April 14, 2009
Arizona head football coach Mike Stoops met with media members on Tuesday to review the progress made by the Wildcats this spring and give a preview of things to come for the 2009 season.
“I think, as you look at it, there are a lot of positives to take away from this spring,” Stoops said. “Anytime you can do as much as we did and come away virtually injury free, it’s a good thing.”
The Wildcats concluded spring practices last Wednesday with 14 projected starters returning from last season’s Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU in December.
“We have a relatively experienced team with inexperienced quarterbacks,” Stoops explained of the 2009 squad. “In spring you try to build depth on your team and that’s what we did.”
The position battle that received the most attention was at quarterback, where Arizona is replacing one of the best QB’s in school history with the graduation of Willie Tuitama.
Sophomore Matt Scott and redshirt sophomore Nick Foles pretty much split the snaps 45 percent, 45 percent with sophomore Bryson Beirne taking the other 10 percent. All three proved they have the talent to compete at the Pac-10 level and each displayed some unique qualities.
Scott, who served as Tuitama’s backup as a true freshman last fall, brings quickness and running ability to the position. Foles, a fall transfer from Michigan State, offers the big arm that compares to Tuitama’s top strength, but Foles also brings improved footwork in and out of the pocket.
“The quarterbacks were really good, but just lacked consistency. We need more consistency out of both of our quarterbacks,” Stoops said. “They’re both very good players and we think we can win with either of them.”
Stoops said he was proud of how the competition went and explained that both players worked hard to get better, but also helped each other out.
“Our team has reacted very well to both those guys,” Stoops said. “They are starting to show maturity and our players feel they can win with either one of them.”
Stoops, who is entering his sixth season at Arizona, said the team may not declare a starter until right up until the end of Fall Camp as the Wildcats begin game-specific preparations for their season opener on September 5 against Central Michigan.
“We’d like to have a starter, but that’s not to say we can’t see what both guys can do early in the season,” Stoops said when asked about playing both quarterbacks early in the season.
During the 40 minute meeting with the media, Stoops touched on a number of other points besides the QB competition, including the spots up front that protect the QBs.
“Mike Diaz should be our guy, we feel good about what he can do,” Stoops said. “He just has to get comfortable playing out there. He’s a very physical and intelligent guy.”
Along with Diaz, Stoops said he expects a lot out of next year’s offensive line, which proved to be a strong point in ’08, paving the way for the two-headed running back combination of Nic Grigsby, who gained over 1,000 yards, and freshman sensation Keola Antolin.
“We feel we’ll be strong on the offensive line with a bunch of quality players, we just have to get more physical and that will come in the weight room,” he said.
One of the biggest things Stoops said he noticed about this year’s team compared to ones in the past was the amount of depth the Wildcats have, describing this year’s team “far and away the best group we’ve had.”
“Just going through the roster, there’s not many guys who I don’t think can be quality players in this league,” Stoops said. “This is a very complete team and we have some very good players. I feel like players 40-80 is really where we’ve seen our greatest improvements. Our athleticism as a team continues to improve and we’re pretty deep talent-wise.”
Stoops mentioned the depth at running back, where redshirt freshman Greg Nwoko impressed with his change of style compared to Grigsby, who will be a junior, and Antolin.
Receiver was another position Stoops touched on, saying sophomore William “Bug” Wright had the best spring of his young career, but expected sophomores Juron Criner and David Douglas, junior Delashaun Dean and senior Terrell Turner all to play big roles in the Arizona offense next season.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats appear to be in great shape. Stoops said he feels good about the unit coming out of spring and said the defense, although it doesn’t have a big name like Antoine Cason or Ronnie Palmer, is extremely balanced.
“We have 11 really good players,” he said. “There’s probably not one guy that really sticks out, but you look and can clearly see that 1-11 are really quality players.”
Stoops said the defensive line could be one of the team’s strong areas, while the linebackers will need to have some younger guys step up.
Stoops’ praise for his team didn’t stop at his players. He said the coaching staff also worked well in the month-long camp.
“I feel like we have one of the best coaching staffs in the country and that has gone a long way in keeping with our development,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep the nucleus of our staff and that’s been important.”
A lot of the programs hard work could show up in the form of the April 25-26 NFL Draft. Britton is expected to be chosen in the first round and departed receiver Mike Thomas is also expected to be picked.
The Wildcats had Cason drafted in the first round by the San Diego Chargers last season.
“We’re starting to develop players for the next level and that’s a positive sign,” Stoops said, adding that Tuitama, Palmer and safety Nate Ness, if not drafted, all had a chance of making an NFL team.
The Arizona football team opens its 2009 schedule at on September 5 against Central Michigan, who has qualified for a bowl game in each of the last three seasons.
“I feel really good about our team,” Stoops said. “I think we are now just hitting our stride.”