Arizona Wildcats Preview

Willie Tuitama

SCPlaybook's Lyle Everett previews the Arizona Wildcats by position as they prepare to face the #6 USC Trojans this Saturday night in the desert. The Cats come into the game 5-2 overall with a 3-1 conference mark and average over 40 points per game.

Coaching

Mike Stoops' seat has never seemed to cool down during his reign as head coach at the University of Arizona. Hired in November of 2003, Stoops has compiled a 22-31 overall record with the Wildcats going 15-23 in the Pac-10. He is the younger brother of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops and apparently enjoys keeping family close by, as evidenced by his hiring of brother Mark to run his defense.

In 2006, Stoops led the Cats to their first non-losing season in eight years and seemingly had everything on track in his third season to compete with the conference's best going forward. But U of A lost three of their first four games out of the gate in 2007, including a 29-27 home loss to New Mexico. Late in the game against the Lobos, Stoops received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his conduct towards the referees during a timeout which led directly to a New Mexico touchdown and made the difference in the final score.

Following a 21-20 home loss to Stanford which dropped the team to 2-6, local media began speculating as to whether and/or when Stoops would be fired. But just then, the Wildcats started to play quality football and posted three straight victories over Washington, UCLA and Oregon, finishing 5-7 after a tough loss to rival Arizona State. In all, Arizona played six games in 2007 that were decided by seven points or less, losing four of them.

Stoops' wins over the Bruins and Ducks were big enough accomplishments to save his job in the eyes of Athletic Director Jim Livengood, but it is widely thought that Arizona needs a bowl bid this season if Stoops is to remain at the school for the long term. Posting a 5-2 overall record thus far certainly helps matters – even if losing to New Mexico for a second straight year doesn't. Zona is riding the momentum of last week's 42-27 victory over Cal and can afford to go all out against the Trojans this Saturday, as they head into a bye week next weekend.

Offense

The Wildcats have an experienced and talented quarterback running the show in four-year starter Willie Tuitama. A major recruit out of high school, Tuitama had to learn three offenses in his first three years on campus and consequently struggled to obtain a hold on any one system. All that changed with Sonny Dykes' arrival in Tucson. Dykes brought with him the spread offense he previously ran as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and is thought of as one of the country's brightest and most innovative minds.

Tuitama completed 62% of his passes for 3,683 yards and 28 touchdowns against 12 interceptions as a junior in his first year running the spread. Through seven games of his senior campaign, he has completed over 65% for 1,691 yards and 15 TDs while throwing just three picks. Tuitama is the school's all-time career passing and total offense leader, ranking number one in just about every career passing statistic from yards to touchdowns. Tuitama completed 30 passes during the narrow 20-13 loss to USC in the Coliseum last season.

Arizona's variation of the spread offense calls for quick, three to seven yard patterns that allow the WRs to run after the catch. Unlike some of his offenses at Texas Tech, Dykes' play calling this season has been very balanced, having run the ball 256 times while throwing 226 passes for 2,883 total yards so far this season.

All three starting wide receivers are back from last year, led by tiny veteran "Money" Mike Thomas (5'8", 195 lbs). Thomas led the club a year ago with 83 catches for 1,038 yards and an impressive 11 touchdowns. He has a penchant for getting open and is one of the best receivers in the conference. Thomas is currently number two in Arizona history with 227 career receptions and can become the school's all-time leader with four more this week against the Trojans, surpassing Bobby Wade (currently of the Minnesota Vikings). Of his 42 catches this season, 26 of them have resulted in first downs (62%) and four have gone for touchdowns. Additionally, he has run the ball eight times, usually on reverses, averaging nine yards per carry.

Terrell Turner finished second on the team with 50 receptions for 575 yards and four TDs as a sophomore last season. He has 28 grabs for 362 so far in 2008. Lanky sophomore Delashaun Dean (6'4", 200 lbs), who enjoyed a very productive freshman year with 37 catches for 418 yards has asserted himself as the number two WR with 30 catches and two scores this season.

U of A has a future superstar on their hands with tight end Rob Gronkowski, who earned a starting role as a true freshman last season scoring six touchdowns on 28 catches overall. He has the size (6'6", 265 lbs) and speed to become one of the best tight ends in the nation and there is no doubt he has an NFL career looming on the horizon. He missed the first three games this season due to illness, but is quickly making up for lost time. Gronkowski has hauled in 16 passes for 262 yards in four games, averaging 16.4 yards per catch. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that six of those 16 have gone for touchdowns and 12 of them have converted to first downs.

The ground game was virtually non-existent last season. Arizona ran for less than 1,000 yards as a team and the RBs scored only seven touchdowns running the ball in '07. This year, they have been much more productive and come into the game on Saturday featuring a couple of young and very talented running backs. Sophomore Nic Grigsby should get the start against SC, as he is averaging almost six yards per carry with nine touchdowns, but has had problems holding onto the ball lately and is being pushed hard by true freshman Keola Antolin. Antolin will enter the game Saturday night attempting to follow up his 149-yard, 3 TD effort against Cal after Grigsby fumbled on his first attempt against the Bears. Antolin won Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week for his performance and may get more carries this week as a result.

The offensive line boasts a good amount of experience for the Wildcats and is led by senior RG Joe Longacre (6'3", 320 lbs) and junior LT Eben Britton (6'6", 315 lbs). With an injury to Blake Kerley during the UCLA game a few weeks ago, Arizona was forced to move sophomore Colin Baxter from his natural position of LG to Center and Mike Diaz has filled in admirably at LG.

Defense

The defense formerly known as "Desert Swarm" was decimated by graduation this off-season as eight starters are gone from last year, including all four up front. This year's D-Line is very young and is just now starting to cut their teeth. Sophomore DE Brooks Reed (6'3", 265 lbs) leads the team with three sacks, two of which came last week against Cal, while fellow sophomore Ricky Elmore has chipped in with two from the opposite end. The interior is undersized and unsteady. Former fullback Earl Mitchell gets the start at DT and is listed at a generous 265 pounds with sophomore Kaniela Tuipulotu manning the trenches along side him.

Fortunately for the Wildcats, their linebackers carry with them plenty of experience to go around. Led by seniors Ronnie Palmer (40 tackles, two sacks) in the middle and Adrian McCovy on the strong side, the Cats' backers are sure tacklers who employ a stingy 4-3. The team leader in tackles is WLB Sterling Lewis, who has totaled 48 take downs on the year. Lewis is a highly touted JUCO transfer who has made his presence felt all season. Maryland transfer Chris Gronkowski, older brother of standout TE Rob Gronkowski, serves at backup to Palmer in the middle. During longer down and distances, they will bring on nickel Corey Hall to sub for McCovy.

The Cats' secondary are an opportunistic bunch who have ten interceptions through seven games. Two of the three returning defensive starters from last season's squad man the middle of the secondary at the safety positions. FS Nate Hess produced five INTs last year and routinely displays a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He is currently second on the team with 42 tackles and two picks, returning one 75 yards for a touchdown against Stanford. SS Cam Nelson is solid but not spectacular. He has 33 tackles on the season but does not "wow" you with playmaking qualities you would like to see out of your strong safety.

The two corners are senior Marquis Hundley and sophomore Devin Ross. Ross has two "oskies" on the year while Hundley has one. They are good athletes who possess average cover skills, but will be tested against the Trojan WRs. Both CBs are being pushed by freshmen behind them, Robert Golden and Trevin Wade. Wade is the team leader with three INTs. It should be noted that none of Arizona's opponents thus far have been considered prolific passing teams.

Special Teams

Kicker Jason Bondzio has hit eight of nine field goal attempts this season with a long of 49 yards and is a perfect 33-33 on PATs. Keenyn Crier looks to punt as effectively as he did last year against USC when he boomed an 83-yarder! His average of 43.7 yards per punt as a redshirt freshman last year is tied for fifth best in school history and is only slightly higher than the 43.2 he is currently averaging. He has pinned six attempts inside the 20. Mike Thomas is a very dangerous punt returner, currently averaging 15 yards per return and took one back 48 yards for a touchdown against Washington. Keola Anolin and Nick Booth split kick return duties.

Notes

Arizona is 92-8-1 when scoring 30 or more points in a game since it joined the Pac-10 in 1978… With a stadium capacity of 57,400, this week's Homecoming showdown with USC is sold out…Origination of the school nickname "Wildcats" is derived from a 1914 football game with Occidental College, after which the L.A. Times asserted that "the Arizona men showed the fight of wildcats."… U of A is 8-2 at home in its last 10 games at Arizona Stadium…The "Zona Zoo" is the official student section and one of the largest and most spirited student sections in the Pac-10…Zona has won four of their last five home games against ranked opponents…The Cats are a perfect 14-0 under Mike Stoops when scoring 30 points or more…At the beginning of each school year, freshmen repaint the "A" on "A" Mountain located behind the stadium, a tradition that has stood for more than 100 years…Notable Arizona alumni include: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim owner Arte Moreno, golfer Annika Sorenstam, Olympic gold medalists Jennie Finch and Amanda Beard, actors Greg Kinnear and Craig T. Nelson, New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV, film producer Jerry Bruckheimer, newscaster Geraldo Rivera, and model Brooke Burke…Vegas currently has USC a 16.5 point favorite in Tucson…

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