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TGS 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...ARIZONA WILDCATS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


It has been said that once a coach experiences the hot seat, he’s rarely able to get off of it. Only those rare few like Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, who kept winning and winning after his job was on the line until everyone forgot that he was once in hot water, are usually able to move into safer territory.

Which brings us to Arizona and HC Mike Stoops, who certainly had his share of struggles in Tucson before the Wildcats seemed to turn the corner a few years ago. Stoops inherited a program on a steep descent in 2004 and was having trouble making much headway, failing to generate a winning record for his first three years on the job entering into 2007. Only the patience of then-AD Jim Livengood kept Stoops in the saddle, and even then things got a bit hairy, as some suggested that Stoops might have been out the door had UA lost a late October game that year at Washington. But the Cats rallied from a halftime deficit to score a rousing win in Seattle and continued to show progress with a late-season win streak, giving Stoops the lifeline he needed for one more chance. And when UA returned to the postseason for the first time in ten years the following season in 2008 and won its bowl game against BYU, Stoops and the program finally appeared to be headed in the right direction.

But, as ESPN’s Lee Corso often says, “Not so fast, my friends.”

Granted, Stoops’ Wildcats have returned to bowl games the past two years, but both have been painful adventures (lopsided losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma State), and the manner in which Arizona collapsed at the end of last season when losing its final five games has the Wildcat faithful on alert. It is not lost on Bob Baffert, Mike Pegram, Governor Jan Brewer, and any other influential UA backers that Stoops’ troops began to melt last fall like an ice cream cone in the Tucson heat once the schedule turned nasty in November. Lopsided losses to BCS Stanford and Oregon and bitter losses to Southern Cal and hated Arizona State closed the regular season on a major downer before the aforementioned beating administered by Ok State in the Alamo Bowl.

And suddenly, the direction of the Arizona program is once again a hot topic in the region. The fact that Livengood has moved on to UNLV and been replaced in the AD office by Greg Byrne, who arrived in Tucson last year from Mississippi State, means that Stoops’ one-time biggest ally is no longer in town. Outwardly, there have been no indications that Byrne has his finger poised on the eject button, but more than a few Pac-12 sources suggest that Stoops doesn’t have near as much rope as he did when Livengood was calling the shots. Stay tuned for further developments.

Of course, Stoops can get the critics off his back once more by simply producing a winning team that makes it to a decent bowl game this fall, but he walks a thin line. The schedule is such that Arizona could be in major trouble by early October after a wicked four-game stretch that follows a tuneup opener vs. Northern Arizona. Three preseason top ten foes follow, starting with an Alamo Bowl return match at Oklahoma State before Pac-12 North powers Stanford and Oregon visit Tucson, and then it’s off to the L.A. Coliseum for a matchup vs. dangerous USC. The Cats defintiely drew the short straws in this year’s scheduling rotation for their expanded conference, missing out on the projected bottom-feeders in the North half, Cal and Washington State; by comparison, the rival Sun Devils from Tempe will be missing Stanford and Oregon from the North. Stoops can only hope that bad stroke of scheduling luck isn’t an omen for worse things to come this fall.

Early reviews for the 2011 campaign have been mixed in the desert. The offensive prognosis depends upon one’s inclination; is the glass half-empty, or half-full? Significant concerns abound along an offensive line that must replace every starter from a year ago, with only one among the new projected forward wall, jr. C Kyle Quinn, having as much as one career start (which for Quinn came in last December’s Alamo Bowl). Moroever, Stoops and new OL coach Robert Anae (recently an offensive coordinator at BYU) are going to be counting upon a pair of 300-lb.+ redshirt frosh (albeit with well-advertised high ceilings), Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele, as bookends at the tackle spots, where they must hit the ground running to protect long-haired sr. QB Nick Foles from looking like 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway (he of the very long tail) and scrambling for his life. Given the challenging schedule out of the chute, the new-look OL will have to jell in a hurry to give the skill-position weaponry a chance to trade points vs. those high-level foes in the first month of the season.

But the half-full crowd among UA supporters will focus upon some of the established artillery still in the fold for the strike force, including the aforementioned Foles, whom many project to eventually make an impact on the next level. Despite missing a few games at midseason last year due to a knee injury, the 6'5, 240-lb. former Michigan State transfer still passed for over 3000 yards and 20 TDs and is likely to exit Tucson as the program’s leading career passer. And depth is not an issue in the pilot’s seat with capable backup Matt Scott, who started a few games ahead of Foles in 2009 and proved an effective reliever last fall when leading the Cats to three wins in Foles’ absence. Although Scott, the better runner of the two, enters September as a candidate for a redshirt, with the staff considering saving him for a one-year stint as the starter in 2012. Stoops might not want to burn the eligibility of three senior QBs in the same year; another sr., Bryson Beirne, has a firm grasp of the system but has played infrequently behind Foles and Scott the past couple of years.

Look for the Cats to again do what they did best last season, which was move the ball via the aerial route with a four-wide, quick-passing spread setup similar to what former o.c. Sonny Dykes brought to Tucson before moving to La Tech as the Bulldogs’ head coach last year. Among the wideouts, sr. Juron Criner (right) is an established force, with Plaxico Burress-like size and having caught a whopping 82 passes for 1233 yards and 11 TDs last fall. Indeed, the top three pass catchers return from 2010, with possession-types David Douglas (52 receptions LY) and David Roberts (44 grabs in 2010) nice complements to the homerun threat Criner provides. More help could be coming from jr. Texas transfer Dan Buckner, who caught 45 passes during his last season at Austin. There are concerns, however, that the “O” could become too one-dimensional, as it tended to be a year ago when ranking only 88th in national rush stats. Punishing Greg Nwoko, who provided the physical RB dimension, went down with an ACL in spring and could miss the entire season, which could place too much of the burden on smallish 5'8 sr. Keola Antolin, an effective scooter who gained 688 YR in 2010 but whose durability is an issue after past injuries. The job of sr. PK Alex Zendejas was also under threat in fall camp after he missed 5 PATs a year ago.

Stoops and 2nd-year d.c. Tim Kish believe the Cats could be improved in at least nine positions defensively from a year ago, which sounds nice in preseason media interviews but could also be wishful thinking. Only five returning starters are slated to make the post for the opener vs. Northern Arizona after the stop unit, which performed with distinction in the first half of last season, became progressively worse as the 2010 campaign came to its conclusion. Finding a pass rush after the graduation of last year’s sack leaders DEs Brooks Reid and Ricky Elmore (both in NFL camps this summer) will be key, and depth issues are a concern in the early portion of the schedule after three projected members of the platoon’s 2-deep (including returning starters LB Jake Fischer & S Adam Hall) suffered ACL tears in spring. The only returning first-stringer on the DL, RS soph Justin Washington, appears to be a nice anchor after flashing big-play upside last year when generating 6 sacks and 11 ½ tackles for loss. But Stoops and Kish will be crossing their fingers that ex-LB and FB C.J. Parish and one-time U of Houston transfer Mohammed Usman, both somewhat undersized at 245 lbs., can handle the duties on the edge.

A couple of last year’s juco imports, SLB Paul Vassalo and MLB Derek Earls, proved pleasant surprises at LB spots in 2010, and one of this year’s jucos, David Lewis, is slated to fill Fischer’s WLB role until he can recover from the spring ACL. D.c. Kish has also been authorized by Stoops to reshuffle a secondary that underachieved last year when allowing twice as many TD passes (18) as recorded interceptions (9). Senior Tevin Wade is an established presence at LCB, but fellow sr. Robert Golden, who saw time on the right side last fall, is moving to FS to replace the injured Hall. Strong safety Marquis Flowers, a physical specimen at 6'3 and 220 lbs., is one of several sophs who will be expected to step into featured roles for the platoon this season.

After providing mostly-good value vs. the spread in preceding years, Stoops’ Cats dropped 8 of their last 10 vs. the number a year ago, including 4 of their last 5 at home and 6 of their last 7 as chalk. Arizona had previously developed Tucson into a pointspread fortress, covering 15 of 18 at home extending back to early in the 2007 campaign before going flat as last season progressed.

Summary...This appears to be another crossroads year for Mike Stoops and the Arizona program, with Wildcat fans not anxious to return to the gloominess of most of the past decade. That shouldn’t happen this fall with QB Nick Foles in the fold. And even though the rugged early-season slate threatens to put UA in a big hole by early October, hope is not lost with a couple of the early Pac-12 showdowns vs. Oregon and Stanford both in Tucson, and the trip to SC not as terrifying as it used to be (and the Cats won in their last trip to the Coliseum in 2009). Still, the all-new OL needs to mature quickly, and a few new playmakers must emerge immediately on defense to help avoid a 1-4 start and prevent the coaching rumor mill from beginning to whirr. Even if the Cats start slowly, Stoops can still make it back to a bowl game and likely stay in safe territory, but the vultures will be circling in the desert if the Cats miss the postseason for the first time in four years.


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