March 8, 2008

ARIZONA WILDCATS
Head coach: Mike Stoops
Last season: 5-7 overall, 4-5 in the Pac-10. The Wildcats didn't play in a bowl game.
Spring practice: March 8-April 12.

Arizona coach Mike Stoops is feeling the heat, but he and the Wildcats look to have a powerful offense. It's rebuilding the defense which lost nine starters that should take center stage this spring. Here's a look at Arizona as it opens spring practice.

ARIZONA
Willie Tuitama is one of 10 startes back on the Wildcats' offense.

RETURNING STARTERS
Offense10: G Colin Baxter, T Eben Britton, WR Delashaun Dean, RB Nicholas Grigsby, TE Rob Gronkowski, C Blake Kerley, G Joe Longacre, WR Mike Thomas, QB Willie Tuitama, WR Terrell Turner.
Defense2: SS Cameron Nelson, LB Ronnie Palmer.
Special teams2: K Jason Bondzio, P Keenyn Crier.
EARLY ENROLLEES
OT Mike Diaz (junior college transfer), OT Phillip Garcia (junior college transfer), C/G Herman Hall (junior college transfer), LB Sterling Lewis (junior college transfer), LB Vuna Tuihalamaka (junior college transfer).

POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

It took Arizona about half of last season to perfect the "Air Zona" offense coordinator Sonny Dykes brought with him from Texas Tech. Look for quarterback Willie Tuitama to be more efficient in the system at the start of the spring. Along with Tuitama, Arizona returns four starters on the offensive line, its top three wide receivers and its top tight end. Thomas became a go-to receiver for Tuitama. He led the Pac-10 in catches (83) and touchdown receptions (11). Arizona also returns the top kicker-punter tandem in the league. Bondzio made 21 of 26 field-goal attempts, including eight of 10 from beyond 40 yards. Crier led the Pac-10 in punting as a freshman, averaging 43.7 yards per kick.

HELP IS NEEDED

Arizona needs to find replacements all over the defense, which returns only two starters - Palmer and Nelson. Finding help on the defensive line is the top priority for the spring. Six linemen from the two-deep depth chart were seniors last year, including defensive tackles Yaniv Barnett and Lionel Dotson. Former defensive end starter Johnathan Turner returns to compete with sophomores D'Aundre Reed, Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore, who saw spot duty in 2007. Sophomore Lolomana Mikaele and junior Donald Horton will compete at tackle.

KEEP AN EYE ON

DT Earl Mitchell: Gronkowski's emergence forced Mitchell out of his H-back role. Arizona would like to find another place for Mitchell to see snaps, starting at defensive tackle this spring.

DE Apaiata Tuihalamaka: The four-star outside linebacker from the class of 2007 will mix it up at end after redshirting last year. He will compete with sophomores Elmore and Brooks Reed.

LB Vuna Tuihalamaka: Apaiata's cousin enrolled in January out of El Camino CC in Torrance, Calif. After amassing 148 tackles in 14 games in junior college, Tuihalamaka will be in the mix at strongside linebacker.

HIS TIME IS NOW

Tuitama set the bar high after passing for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns in five games as a freshman. The offense has struggled since, whether because of its inability to find a running game or growing pains in the new offense. There should be little holding Tuitama back in his senior year. Nine starters return around him, and Grigsby gives him a running threat to keep defenses honest.

THE BUZZ

Coach Mike Stoops has delivered a few big wins in November over No. 2 Oregon last year, No. 8 Cal in 2006 and No. 7 UCLA in 2005. But none of those wins in November put Arizona in a bowl. The Wildcats could end their 10-year bowl drought this season because of all the returning offensive firepower. Stoops and defensive coordinator/brother Mark Stoops have a lot of work to do this spring on defense.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.




 

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