June 23, 2007

Dykes brings high hopes to the desert

Consider this the safest bet in college football.

Arizona won't finish as low 94th in the nation in passing offense for a second consecutive season. And it hardly matters that the Wildcats also finished 90th or lower in this category in 2003 and 2004.

The Wildcats' recent history of conservatism ended when they made the daring decision to hire offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes from Texas Tech, which led the nation in passing every year from 2002-05.

Dykes' move to Arizona gives him an opportunity to be a team's chief play-caller. Although Dykes spent the last two seasons as Texas Tech's co-offensive coordinator, head coach Mike Leach had the play-calling responsibilities.

"It's going to be different," Dykes said. "The biggest challenge when you go someplace new is trying to make the system fit the players."

That may prove particularly challenging at Arizona.

Arizona returns only one wideout junior Mike Thomas who had more than 312 receiving yards last season. By contrast, Texas Tech had six players with at least 334 receiving yards a year ago.

"There's always a challenge in finding enough quality wide receivers," Dykes said. "Everywhere we've gone, it's been a challenge. The situation here is we probably don't have as much depth as we need at some spots. But we'll try to be creative in addressing those issues.''

That could involve capitalizing on Arizona's depth at tight end and fullback by utilizing those positions in its passing attack.

"We're going to have many of the same concepts (as at Texas Tech)," Dykes said. "A lot of the passing concepts stay the same, but maybe there's a little more play-action, a little more of a downhill running game, bigger sets, more tight ends and more fullbacks. (That's) partially because it's beneficial to the overall offense - particularly in certain situations - but also just because of a little lack of depth at receiver."

Even without much receiving depth, Arizona found a way to incorporate a Texas Tech type of scheme into its offense this spring.

The Wildcats threw 70 passes out of 93 plays from scrimmage in their spring game. That's a pretty dramatic change for a team that ran the ball slightly more than half the time last season.

The track record of Dykes and his mentors offers further evidence that Arizona could make a quick transition to this new style.

Hal Mumme arrived as the Kentucky coach in 1997 with a staff that included Leach as offensive coordinator and Dykes as a graduate assistant. In Mumme's first season, Tim Couch set a school single-season passing record by throwing for 3,884 yards a mark he would shatter the following year.

Three years later, Dykes arrived at Texas Tech as a wide receivers coach on Leach's staff. The Red Raiders boasted the nation's 11th-ranked passing offense during the first year of Leach's tenure.

Texas Tech hasn't finished worse than fifth in passing offense since. Dykes spent five years as the wide receivers coach before adding co-offensive coordinator to his title in 2005.

"Coaching against the system he's operated was extremely difficult," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops, the Oklahoma defensive coordinator from 1999-2003. "It's a lethal offense."

Stoops already has built a solid defense in his first three years at Arizona. The Wildcats held offensive juggernauts Southern California and California to 20 points each last year. However, Arizona's inability to score has helped keep it out of a bowl game since 1998.

Arizona was held to 10 or fewer points in four of its first six games and never really recovered on its way to a 6-6 finish. Texas Tech has ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in scoring offense each of the last six years.

The Wildcats' chances of improving their scoring total will probably depend on the performance of their quarterback.

Willie Tuitama played well as a freshman before struggling through an injury-riddled sophomore season last year. He spent the spring adjusting to Dykes' scheme.

"Willie's still a work in progress," Dykes said. "He really improved during the spring. It's a little bit different offense from what he's used to, but I think he's a guy who's going to have a lot of potential. He worked hard in the spring. The key for us is keeping him healthy, keeping some pressure off him and letting him go out and play.

"He's at his best when he doesn't have to think a lot and can play on instinct. He has great instincts. We just need to let him go out and play."

Tuitama went 24-of-39 for 292 yards with a pair of touchdown passes and two interceptions in the spring game. His outing reflected the entire offense's up-and-down performance as it gets the hang of the new system.

"You don't ever know how long it's going to take," Dykes said. "The longer you're in a system, the more success you have - just like with any offense. I felt we got pretty far along in the spring, but we've still got a lot of work to do.''

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


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