. 13 at USC
Oct. 20 Stanford
Oct. 27 at Washington
Nov. 3 UCLA
Nov. 15 Oregon
Dec. 1 at Arizona State
Most underrated: Larsen. The Pac-10 has so many outstanding linebackers (USC alone has three All-America candidates in Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers and Brian Cushing) that it's easy for someone like Larsen to slip under the radar. Pac-10 fans are aware of Larsen, but he remains relatively unknown nationwide. That might change if Larsen matches his 2006 production (89 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries).

Must step up:S Dominic Patrick. The loss of Michael Johnson has left the safety position as the only inexperienced area of Arizona's defense. Patrick is a returning starter at free safety who will have to provide leadership while the Wildcats break in a new starter at strong safety.

Shoes to fill: S Cam Nelson, Brandon Tatum and Michael Klyce. These are the three likely contenders to fill the spot at strong safety created by Johnson's departure. Tatum played on special teams as a true freshman two years ago, but injuries caused him to appear in only two games last season. Nelson is a versatile player who might suit up at nickel back instead. Klyce tied for the team lead with three interceptions last year.

Impact newcomer: DE D'Aundre Reed. This redshirt freshman should earn a spot on the two-deep chart and could even work his way into a starting role opposite Holmes.

Position battle: Strong safety: Arizona has so many returning starters on defense that all the other positions are pretty much set. The Wildcats have so much experience elsewhere on the defense that they should be able to let the eventual starter at this spot work his way into the job.

New in 2007: Because Arizona returns 10 starters on defense, there shouldn't be many changes at all on this side of the ball.

Grade the units:
DL: B. Arizona would like to shore up a run defense that allowed 3.9 yards per carry last year.
LB: A-minus. Larsen, Ronnie Palmer and Dane Krogstad combined for almost 200 tackles last season.
DB: A-minus. Cason and Wilrey Fontenot return as fourth-year starting cornerbacks.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: Arizona returns plenty of experience on offense and defense, but the Wildcats have serious issues with their kicking game. Nick Folk was a Rivals.com third-team All-American who handled the kicking and punting duties last season. Folk's departure leaves the Wildcats relying on newcomers at both spots. This will mark the first time in a decade that Arizona has opened a season with a first-year starter at kicker and punter. Arizona also must find a punter to replace Syndric Steptoe.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
All the elements are in place for Arizona to end its bowl drought this season. Arizona returns 19 starters from a team that won four of its last six games a year ago, including an upset of California that ended up costing the Golden Bears the Pac-10 title. A second consecutive All-America season from Antoine Cason and a breakthrough year from Louis Holmes could help make sure Arizona opponents don't get more than 21 points per game. The question is whether the Wildcats' offense will score that much, particularly now that Chris Henry and Syndric Steptoe have departed. We're guessing the arrival of new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes and the improvement of quarterback Willie Tuitama will add enough juice to the offense to produce a 7-5 season and an appearance in a second-tier bowl such as the Las Vegas. We'll predict a bowl loss that brings the Wildcats' final record to 7-6.
Best player: To be determined. It's too early to hand this honor to anyone on the special-teams unit when Arizona's still trying to determine its regular kicker, punter and kick returners.

Grade the units:
K: C-minus. Don't be surprised if true freshman Alex Zendejas wins this job over junior Jason Bondzio, who lacks range.
P: C. The Wildcats likely will turn to redshirt freshman Keenyn Crier, who will have big shoes to fill.
KR: C. Who's going to replace Steptoe, who gained 3,931 all-purpose yards in his career? Perhaps the Wildcats will turn to another receiver by handing this job to Mike Thomas.
PR: C. Steptoe's absence also will be felt at this spot.

Breaking down the coaching

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: C-plus. Arizona has made progress under Mike Stoops, but it hasn't been as fast as many fans would like. The Wildcats avoided a losing season last year for the first time since 1999, but they're still seeking their fist bowl bid since 1998.
Offense: B-minus: Texas Tech led the nation in total offense each year from 2003-05 with Dykes on its staff.
Defense: A-minus: The Stoops brothers (head coach Mike and defensive coordinator Mark) have helped Arizona build one of the Pac-10's most respected defenses.

Special teams: A-minus: Arizona has produced All-America-caliber punters and solid punt returners since Joe Robinson started coaching the special-teams unit.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 47.

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