March 4, 2009

Arizona seeks leader for veteran squad

Arizona went to its first bowl since 1998 last season and probably saved coach Mike Stoops' job in the process. This season, the focus is on carrying over that success.

To that end, spring ball will be important for the Wildcats as they search for a quarterback to replace Willie Tuitama.

Here's a look at Arizona as it prepares for spring drills.

ARIZONA AT-A-GLANCE
Nic Grigsby will have a veteran line to run behind this season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Mike Stoops
Last season: 8-5, 5-4 Pac-10. Beat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Spring dates: March 4-April 8. The spring game is April 4.
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (7): G/C Colin Baxter, G Mike Diaz, WR Delashaun Dean, RB Nic Grigsby, H-back Chris Gronkowski, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Terrell Turner.
Defense (7): E Ricky Elmore, LB Xavier Kelley, T Earl Mitchell, SS Cam Nelson, E Brooks Reed, CB Devin Ross, T Kaniela Tuipulotu.
Special teams (1): P Keenyn Crier.
Positions of strength

Running backs Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin combined to rush for 1,678 yards and 23 touchdowns last season in a passing offense. Running behind an experienced line in '09, their production doesn't figure to drop much. That is, unless the Wildcats look to pass more. Throwing isn't a bad idea if the ball is going to Rob Gronkowski, who is among the best in the nation at tight end. Defensively, Xavier Kelley, Sterling Lewis and Vuna Tuihalamaka comprise a solid linebacker corps. The defensive line has the potential to be one of the best in the Pac-10.

Help is needed

Record-setting quarterback Tuitama completed his career after starting for four seasons and passing for more than 9,000 yards. His exit leaves the offense in the hands of either Matt Scott or Nick Foles, both seldom-used sophomores. Protecting the quarterback could be an issue, too. Eben Britton left early for the NFL and James Tretheway completed his eligibility, leaving the tackle spots to a group of unproven prospects. Senior Adam Grant, the only tackle with game experience, has battled injuries throughout his career. Coaches also hope sophomore kicker Alex Zendejas can adequately replace the departed Jason Bondzio.

Keep an eye on

G Vaughn Dotsy: He spent his freshman year as a backup guard. This spring, Dotsy a 6-foot-5, 355-pound former three-star prospect figures to nail down a starting job.

LB Vuna Tuihalamaka: He posted 23 tackles last season as a backup to Ronnie Palmer, who led the Wildcats in stops. Expect Tuihalamaka, a senior, to secure a starting job this spring and his tackles total to climb in the fall.

CB Trevin Wade: Even though he backed up all-conference cornerback Devin Ross last season as a freshman, Wade had four interceptions and three pass breakups. He'll likely settle in at the corner opposite Ross this season.

Their time is now

The Wildcats need an effective pass-rushing end to surface opposite Brooks Reed, who had eight sacks in '08. That puts the onus on juniors Ricky Elmore and D'Aundre Reed to prove they can raise their level of performance. Elmore had 25 tackles and four sacks last season; Reed had 24 tackles and one sack.

The buzz

A good old-fashioned quarterback competition is brewing between Scott and Foles. The starter probably won't be named until August, but one certainly could gain an edge this spring. A quarterback competition always engrosses fans, but this one is more vital than some. The Wildcats need a replacement for Tuitama, who last season led Arizona to its first bowl victory in a decade. After tasting success, the Wildcats don't want to take a step back. Quarterback obviously will be a big key if the Wildcats want to keep going forward.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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