Spring Ball Gets Under Way
March 4, 2010
TUCSON--The University of Arizona football team takes to the practice field starting Friday for the first of 15 spring sessions, working to get a good start on what it expects will be a third consecutive bowl season.
Head coach Mike Stoops and staff will work with about 85 players over the next month, culminating in the annual Spring Game on April 10. The preliminary spring schedule includes a final practice the Monday following the game, as Stoops held last year for a more instructional conclusion.
Among tasks in spring one is to tune the collaboration between four new co-coordinators. Linebackers coach Tim Kish and new secondary coach Greg Brown will be co-defensive coordinators in 2010 while line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and running backs/tight ends mentor Seth Littrell will be co-offensive coordinators.
The Cats return 10 starters on offense and four on defense from the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl squad that finished 8-5. The offensive group is especially strong with a number of headliners including senior center Colin Baxter, senior running back Nic Grigsby and a strong contingent of juniors including quarterbacks Nick Foles and Matt Scott. Defensively UA hopes to find some immediate help from some mid-year juco linebackers to go with some strong depth up front and in the secondary.
The team will practice at the Stadium Friday afternoon and do the bulk of its work in that facility because of renovations and expansion of the Jimenez Practice Facility as part of phase one of the UA's master facilities plan.
Friday, March 5, 4 p.m. Saturday, March 6, 9:30 a.m. SHS Sunday, March 7, tba SHS Wednesday, March 10, 4 p.m. (Friday, March 12 - Pro Timing Day) -Spring Break- Monday, March 22, 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 24, 4 p.m. Friday, March 26, 4 p.m. Saturday, March 27, 9:30 a.m. Monday, March 29, 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 31, 4 p.m. Thursday, April 1, 4 p.m. Monday, April 5, 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 7, 4 p.m. Friday, April 9 (Alumni Weekend) Saturday, April 10 - Spring Game, 1:30 p.m. Monday, April 12, 4 p.m.
Friday, March 5, 4 p.m.
Saturday, March 6, 9:30 a.m. SHS
Sunday, March 7, tba SHS
Wednesday, March 10, 4 p.m.
(Friday, March 12 - Pro Timing Day)
Monday, March 22, 4 p.m.
Wednesday, March 24, 4 p.m.
Friday, March 26, 4 p.m.
Saturday, March 27, 9:30 a.m.
Monday, March 29, 4 p.m.
Wednesday, March 31, 4 p.m.
Thursday, April 1, 4 p.m.
Monday, April 5, 4 p.m.
Wednesday, April 7, 4 p.m.
Friday, April 9 (Alumni Weekend)
Saturday, April 10 - Spring Game, 1:30 p.m.
Monday, April 12, 4 p.m.
Outlook in Brief
Arizona recorded back-to-back eight-victory seasons and put itself in late November contention for the Pac-10 title a year ago. No one connected with the program expects less. The offense returns nearly intact and while replacing headliners on defense will be a key, recruiting and player development has been going well throughout Mike Stoops' six-year tenure and the bodies are there. The club will have a junior quarterback capable of contending for high individual honors, an experienced offensive line, a proven system, some all-league caliber defensive ends, depth on the defensive line and some game-breaking talent on both sides.
It's time to notice that Mike Stoops has given Arizona a football program and not just a year-to-year thing. A defining support for that claim is that when a starter graduates, someone else already is steeped in the culture and ready to go, with little or no drop-off. Stoops has sent more than a dozen players to the NFL in the past three years and other people in the program of equal ability have stepped forward to fill their shoes. The Cats have beaten a ranked team in each of his six years in Tucson. Wags may pick the Wildcats for the middle of the pack or worse, but there's no legitimate reason to do so. Back-to-back upper-division finishes should make those observations obsolete. Five Pac-10 teams have won eight or more games in each of the last two seasons and Arizona is one of them. Two Pac-10 teams have won nine or more games in each of the past three years, and Arizona beat one of them and lost in double overtime to the other in 2009. Arizona will compete for the prizes in 2010.
Stoops sent two assistants into other situations of note - offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes leaving to become head coach at Louisiana Tech and defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, his brother, moving to take the same role at ACC power Florida State. Both moves have prompted wider collaboration in Arizona's coaching staff, with linebackers coach Tim Kish and new secondary coach Greg Brown becoming co-defensive coordinators, while line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and running backs/tight ends coach Seth Littrell were named co-offensive coordinators. Meantime, Stoops brought in noted QB mentor Frank Scelfo from the coordinator's job at Louisiana Tech to become Arizona's quarterbacks coach. Bedenbaugh and Littrell (and Scelfo) have a broad background in the spread offense while Kish has been a mainstay throughout Stoops' tenure in Tucson. Brown came from Colorado and has a solid background in the NFL, with Thorpe Award winners, etc. The chemistry in the back office is going to be good (not that it wasn't).
What will Scelfo mean to Arizona's quarterback situation? Junior Nick Foles wrested the job from junior Matt Scott a year ago and didn't look back, earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. Each showed some good things, with Foles more suited to the passing game and Scott an adept runner. Scott was 2-1 as the starter, Foles 6-4. It's Foles' job on the surface, but will the new brain trust change the way they're used? Is their `Wildcat' stuff with Scott in the offing? Foles has shown he can shoulder a game plan and pick his spots. If he can put together a season from start to finish all kinds of things are possible. Scelfo tutored four guys at Tulane who played in the NFL so he knows his stuff.
Offensively the Wildcats return all starters except left tackle Mike Diaz. Factoring in the spread system's extra inside receivers, the team returns five players who started at receiver, three who started at running back, QB Foles, the tight end and four offensive line starters. The spring choice for the vacant spot is Phil Garcia, who started a pair of games at LT in 2009. UA graduated its H-back, Chris Gronkowski, but returns sophomore Taimi Tutogi, who saw considerable action as a true freshman. Several young linemen should be ready as reserves, two talented running backs were redshirted as true freshmen and there's some immediate talent coming in the receiving corps. A year ago line coach Bill Bedenbaugh plugged in three new starters across the front - RG Vaughn Dotsy, LG Herman Hall and RT Adam Grant - to go with center Colin Baxter and LT Mike Diaz, who had started at LG in 2008. This year he'll be plugging in one guy to replace Diaz - Grant will switch sides.
If Arizona wants to go for more power offense, it can. The club rushed for 2,000 yards and 19 scores, and passed for 3,000 yards and 20 scores. UA has the personnel to go either way. One area where this dynamic will be of concern is red zone scoring, wherein the Cats were sub-par in 2009 with only 27 touchdowns in 54 trips inside the 20-yard line. Figuring out a way to cash in on these opportunities will be a focus.
One reason RZ success might have been affected was the loss of All-American TE Rob Gronkowski, who missed his junior year in 2009 with a back injury (and then took his talents to the NFL this spring). What Arizona was able to accomplish, having to adjust on the fly to his loss just a week before the 2009 season began, bodes well for the aforementioned depth and sustainability that Stoops has built. Another blow was a shoulder problem that made top RB Nic Grigsby more of a role player than the home-run threat he was as a full-load player. He played half the season at less than 100 percent. In 2010 he should become Arizona's sixth 3,000-yard career rusher and push for a spot in the top three.
Recruiting by Stoops and staff has gone to another level, more so from the inside rather than the stars-assigning view. This is not a knock on can't-miss prospects or the non-coaching people in the cottage industries who take credit for identifying them, but that kind of evaluation only lasts until a couple of days after national signing day. Arizona gets a good share of the BCS prospects it identifies, and then the staff goes to work on player development and coaching. The hyperbole that swirls around college recruiting is superfluous when it comes to finding kids who can play in your system. For every Eben Britton or Rob Gronkowski there's a handful of Antoine Casons and Mike Thomases who can make a difference. The Wildcat staff is doing a good job of finding the players it wants.
The Cats have completed the last two seasons rated in the FBS top 25 in total defense, with four new starters the second time around. In 2010 it will take two new guys up front, three linebackers and two men in the secondary, a substantial task. Hence some recruiting in the juco ranks to bring in accomplished linebackers in Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo to go with returning sophomores Jake Fischer and R.J. Young, senior C.J.Parish, and redshirt freshmen Tervor Erno and Cordarius Golston. Up front rotation regulars Dominique Austin and Lolomana Mikaele and redshirts Jonathan Hollins, Justin Washington and Sione Tuihalamaka will plug in nicely under the tutelage of interior coach Mike Tuiasosopo. In the secondary, junior corner Trevin Wade and junior safety Robert Golden will return and help bring along former jucos in seniors Marcus Benjamin and Lyle Brown at the corners, while senior Joe Perkins and sophomore Adam Hall will easily step up to give UA solid emphasis at free safety. Redshirt freshmen Derrick Rainey (safety) and DeWayne Peace (corner) also figure to compete for time and populate special teams along with senior corner Mike Turner. Incoming freshmen Marquis Flowers might be good enough to get a view at safety or special teams as did Hall in 2009. The expected collaboration between co-coordinators in LBs coach Tim Kish and secondary coach Greg Brown should really help fuse the 2010 second and third levels.
Senior defensive ends Brooks Reed and Rickly Elmore give Arizona a superb pair of outside physical guys and edge rushers. Elmore was second in the league in sacks (10.5) while Reed fought through a knee injury to return to top form toward the end of the year after turning in a similar performance as a sophomore. Senior D'Aundre Reed has started some at DE, too, while junior Apaiata Tuihalamaka is expected to continue his progress and contend as well for ends coach Jeff Hammerschmidt. UA recruited freshmen ends and tackles - six in all - to keep the future promising along the defensive front's four positions.
Then sophomore quarterback Nick Foles started hot, winning four of his first five starts beginning in week 4 in 2009, and then hit a wall at California and against Oregon. He played okay in victory at Arizona State and was sharper than the counterpart in helping drive for the winning score at USC. The Holiday Bowl was a different story, with inconsistency and lackluster play by the entire squad spelling doom. His maturity and consistency will be a key to UA's fortunes in 2010. A 415-yard, 40-for-51 (78%) outing with three TDs in a shootout against Stanford showed some top-end luster in his game. in a shootout. He also topped the 300-yard mark in losses against Washington and Oregon. The Oregon State game was among his best and better suited to UA's balance with 25 completions in 34 attempts for 254 yards and three scores. His 19 TD passes - one in all but the ASU and bowl games among his 12 played - stack up at No. 4 in Arizona single-season passing. In a full year of starts he could easily challenge Willie Tuitama's record of 28 in 2007. Meantime, Matt Scott, the starter in the first three games, returns. He's capable and also chipped in 170 rushing yards in his three starts and 150 more in spot duty thereafter. He and junior Bryson Beirne make the situation under center pretty good.
Expect Arizona to have playmakers on special teams. Receivers Bug Wright (punt returns) and Travis Cobb (KOR) each shined. Cobb took one back 95 yards for a score against Washington State and averaged 25.4 yards per attempt, 36th nationally. Wright was a few attempts shy of hitting the top five with his 17.5-yard punt return average, sparked by an 86-yard jaunt for a score in the same game. Bug didn't even get his first return until the eighth game of the year. On the other side the Wildcats held opponents to 17 yards per game on punt returns and 90 per game on kickoff returns, winning parts of the field-position battle. Punter Keenyn Crier, the all-conference first-team pick as a redshirt freshman, needs to get back to that level of play. He's a 42-yard career kicker who suffered some inconsistency in 2009. He had 11 kicks of 50-plus, but also had seven touchbacks to help give UA a net punting figure of 35.1, No. 72 in the FBS. In other areas, UA special teams have been conservative in the Stoops era, opting to set up returns rather than go after opposing kickers. The Cats did block a punt and return it for a touchdown (at ASU) and replacing the guy who did it, one-time walk-on Orlando Vargas, will be a focus. He had 14 special teams tackles in 2009. Mike Turner and Robert Golden had 10 apiece and they're back.
Playmakers on offense who should shine in 2010 include running backs Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin; and receivers Juron Criner, Delashaun Dean, David Douglas, Bug Wright and David Roberts. Grigsby and Antolin combined for 1,344 yards at 6.9 yards per carry, while then freshman Greg Nwoko added 273 yards in tougher going (3.6). Redshirt freshman Kylan Butler and Daniel Jenkins join this group to give UA a fine group of backs. Criner's the leading returning receiver with 45 for 582 yards and team-high nine scores. Roberts (43), Dean (42), Douglas (31) and Wright (23) also were active. Senior tight end A.J. Simmons took over for the injured Gronkowski and led the squad with 13.2 yards per catch (10 grabs). Juco speedster Travis Cobb, who entered at mid-term last year, and this year's version, Dexter Ransom, both of Blinn College, should help add to the dynamism on the outside. Roberts (inside) and Criner (outside) each had 12-catch games in 2009. Sophomore H-back Taimi Tutogi played as a true freshman and could help make that position more productive in his second season.
The Cats got kicked around in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, dropping a 33-0 decision to No. 20 Nebraska. It cost the program a spot in the final rankings and cost the coaching staff eight months of feeling better about things (as it had the previous year following the Las Vegas Bowl). But the extra month of work and the slap in the face will end up being positive influences on the growth of the program. Nothing comes easily and the Wildcats re-learned that one with the blanking from the Huskers.