Counting Down -- Six Weeks Until Football
June 24, 2003
The soothsayers generally put Arizona somewhere near the lower-middle of the pack in Division I-A football for 2003, and peg the Wildcats for the bottom of the Pacific-10 Conference. The Wildcats want no part of such notions.
The prognosticators' reasoning, in part - the Cats' worst-ever tie for 9th place with a 1-7 league mark in 2002, and a schedule which this season features 10 bowl teams including LSU, Purdue and Texas Christian on the non-conference slate. Plus the Cats lost three of their yeoman performers in quarterback Jason Johnson, linebacker Lance Briggs and wide receiver Bobby Wade.
No matter that the Wildcats lost three key games at mid-year last fall by a combined 21 points. Such pivotal contests are the stuff of good seasons. A couple of plays here and there and Arizona might have been a modest 7-5 but at least in the hunt for a bowl bid.
In each of the past three years, the last two under the watch of head Coach John Mackovic, Arizona had such October opportunities that dramatically impacted the season. No one knows more than those in the UA camp that until the Cats can win those games, they'll be lumped with the have-nots.
Enter a new direction in 2003 in the quest to get the job done, to step beyond having chances to win. The Arizona program sports new offensive and defensive coordinators, a different special teams coordinator, three other new coaches and - definitively - a different defense and a cohesive temperment.
In spring practice a change in Arizona's team chemistry was evident. On the defensive side of the ball, UA's players seemed eager to put the double-eagle flex behind them and play a more reactive 3-4 system newly installed under coordinator Mike Hankwitz. On offense, Mackovic and coordinator Mike Deal turned over every available stone to find answers to poor production in last year's running game, and worked exhaustively to find which of the two top quarterback prospects could step into Johnson's shoes.
Clearly, Arizona's hopes for success in 2003 hinge most heavily on what Mackovic calls a 'tough and rough' defensive mentality, the 'two-horse race' at the quarterback spot and re-establishing the running game. All are do-able goals, and progress is under way.
Defensive coordinator Hankwitz, most recently of Texas A&M but a Mackovic colleague from 1970s staffs at Arizona and Purdue (both under Jim Young), is credited by the head coach as a superbly well-organized tactician with tried and true methods. Offensive coordinator Deal, late of NFL Europe but a Mackovic assistant on staffs at Illinois and Texas, gets a nod from the coach as a run-blocking and pass-protection expert of some note, and one in whom he trusts as knowing Mackovic's offensive peculiarities well.
Nothing gets done by word alone, though, and Arizona's spring methodology dispensed with rhetoric and focused on the tasks at hand. There are more questions to be answered entering fall camp, but Arizona seems poised to provide suitable answers, and get on with the business of winning football games.
'We set out to install our defense in spring ball, and arrange the personnel in the right spots. We did a better job than we did two years ago when we kept the same scheme Arizona had been running,' Mackovic said after spring ball.
The Cats switched to a 3-4 after a decade of the flex. The latter, when used at full strength with marvelous players, was as good a defense as any in America. But the Desert Swarm legacy of the '90s softened as opponents became familiar with its nuance and made adjustments. Too, without All-Americans like Rob Waldrop, Tedy Bruschi, Sean Harris, Tony Bouie and Chris McAlister manning key spots, the defense became improbably difficult.
'We have to play better defense to have a better team. No question,' Mackovic says.
The 'new' system under Hankwitz, actually a football staple for decades, gives UA some different stunts, blitzes, dime and nickel coverages and other straightforward schemes that help limit players' responsibilities to upfield work, rather than so many side-to-side details of the double-eagle. 'We put in far more than one might have anticipated,' Mackovic said, and noted that UA has some players geared to the change.
'It's a better match versus the Pac-10,' Mackovic said of the Cats defense. 'We see a lot of three- and four-receiver alignments and with the flex that stretched us and put our run defense in trouble. The 3-4 gives us two linebackers in the middle of the field, and two safeties in the middle of the field. We can roll coverages and match up. I felt that opposing quarterbacks could 'read' us too easily. This kind of defense hopefully will help,' he said.
Defensive Front - Coach Marty Long
The Cats return three veterans and identified three new guys that should help in 2003 at the nose tackle and end spots. Junior Vince Feula (6-0, 300) and senior Carl Tuitavuki (6-3, 224) solidified holds in the nose tackle rotation, while junior Carlos Williams (6-5, 295) and sophomore Brad Brittain (6-4, 285) seem poised to earn starting roles as the ends. Mid-year transfer David Sharp (6-3, 290) and redshirt freshmen Paul Philipp (6-2, 265) and Tim Volk (6-2, 266) also turned in solid spring efforts and will give Arizona some flexibility and depth, plus could contend for starts.
Philipp, notably, was an eye-catcher as a true freshman that would have played in 2003 but an early injury kept him out of the lineup long enough to take a redshirt year. His progress in spring ball earned him the Defensive Newcomer Award, one of the nice developments on that side of the ball. More good news in that regard is that he enters camp listed as a backup, meaning he'll be forced to push for a major role.
UA was 10th in the league in rushing defense last year and expected improvement from the front line will go a long way to bringing that way up in 2003. UA's alignments include 4- and 5-man looks up front but the 3-4 system gives line coach Marty Long fewer positions to work with and a solid group of candidates from which to pick. Mackovic expects 'It's going to be a good mix and match group for us.'
Arizona's best historical teams had upperclassmen on the defensive line who made a difference. In terms of experience, UA will have to get the job done with a different blend - the four lettermen and the three newbies. Two incoming freshmen in Cedric Cofer and Clifton Stanford will be tested in early camp.
Defensive Starters Returning:
(games started)DE Carlos Williams (9)ILB Joe Siofele (12)CB Michael Jolivette (11 in ''01)DB DARRELL BROOKS (10)DB Clay Hardt (11)CB Gary Love (7)
Outside Linebackers - Coach Mike Hankwitz
Arizona has a pretty good group of candidates on the edge, and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz put his charges through a nice crash course in spring ball. Hankwitz himself, fresh on the scene a week before spring practice commenced, did an admirable job pulling all the new-defense details together in an extremely short time.
By year's end in 2002, redshirt freshman Copeland Bryan (6-4, 240), a former walk-on, was starting on one side and returns as a probable pick this year. On the other side, Marcus Smith (6-5, 230) enters his second year after nearly wresting a starting role as a true freshman last year before an injury slowed his progress. Junior college redshirt Andre Torrey also seemed poised to start last year but ended up redshirting with a hip problem.
Bryan, a surprise in 2002, was among team leaders with five sacks. Torrey and three-year letterman Matt Molina (6-2, 240), plus converted fullback Antoine Singfield (6-1, 225) make for good depth. Molina has been a special teams stalwart and a key reserve for years. His experience will help the team somewhere.
Despite the predominant youth at the outside linebacker positions, coaches feel it could be one of the team's strengths and provide more pressure than a year ago when Arizona was ninth in the league in quarterback sacks. A trio of young recruits arrive in the fall, Lionel Dotson, Ryan Kilpatrick and Jason Parker, and could push from behind.
Inside Linebackers - Coach Craig Bray
Arizona benefited at the inside linebacker positions by luring former Oregon State defensive coordinator Craig Bray to Tucson to handle the position. Few things are better than another mind working on a defensive transition. 'Craig had some very good impressions about how we should put together the defense. He has a lot of experience,' Mackovic noted.
One thing UA did was move outside linebacker/defensive end Joe Siofele (6-3, 260) inside. He embarked on a mission to shed some of the lineman's weight he carried the past season and should end up in the 250 range. UA's returning tackles leader (66 hits) and tops in sacks (5.5), Siofele should end up in the 250-pound range, and a big physical presence in the middle.
Arizona had a succession of linebackers with subsequent NFL opportunities - Brant Boyer, Sean Harris, Charlie Camp, Chester Burnett, Marcus Bell and Lance Briggs - and Siofele will get a chance to take his game into the middle of the field where they roamed. It's a good fit for UA's new defense.
Bray's emphasis is shut-up-and-play, so the corps that emerges should be leaders by example. Junior Pat Howard had an outstanding spring session and appears capable of earning a starting role. He had late spring shoulder surgery and should be cleared from the onset of fall camp. Junior two-year letterman Kirk Johnson and redshirt freshmen John McKinney and Akin Akinniyi give the Cats some young talent.
Howard and Johnson have playing experience at inside linebacker for UA. The others do not. With Briggs and would-be sophomore Spencer Larsen (Mormon mission) gone, Arizona will largely field a unit that will need to adjust to the learning curve of game speed - at game speed.
Defensive Secondary - Coach Steve Bernstein
Help for the guys on the 'island' - players in coverage - arrived with Hankwitz in spring ball, and secondary coach Steve Bernstein was familiar with Hankwitz' game and ready to have the Cats change gears in the defensive backfield. The 3-4 will give UA more balance, and nowhere more evident than behind the lines.
Arizona was decent in passing defense a year ago, in fact finishing third in the Pac-10 by holding opponents to 224 passing yards per game in a pass-happy year, despite losing cover-man Michael Jolivette for 10 games (knee injury). Jolivette returned for spring ball and while still in rehabilitation did a nice job and cemented his role as a potential impact player. His 10 interceptions in 24 career games played argue the point, plus he tied former UA All-American Chuck Cecil with his 38th career pass break-up.
Sophomore Darrell Brooks sat out spring while recovering from an injury, but clearly will find himself on the field, somewhere. An all-academic type student with the playing ability for all-conference, Brooks played cornerback a year ago but likely will shift to free safety in 2003. The spring incumbent there, senior Clay Hardt, will have something to say about it, of course.
Senior corner Gary Love, junior redshirt Luis Nunez, sophomore Jason Martin and mid-year transfer Zeonte Sherman each had opportunities and did good work in the new system in spring ball. Incoming junior college recruit Ryan Patterson should get a swift chance at earning some work at a cornerback spot in fall camp. Love's experience - and knowledge as a former receiver - give him an edge.
At strong safety, sophomore Lamon Means was named the outstanding defensive player in spring ball and showed more than enough to help coaches move Hardt to the free safety position after three years on the strong side. Behind Means, junior Tony Wingate and redshirt freshman Gary Shepard also performed well in March and April, and figure to find roles. Shepard is one of the fastest players on the squad.
UA should have a nice cohesive unit in the secondary. Coaches departed from some of the mass substitution patterns UA used under the flex system and can rotate into some new packages without sending up flares. But while August should help coaches determine a solid top group, the other guys will play, and with more help over the top due to the 3-4 system's design.
In the first two seasons under John Mackovic, Arizona underscored his reputation as a master of the passing game. He led an unheralded fourth-year junior quarterback from 2001 obscurity to emergence as a potential NFL signee this past summer, and along the way re-wrote a pile of Arizona passing records. The work with Jason Johnson was truly remarkable.
'The quarterbacks have developed a feel for many of the things we do, and in strategy situations they're coming along. I'm comfortable but not satisfied,' Mackovic said after spring ball.
Yet a primary point of emphasis in spring practice was the Arizona running game. To be more accurate - the near lack of one in 2002. Arizona checked in nationally at last in Division I with an average of 44 yards per game. In Pac-10 play - where seven of the Cats' eight losses came - the figure was a ghastly 13 yards per game and a measly 0.5 yards per attempt.
This from a squad that the year before sported a 1,000-yard rusher in halfback Clarence Farmer, a first-team All-Pac-10 pick in 2001. In 2002 he missed eight games with a knee injury, but UA still had some good youthful backs who couldn't get the running game going. Nor could the people up front help in a consistent way. Tackles for losses dumped 628 yards from UA's gross rushing figure and a whole slew of missed blocks had to be a root cause.
'We set off in spring ball to get our running game back together. We shifted to more downhill running plays and made a lot of strides,' Mackovic said. 'You're never too old to learn, and we changed one or two things on power plays that helped,' he said.
Quarterbacks - Coach Jeff Hecklinski
Whether Arizona has a remarkable successor to Jason Johnson at the quarterback position is one of the key questions for 2003 Wildcat football. Clearly, it was a primary focus of spring practice.
'We wanted to get our quarterbacks trained. They had good days and bad days,' Mackovic said of sophomore Nic Costa and redshirt freshman Ryan O'Hara. It's hard to say where we are. The quarterbacks have developed a feel for many of the things we do, and in strategy situations, they're coming along. I'm comfortable but not satisfied,' he said.
UA partisans have to hope the head man knows his stuff as well as it appeared in his transformation of Johnson from placekicks holder to East-West Shrine Game starter two scant years later.
The primary new coaches on staff affecting quarterbacking are offensive coordinator Mike Deal (the offensive line coach) and quarterbacks coach Jeff Hecklinski, an up and coming young coach who's already been a coordinator. So Mackovic not only goes about developing the next quarterback, but does so with new leadership. Spring ball showed the chemistry can work.
Welcomed back to camp but hurt at spring's end was junior-to-be John Rattay, who left the program after spring 2002 practice and played in junior college. He underwent summer knee surgery and is not likely to be available in early fall. That reduced the competition, in Mackovic's words, to a 'two-horse race' between Costa and O'Hara.
Costa (5-11, 200) has some game experience, albeit minimal, under his belt. One of his plays a year ago was a scramble at his own goal line and a toss of 92 yards for a score. Pound for pound he's one of the strongest players on the team, and mobile. O'Hara, at 6-foot-6, gets a different look at things and enjoyed one scrimmage with an 11-for-12 passing and four TDs passing effort. Pound for pound he's yet underdeveloped, but he's surprisingly mobile, too.
Mackovic expects the competiton to continue, likely to the first game. Plus, he wants a close look at incoming freshmen Richard Kovalcheck (6-3, 205) and Kris Heavner (6-3, 215), both well-regarded quarterback prospects. While the two-horse race is at the turn, Mackovic says he's not ruling out something unexpected down the home stretch. Whoever the 2003 starting quarterback is, he won't bring a wealth of experience.
Offensive Starters Returning:
Keoki Fraser (11)OT Brandon Phillips (9)OG Kili Lefotu (6)OL Chris Johnson (6)HB Clarence Farmer (11 in '01)
Running Backs - Coach Jay Boulware
Arizona's offensive staff worked diligently with running backs in spring ball as a means of getting back a productive running game. The group did not include 2001all-league talent Clarence Farmer, who was not allowed to practice due to undisclosed reasons. But, Farmer returned to offseason strength and conditioning workouts with the team early in the summer and is on track to bring his ability back into the fold as a senior in 2003.
His return will be a nice addition to a group of young guys, all of whom saw action last year -- sophomores Mike Bell, Gainus Scott, Gilbert Harris, BEAU CARR and Sean Jones. Sophomore fullback Pedro Limon, switched from linebacker in late 2002, and junior Chris Harris add even more depth. Bell ended up as UA's lead rusher last year, with a modest 341 yards (3.2 per carry). But he, Scott and Jones also missed time with various ailments, one reason the Cats developed more young experience playing true freshmen in Carr and Harris.
Mackovic, coordinator Deal and running backs coach Jay Boulware have tweaked UA's playbook to emphasize more downhill, physical running, and Mackovic said the club made improvement. He specifically cited Bell, Carr and Harris for substantially increasing their awareness of the running game's complementary nature to the passing offense. Though Scott was sidelined for spring with an injury, coaches feel his hard-running style will be a plus with an expected return in August.
UA brings in two fall freshmen at running back, including California prep 100-meter champion Chris Henry, but they likely will find a list of trained guys ahead of them in the rotation. There's no question the head coach is a proponent of moving the ball via the pass, but UA needs the short game to help improve its goal line offense and third-down efficiency.
In a perfect injury-free preseason, UA would work Farmer, Bell, Carr and Scott at halfback in various doses depending on their overall backfield skills (blocking, catching, route-running), with Gilbert Harris and Jones at fullback. Farmer's a known commodity, but Mackovic likes the young guys, too. It's a good situation. All six started games in 2002.
Offensive Line - Coach Mike Deal
The Cats worked through the offseason with an intact group up front, a development unlike 2002 when UA was able (due to injuries) to start the same line only three consecutive games all year. 'We came along nicely, and no one was out - a critical factor' in fostering the cohesion so necessary along the offensive line, Mackovic said.
Senior tackle Brandon Phillips should spearhead the group at right tackle, though junior left tackle Chris Johnson earned the Most Improved Offensive Player award for spring practice. 'The two tackles gave us solid play,' Mackovic said.
Under his guidance, Deal trimmed some of the line's responsibilities in pass protection and blitz pick-up, and worked to get the quarterbacks to stay in the pocket. The interior - where junior center Keoki Fraser and guards John Parada and Kili Lefotu check in as probable starters, also will be a key to the integrity of the pocket. Three-year letterman Reggie Sampay, who started at both guard spots and center in 2002 games, soph tackle Tanner Bell and redshirt freshman tackle Keith Jackson will contend for starting roles but minimally give the unit seven-man depth and flexibility. UA brings in center Tom Robinson, a junior college transfer, in the fall and he's expected to join that group plus contend for all the placekick- and deep-snapping chores.
The size up front is good. Phillips is one of the Cats' biggest at 6-foot-8, 330 pounds. All the other top guys combine to average 6-5, 309. Upon his arrival for the 2001 year, Mackovic promised Arizona would not be intimidated by stature up front, and he's made good on the word.
Tight Ends - Coach Charlie Dickey
After 11 seasons working with Arizona's offensive line, coach Charlie Dickey moves outward and will coach tight ends in 2003. It's a critical position for UA, with two lettermen lost and a spring 2003 practice limited to a corps comprised of a redshirt freshman, a junior walk-on and a sidelined junior two-year letterman.
The redshirt freshman, Matt Padron (6-5, 259), made the most of some exhaustive work, but the walk-on also drew notice. Clarence McRae (6-1 235), in fact, could end up on scholarship after being named the Most Outstanding Newcomer on offense in spring ball. Junior Steve Fleming (6-6, 250) sat out spring with an injury but started a game in 2002 as a top rotation player. He knows the quirks in the offense the others have to learn through game experience.
With knowledge of UA's system and Dickey's influence, those three factor as the top candidates for 2003, but Arizona also went out and recruited a couple of junior college tight ends. Mackovic likes a four-man tight end group among his 60-man travel party so one of those guys needs to step up.
Dickey has had outstanding success training relative no-names into guys with NFL potential - 'potential' as in recent Super Bowl starter Edwin Mulitalo of the Baltimore Ravens. His move to working with tight ends - an integral part of the running game and pass-protection/pass routes schemes - could be a most helpful development.
Arizona was successful throwing to tight ends only 17 times last year, but with 93-catch wide-out Bobby Wade gone, the number should grow. And, the big guys on the edge will have a great impact on UA's 2003 running attack.
Wide Receivers -- Coach Mose Rison
Mackovic had to scramble a bit in mid-June, but secured the services of Mose Rison to coach wide receivers, after Mike Borich left the staff for personal reasons. Rison spent the last two years coaching for the New York Jets, and brings some quality experience in the receiving game to the staff. It's a great sign for the Cats receiving group, which will operate in 2003 minus the school's all-time leader, Wade.
The new leader will get a swift lesson in UA's passing attack prior to the start of fall camp, but should have some good talent in the receiving corps in 2003.
Senior Andrae Thurman complemented all-time UA receiving leader Bobby Wade with 61 grabs for 915 yards last season, making them easily the top tandem in Arizona history. Thurman enjoyed a productive spring campaign and seems poised to make a bid to match his predecessor's big numbers in 2003. However, there are plenty of guys willing and able to step forward for a piece of the action.
Senior Lance Relford and sophomore Biren Ealy bring rotation experience to the mix, but redshirt freshman Mike Jefferson is a bright young prospect in Mackovic's view and sophomore letterman Ricky Williams made a solid bid for a bigger role during spring ball. Those five and senior letterman Juan Valentine, who played as juco transfer in 2002, give Arizona a half-dozen trusted targets.
Ealy, Jefferson and Williams have the taller stature Mackovic sought in his last two recruiting classes. Thurman and Relford have the been-there-done-that six combined years' experience. A trio of newcomers in the fall -- Marcus Thomas, Syndric Steptoe and Anthony Johnson - have some explosive skills, notably Thomas, who rushed for 3,500 yards his last year in high school but wants to open his career as a wide receiver. Steptoe's a 'flyer' according to Mackovic and Johnson's a multi-dimensional athlete who also played quarterback, safety and shooting guard in basketball as a prep standout.
The bottom line at wide receiver is affording a new quarterback time to get the ball to the aforementioned guys. Spring showed it can be done. If any player on a John Mackovic-coached team knows he's likely to get the ball by doing the right things, it's a receiver. Arizona ought to have a nice, balanced group in 2003.
Special Teams - Coordinator Jay Boulware
UA opens fall camp with senior place kicker Bobby Gill, redshirt freshman Nicholas Folk or junior two-year letterman Ryan Slack kicking off, and what Mackovic calls 'the bullpen method' at punter - sophomore Danny Baugher or senior James Molina. Linebacker Joe Siofele handles long snaps, with center Keoki Fraser or he performing the placement snaps duty. As noted earlier, incoming junior college transfer Tom Robinson is said to be a quality snapper and could be an immediate factor.
Arizona games in 2002 involved more than 300 total special teams plays. UA was among the nation's best in punt returns and blocked half a dozen kicks, but also gave up seven blocked kicks and was near the bottom of the league in punting, kickoff returns and field goals. Improvement is needed.
Gill has the leg and the practice consistency, and needs to make it a sure thing in 2003. Folk had opportunities in spring ball and has a scholarship kicker's ability. Baugher and Molina had some good days, and some bad days, and often traded off in that respect in 2002. They'll open 2003 with the job up for grabs and hopefully one guy will shine enough to make it a sure thing.
Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwtiz has a strong background working with punters - some nation-best years while at Texas A&M and elsewhere - and will work with the punters for the Cats. Mackovic himself likes to get involved with the place kickers. Boulware laid out his plans for special teams last spring and will draw on all position coaches for help with various units.
Receiver Andre Thurman (punts) and defensive backs Gary Love and Jason Martin (kickoffs) will open the year as returners, though any incoming speedster can make a mark there, freshman or not.
Mackovic says that some flexibility on the part of the coaching staff will be key to several points of focus in 2003. For example, he said the staff would be willing to change plans in following the progress of the quarterbacks and the new defense. In other words, the staff will have to match its weekly or in-game strategies with how those two new team areas develop.
'We had a terrific spring. There was a lot of energy on the field. I think the players crave 'performance' as much as anything. They're willing to deal with how the staff got after them, and understood that discipline can lead to improved performance,' Mackovic said.
Mackovic did a great job of putting together an experienced staff after some key departures following the 2002 season. 'We helped ourselves,' he noted after filling the five openings.
It's known that football schedules are built over time, normally well ahead of any one season. Typically, a coach might not build a season with 10 opponents who played in bowl games the previous winter. Arizona gets that in 2003.
It won't be easy. The Cats open at home with long-time regional rival Texas-El Paso, then entertain LSU and open an early-league schedule with Oregon in successive weeks. The second and third contests will be shown nationally by TBS Sports, so Arizona's progress will be known quickly. Then it's off to Purdue and another non-conference home date with Texas Christian before the Pac-10 schedule begins in earnest the first week in October.
The five August-September games can define UA's 2003 season. Mackovic has turned in a solid 6-2 mark in those months his first two years. This time around that kind of progress would be a huge plus and get the Cats out of the gate in great shape.
Three-Year Lettermen:Clarence Farmer, HBClay Hardt, FSMichael Jolivette, CBGary Love, CBLance Relford, WRReggie Sampay, OGJoe Siofele, LBAndrae Thurman, WR