Second Down: Offense
Ten returning starters and a strong passing game makes Arizona’s 2008
offensive potential the Pac-10’s best-kept secret. The rush attack has to
improve, and how much is the biggest question this offense faces.
The starting quarterback, Willie Tuitama, threw for 3,700 yards last year
with superb efficiency (62.4 percent accuracy, 28 touchdowns, and just 12
picks). The starting receivers caught for over 2,000 yards last year, led by
First Team All-Pac-10 Mike Thomas (1038 yards and 11 touchdowns, despite being
listed at just 5’8”). They all return, making this the Pac-10’s strongest
Tuitama’s one weakness is a lack of mobility that contributed to his 31 sacks
last year. Still, he’s my call to be the All-Pac-10’s First Team quarterback
because of how much of the load he carries, and how well he handles it. Arizona
simply runs their offense through him, passing 44 times and rushing just 27 in
their average game last year.
Tuitama was consistent, throwing for at least 200 yards in every game. He
rose to the occasion when he had to, going 42-of-62 against Cal and 38-of-51
against Washington. And no one in the conference means more to their team than
this guy. The one bad game he did have (16-of-38 with three picks against Oregon State), Arizona lost by two touchdowns.
Thomas, perhaps the most underrated receiver nationally, leads the way at
wideout. Terrell Turner (575 yards, four touchdowns last year) creates all sort
of matchup problems because he’s the team’s second-best receiver, but has 4.4
speed. The No. 3 receiver, sophomore Delashaun Dean (418 yards), is the team’s
biggest at 6’4”, 200, and should emerge as more of an end-zone threat after
catching just one touchdown last year.
Now we shift our focus to less favorable territory for Arizona fans – the
rushing game. To finish the season with just 921 ground yards is pathetic, but
what makes it worse is that you take out four of the worst rush Ds Arizona
played last year (195 against Northern Arizona, 221 against Washington State,
130 against Stanford and 128 against UCLA) and the story is ugly, ugly, ugly. 32
yards against BYU, 38 against New Mexico, 21 against Cal, nine (on 27 carries)
against Oregon State, 22 against USC, 25 against Washington, 56 against Oregon
and 44 against Arizona State.
Simply put, rushing the ball against the top half of the Pac-10 was like
trying to run through a wall for Arizona. The Wildcats were held under 40 yards
in a full half of their games.
So why might the Wildcats be better this year? Well, every starting offensive
lineman from last year returns (though perhaps that’s a blessing and perhaps
that’s a curse), save for left tackle. There, All-American JUCO transfer
J’Marcus Webb, who was just the second true freshman OL to play under Mack Brown
at Texas a few years ago, holds down the spot, marking a significant upgrade
(and, Wildcat fans hope, a significant downturn in Tuitama’s sack numbers).
With Eben Britton, Second Team All-Pac-10 last year, at right tackle, the
tackles will be fine, so the middle of the line is what could keep Arizona from
a bowl. Center Blake Kerley is a three-year starter and sophomore left guard
Colin Baxter started 11 as a freshman last year, so there’s reason for optimism,
but, still, last year’s numbers don’t lie.
There is definite reason for hope at tailback, though. Sophomore Nicholas
Grisby started ten games as a freshman last year, averaged 4.4 per carry and ran
for at least 50 yards in eight of those starts. (The team rush numbers above are
so awful because of Tuitama’s 259 sack yards.) With a year of experience under
his belt, Grisby will only be better. Plus, this year, he won’t have to carry
the entire load, with backup Joe Reese, a redshirt freshman with an Oklahoma
offer back in high school, figuring to get on the field.
Third Down: Defense
Pac-10 offenses will score their share on a defense that returns just
three starters, even though the unit should enjoy the most offensive support
it’s had in years. The further off the line you are, the better the defense is,
with the secondary the D’s strength and the line the weakness.
Arizona’s rush defense should compete with Oregon State’s to see who can take
the biggest step backwards.
The Beavers return no starters in their front seven (though, as Stanford’s
season opener nears, the ringing in my ears from OSU fans telling me that
doesn’t matter because the backups are relatively experienced, the team rotates
through the two-deep in games, and it’s all the scheme anyways is insufferable).
For Arizona, meanwhile, the only returning starter is middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer, though end Johnathan Turner did start six last year. Uh oh…
A key metric I use to evaluate position groups is when the coaches move a
perfectly productive player from one position to another. The move is the
coaches’ way of saying this unit is in serious trouble –why else bother to burn
the two years the kid spent practicing at fullback and halfback and transfer him
to nose tackle? And the coaches see these guys every day, so when they’re saying
our line is so poor than a converted halfback could make the switch and
immediately contribute, it’s wise to pay attention.
Sure enough, I see junior Earl Mitchell, a fullback his freshman year and a
halfback his sophomore year, not only made the switch to nose tackle, but he
could well start! Now, why you’d put a 6’2”, 280 kid at halfback to begin with
is beyond me, but that move speaks volumes. Plus, the other two starters on the
line could well be sophomores, Ricky Elmore and Kaneila Tuipulotu. Team Stoops
does not a lot of faith in the upperclassmen who should be anchoring that
To add insult to injury, the two best defenders in the front seven,
All-Pac-10 Second Team tackle Lionel Dotson and First Team linebacker Spencer Larsen, were both taken on the NFL Draft’s second day last April. So, after
Palmer, linebacker is another question, though there is more reason for optimism
there than on the line. For one thing, Arizona often plays a 4-2-5, and so a
little linebacker depth goes a long way. For another, junior college transfers
Sterling Lewis and Vuna Tuihalamaka, a probable starter, add much needed
Still, only two of Arizona’s top eight tacklers from 2007 return, Palmer and
strong safety Cam Nelson. Starker yet, only 5.5 of Arizona’s 27 sacks return.
The ‘Cats allowed 3.6 yards per carry on 138 rush yards per game in 2007, good
enough for sixth in the league. Those numbers could drop to ninth or tenth this
The secondary won’t be last year’s lockdown unit, but will still lead this
Antoine Cason, the national cornerback of the year, was a first-round draft
choice, and fellow corner Wilrey Fontenot went in the seventh round this past
April – two major losses for a school that doesn’t exactly recruit like a USC.
Still, strong safety Nelson and free safety Nate Ness, a junior college
transfer, are returning starters who can help ease in the corners.
Those corners should be Devin Ross and Marquis Hundley, both upperclassmen
who’ve had plenty of time in the system behind Cason and Fontenot. Ross, a
junior, was a top-ten national cornerback recruit who saw the field as a true
freshman and was the kick returner last year. He might make mental mistakes, but
he’s as athletic as anyone in Tucson city limits. True frosh Robert Golden,
Scout.com’s No. 4 corner nationally, might not start, but figures to make an
immediate impact in nickel and dime situations.
Arizona’s going to be the Stanford of old – score a ton, but give up a lot
too, especially up front. It will be up to this secondary to break up or
intercept enough late-game passes for the Wildcats to win their share of the
shootouts – and save their coach’s job.
Fourth Down: Extra Points
Sophomore punter Keenyn Crier was First Team All-Pac-10 last year, averaging
43.7 yards per boot – as a true freshman. Stanford’s hoping Daniel Zychlinski
can provide a similar spark this year.
More important to Arizona’s fate, given how well they move the ball between
the twenties but how weak they are pounding it in a goal-line set, is their
field-goal licker. Luckily, senior Jason Dondzio is a good one, hitting 21-of-26
last year, including 8-of-9 in the 40-49 yard range. Two-thirds of the NFL would
take that in a heartbeat. Dondzio’s 22 touchbacks on kickoffs also placed in the
It’s no secret to Pac-10 fans that Mike Stoops is on the hot seat.
Conventional wisdom says he probably needs a bowl bid to save his job…
…But with Arizona’s schedule, forget just getting six wins for bowl
eligibility, there’s a real shot the Wildcats start 6-0. Idaho, Toledo, at New
Mexico, at UCLA, Washington and at Stanford take the ‘Cats through Oct. 11, and
come Oct. 12, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them tied for the Pac-10
lead, and ranked in the top-25. It will all be reminiscent of Arizona State last
year, which started 8-0…
…only for the Devils to lose three of their last five because the schedule
was horribly back-loaded. Arizona isn’t as good of a team, so they could fade
faster yet down the backstretch of Cal, USC, at Washington State, at Oregon,
Oregon State and Arizona State. Toledo’s the only team in the front half likely
to finish the season with a winning record, and Washington State’s the only team
down the back half likely to finish with a losing record.
Bottom line: don’t overhype Arizona when they come into the Stanford game 5-0
or 4-1; it’s a function of their schedule. It might also mark Stanford’s best
shot at upsetting a top-25 team this season.
This year’s matchup should be a case of strength-on-strength when the Arizona
offense matches up with the Stanford defense. Conversely, coaches might not want
to show the tape of Stanford’s offense battling Arizona’s defense to too many
The teams have split their last three, with Arizona winning 20-7 in 2006, a
game Walt Harris detractors remember all too well for the then-Cardinal coach
electing to punt with under two minutes left. Better to cover the under than try
to win, I guess. Stanford, meanwhile, prevailed 20-16 in 2005, and 21-20 last
year. For my money, last year’s victory didn’t have the stakes of the USC or Cal
game, but in terms of the actual football, it was Stanford’s most exciting win
featuring a spread of less than 41.