A total of 15 spring practice sessions began March 24 and one of the key points for review in the Spring Game will be the execution of Mackovic's new passing offense, which generally has struggled at times against what is expected to be a strong UA defensive unit.
The event Saturday starts with a free Pigskin Pig-Out pre-game tailgate at 11 a.m. on Bear Down Field, adjacent to Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats will begin the Spring Game at 1 p.m. in the stadium. Parking is free in area surface lots and the nearby Cherry Avenue Garage.
Free food will be provided by Subway, Papa John's Pizza, Whataburger and Bruegger's Bagels. Event sponsors include Pepsi, Tucson Newspapers Inc., WB-58 and KRQ Radio.
One key to spring ball has been identifying a couple of contenders for the starting quarterback position from among six candidates. In the past half-dozen years UA has entered spring ball with a good idea about the role -- most recently with Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins -- but this spring none of the QBs on the roster had any considerable game experience.
Junior Jason Johnson worked with the top unit in scrimmage action last Saturday, but redshirt freshman John Rattay, sophomores Cliff Watkins and Kyle Slager, redshirt junior Erik Garcia and redshirt freshman Steve Fleming all saw action. Only Johnson played in 2000 and he saw action in only a few series at the end of games.
Mackovic was critical of the offensive unit's intensity and focus in recent practices. "We have to improve offensively in order to consider spring practice a success," he told the team after Saturday's practice.
With several key offensive players missing action during most of spring while recovering from injuries -- offensive tackles Makoa Freitas and Darren Safranek, wide receiver Bobby Wade and nominal No. 1 tailback Clarence Farmer -- some difficulty has been expected by coaches. But Mackovic's audible ire at a recent session was aimed more toward the offensive unit's willingness to play hard throughout each drill and reduce the frequency of mistakes.
The offense turned the ball over eight times in the two-hour scrimmage plus was whistled for 11 penalties including six false starts and five holding calls.
Still, Mackovic's and offensive coordinator Rick Dykes' emphasis on the passing game has been evident throughout spring practice. Quarterbacks attempted 50 passes Saturday compared to 30 rushing attempts, and Johnson connected on 13 of 21 throws for 115 yards. Rattay (4-for-8, 71 yards) and Slager (3-for-3, 39 yards) had some bright spots.
Thirteen different players had receptions, led by halfback Larry Croom (4-31), and wide receivers Malosi Leonard (3-48), Brandon Marshall (3-34) and Andrae Thurman (3-25). Tight end Peter Hansen caught the lone touchdown throw on a goal-line play.
That depth has been a plus and has underscored the new staff's persistent effort to involve many players in the passing game. Mackovic said he believes the receiving corps -- which by design and depending on formations includes two or three wide receiver positions, tight ends and running backs -- can make a solid contribution to 2001 success.
The play of the Cats' defensive unit appears to be a strong point for the 2001 team. Mackovic said before spring that the offense might have trouble operating against the Cats' double-eagle flex defense -- and it was an appropriate forecast.
Although defenders aren't allowed to level the quarterbacks in live acrimmages, the 12 sacks pinned on QBs by linemen and linebackers in Saturday's drill were for real. Defensive end Eli Wnek, moved back in spring after two years as an H-back, had two, while fellow end Alex Luna added a pair. Backup defensive end Fata Avegalio, a redshirt freshman, had three sacks and knocked down a pass.
Junior inside linebacker Lance Briggs last week was named to the 'Watch List' for the 2001 Rotary Lombardi Award, which annually goes to the outstanding lineman/linebacker of the year. He's been a consistent hitter whose physical play is expected to help anchor the defense.
Mackovic will hold his post-spring news conference at 11 a.m. on Monday, April 23, with the annual team picnic scheduled at a local city park on Tuesday, April 24.