June 28, 2001
2001 Arizona Football Outlook
The last time Arizona had a new head football coach, Wildcat safety Chuck Cecil was earning consensus All-America honors and UCLA's Troy Aikman was the all-conference quarterback... It's easy to see that UA football moves into a new era under coach John Mackovic in 2001.
The past 14 years under Dick Tomey have been good for Arizona football. The program's two historically best years - 12-1 in 1998 and 10-2 in 1993 - were capped by bowl victories over two of the noted names in the game, Nebraska and Miami. UA players earned a number of the most prestigious honors in the game - the Outland and Thorpe awards, among others. Football graduation rates blossomed. Dozens of Arizona players prospered and moved on to the professional ranks.
New coach Mackovic has spent seven months putting his stamp on the program, and the Wildcats have welcomed the changes. It's been evident that Mackovic doesn't want anything good about Arizona football to go away - he's been working to bring some more into play.
And there is no question he has incorporated a different emphasis, namely an attacking offensive reputation. Arizona's penchant for disruptive defense won't disappear, but the new mentor's intent to deliver an offensive strategy that keeps opponents on their heels and guessing has taken hold in Tucson.
Mackovic's strong college and professional background, keen organizational mind and a scrutiny of football fostered by three recent years as a television analyst give Arizona's camp a different feel.
With new leadership, more than a dozen returning starters, 47 returning lettermen, some all-league performers and a quality coaching staff, Arizona looks to 2001 with perhaps more optimism than the 11-12 record of 1999-2000 might warrant. Much of that comes from Arizona's typical elan in the past decade - we're better than people think we are - and a measure of it comes from John Mackovic's track record. He's built programs from ashes and embers, and many think it's a matter of stoking the fires in Tucson.
One perceived way to stoke the fires is to build a progressive passing attack, or at least one committed to prioritizing the forward pass. Spring practice, while not a thing of beauty on the offensive side, ended with the vision of Mackovic's style more evident, the guy likes to throw the ball. He actually insists that it will be done.
Proponents of an offensive philosophy featuring the same verve UA has displayed so regularly on defense should be pleased. The task for 2001 will be for Mackovic and offensive coordinator Rick Dykes to put all the pieces together after only a short time on the job.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff, a returnee after four years in the NFL, has less of a puzzle. He's had a spring to introduce his demeanor to the players and the season ahead is an opportunity for UA to continue what's become more of a tradition than a trend.
There are some built-in problems caused by new leadership. Laying the new coach's recruiting foundation takes time in evaluating and signing the right prospects for the new system. Establishing continuity in that effort takes times. Teaching a new offensive system that will use half a dozen simultaneous pass routes takes time. Teaching inexperienced quarterbacks to learn all those options takes time.
In the last eight seasons, eight different Pacific-10 Conference teams won 10 or more games. Arizona did it twice. The Wildcats are in the upper division in the all-time Pac-10 football standings and have no intention of moving any direction but up. Mackovic's coaching experience can provide the impetus to get Arizona heading in the right way as early as 2001.
"My concerns heading into fall are primarily that nothing can stay the same - everyone has to get better than spring," Mackovic says. "Spring wasn't really an audition or a tryout. It was part of our evaluation. We saw how some players improved, and that's the key for the next step in fall - improvement."
Wildcat Veterans By Experience
Defensive tackle Keoni Fraser
Offensive tackle Makoa Freitas
Center Steven Grace
Tight end Peter Hansen
Wide receiver Malosi Leonard
Defensive end Alex Luna
Strong safety Brandon Nash
Punter Chris Palic
Defensive tackle Anthony Thomas
Defensive end Eli Wnek
Defensive tackle Ben Alualu
Cornerback Tony Banks
Linebacker Lance Briggs
Halfback Larry Croom
Kickoff specialist Chris Gray
Tight end Aaron Higginbotham
Tight end James Hugo
Defensive end Aaron Huisman
Quarterback Jason Johnson
Strong safety Zaharius Johnson
Placekicker Sean Keel
Cornerback David Laudermilk
Linebacker Scott McKee
Linebacker Shelton Ross
Offensive tackle Darren Safranek
Defensive tackle Young Thompson
Wide receiver Bobby Wade
Free safety Jarvie Worcester
Offensive guard Kevin Barry
Cornerback Jermaine Chatman
Fullback Mike Detwiler
Halfback Clarence Farmer
Fullback Anthony Fulcher
Free safety Clay Hardt
Cornerback David Hinton
Defensive end Johnny Jackson
Cornerback Michael Jolivette
Wide receiver Gary Love
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall
Strong safety Danny Perry
Punter Ramey Peru
Wide receiver Lance Relford
Offensive guard Reggie Sampay
Linebacker Joe Siofele
Wide receiver Andrae Thurman
Defensive end Austin Uku
In spring ball, as Mackovic put it, "We had some new quarterbacks and we had to find out what they could learn and handle."
The No. 1 pupil at the end was junior Jason Johnson. A veteran of four games in which he played a handful of plays in 2000, Johnson has the only real playing credentials among the six quarterbacks who saw work throughout the first half of spring practice. His counterparts with the most productivity were sophomore Cliff Watkins and redshirt freshman John Rattay. Three others (Kyle Slager, Erik Garcia, Steve Fleming) saw duty but toward the end Mackovic gave Johnson more than half the work.
"Jason has a really good understanding of why we do things" in terms of play calling, Mackovic said. "We learned a lot about him and he learned a lot about what we're doing in the last several weeks. It showed that he's been in college football," he said of the 6-foot-2, 207-pound junior.
Mackovic said quarterback development was about average as a total group, but with Johnson the staff was able to drop any "let's be simple" approach and give him a solid dose of the former's multiple-pro passing game.
"Offensively it will take one complete year to feel comfortable with our system. Now... will we be able to make adjustments and change some plans on the fly? Absolutely," says Mackovic.
Heralded rookie Nic Costa was to arrive in mid-summer to work out with UA players, but coaches have said it would be improbable for him to move into a position to contend. "In the fall we'll put in more of the offense immediately and we'll be moving fast. Costa is smart and he learns quickly, but it would be unlikely for anyone to learn and develop soon enough to make an early impact," Mackovic said.
UA athletics director Jim Livengood said he looks at Johnson in the same mold as Oregon State's Jonathan Smith. "I met with Dennis Erickson in late spring, and he mentioned that Smith was never a national figure or a guy with a rocket arm. He just completes passes and does the right thing," Livengood said. Smith enters 2001 as a three-year starter for the 12-1 Beavers.
It's been more than 10 years since UA entered a season with the starting quarterback position really up for grabs and Johnson's play in spring made it look as if the string will continue. Mackovic and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Rick Dykes just as importantly want to determine who can be a solid No. 2.
In front of the quarterbacks, Arizona expects to have an improved offensive line in 2001. "Our pass blocking was not good enough to win many games," Mackovic said after spring ball. With the absence starting left tackle Makoa Freitas and probable right tackle Darren Safranek (both rehabilitating injuries), by default the Cats developed some important depth.
"We really put them into one-on-one competition," Mackovic said of the mix-and-match line he and coach Charlie Dickey worked with for most of the 15 spring practices. The good news is that the line worked almost exclusively against what should turn out to be one of the Cats' 2001 strengths - its starting defensive front - and the work was invaluable experience for some young players..
"How to protect the quarterback is a key. We're going to face a good, firm up-field rusher every single game. We have to do a better job. I think with the return of the veteran starters (from injury) we'll see that quickly," Mackovic said.
Grace, a UA stalwart at guard for three seasons, "is as good at center as any player in the country," Mackovic offers. "I am really impressed with the level of his play. He is a very good player." Clearly, coaches feel he's a force around whom the line's fortunes will be built in 2001.
Two returning starters, right guard Kevin Barry and left guard Reggie Sampay (a true freshman center in 2000) did appear to reinforce their hold on top-unit status. And coaches were pleased with sophomore tackle Brandon Phillips enough to give him an award as the most improved player in spring ball, a nice accolade for a guy who was a reserve defensive tackle his first two years in the program. He made "leaps and strides and has a bright future if he'll continue to work the way he's been working," Mackovic says.
Freitas, a freshman All-American along with Grace, was out of action after three games in 2000 but brings two-year starting experience on the left side at tackle and has the capabilities to be a special player. Sampay started five games at center and two at guard in 2000 and appears to be headed for a solid future. His emergency performance in 2000 was one of the Cats' brightest developments. Barry performed admirably as a redshirt juco transfer in 2000 and started all 11 games at right guard.
Untested players in sophomore tackle John Vorsheck, redshirt freshman guard Chris Johnson, redshirt freshman center Keoki Fraser and senior guard Dusty Alexander earned some marks in spring ball and as a group should provide a couple of key performers for backup depth on the front.
"Offense is not a science on game day. That comes during the week. On game day you get your creativity going." - John Mackovic
"Running backs did not get much of a show in spring," Mackovic said shortly thereafter. "We didn't have much of a line to do more in our running game and we spent a great deal of time on the passing attack. All the running backs did get involved in that aspect. There are some good players who will get their hands on the ball a lot of times," he said.
Sophomore halfback Clarence Farmer comes to mind immediately. The Cats' leading rusher as a true freshman (666 yards at 4.8 per carry), Farmer showcased his size, speed and durability in his debut campaign, earning Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News. He missed contact drills in spring ball because of a hairline wrist fracture, but did not miss the opportunity.
"Clarence refused to wear shorts in spring ball. He dressed out and was there, waiting to go in even when he knew we weren't going to put him in," Mackovic said. "I'm really pleased he came out every day. That says a great deal about his desire."
Coaches saw enough of him without his participation in full drills to assure the staff he's a capable Pac-10 halfback. And the extra repetitions for other players turned to be a plus, as well. Junior Larry Croom, a two-year veteran and leading receiver out of the backfield in 2000 performed well and running backs coach Bobby Kennedy also evaluated some younger backs in Anthony Fulcher, Tremaine Cox and Chris Harris.
"Anthony Fulcher really looked good. He missed the last couple of weeks but I think he's a player we'll look at closely at fullback," Mackovic said. Fulcher lettered on special teams and for some backup tailback duty in 2000.
UA's fullback position won't be the lead-blocker type of recent years, but a position involved in the passing game as well as in rushing and blocking. Senior letterman Mike Detwiler returns to provide the big-body look as a complement to Fulcher's more speedy capabilities.
Arizona brings in a solid group of prep running backs and it's very likely the staff will look at some freshmen in the backfield early in camp. Prep All-American Mike Bell of Phoenix and Gainus Scott of La Porte, Texas, bring outstanding speed and credentials at halfback, and Sean Jones of Houston and Antoine Singfield of Moreno Valley, Calif., bring bigger frames and some notoriety as fullback.
Spring ball showed the running backs will be featured in a wide range of formations with one or the other used as the hot man in receiving patterns at times.
Should junior two-year letterman Leo Mills return from suspension due to lack of attention to academic matters, the UA running back situation will be even more solid. Mills led all backs with a 5.1 per carry average and amassed 282 all-purpose yards in the Cats' game at Washington.
With hundreds of balls thrown their way in spring practices, Arizona's receivers were inundated by the hail of leather and the complex timing of Mackovic's passing game. But they withstood the early test of a considerably more involved attack.
"Wide receiver should be a position we can count on," Mackovic said throughout drills. "That group will not hold us back. We dropped a lot of passes early, but some of that was lack of familiarity. Andrae Thurman had a terrific spring. Malosi Leonard and Brandon Marshall are vets who will have opportunities."
Spring ball proceeded without UA's top receiver in 2000, flanker Bobby Wade. That gave Thurman more opportunity and he took advantage. But there's little question Wade is capable of renewing his reputation as one of the best receivers in the Pac-10. He caught 45 passes for 626 yards and three touchdowns last year, plus earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors as the return specialist based on his 10.1-yard punt return and 22.0 kickoff return averages.
Wade's absence (January shoulder surgery) and that of the fastest receiver on the team, Gary Love (2000 foot fracture) gave plenty of receivers more opportunity in spring ball. Returning starter Leonard took advantage, as did Marshall, while Thurman showed as much big-play potential as any of the receivers. Lance Relford and Ricky Williams also benefited from some of the scrimmage action in which more than 50 balls were thrown to a dozen different players.
By the end of spring ball the quarterbacks (notably Johnson) and the receivers appeared to be thinking the same thing - or making the same adjustments and reads.
Ditto for the tight ends , a group Mackovic feels made strides.
James Hugo, a 6-foot-6, 271-pound junior has skills the head coach feels will give him a bright future beyond college ball, but he's backed up draft choice Brandon Manumaleuna for two years and hasn't exactly had game plans point at him as a ready option. This year could be different. He'll be looking to make his first career catch, and it's likely to come in the first quarter of the first game.
"Hugo's a prototype tight end who will be working in a new offense and I expect him to have an outstanding season," Mackovic said.
Peter Hansen, erstwhile 6-foot-8 quarterback, wide receiver and reserve whatever in his three years on the team, had a chance to show his mettle at tight end in spring ball and has partially divested himself of the "kick-blocker" label he's proudly worn. With seven career blocks, he'll be back trying for more, but Mackovic liked him catching the ball.
"Peter Hansen moved up and has done some good things," Mackovic said. "We were concerned that all he was doing was blocking kicks and you can't carry many players for one situation. It turns out he runs as well as a lot of tight ends, and he catches the ball like a basketball player. (He's a UA hoops letterman and likely to play again next spring).
"We need to find out how we will role play the tight ends. Hugo doesn't drop balls. Hansen, Justin Levasseur and Tyrone Brown showed improvement," Mackovic said.
Whatever happens in 2001, the offense will show the head coach's innovation. Dozens of coaches and other knowledgeable observers have attested to that acumen over the years, such as Dick Vermeil, new head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs: "Nobody does it much better than John Mackovic. He is a tremendous game planner and play caller. You can't ever, ever guess with him."
One of the best off-season developments in Arizona's camp was Mackovic's hire of Larry Mac Duff. He left a lucrative job as special teams coordinator for the NFC Champion New York Giants to return to the defensive coordinator job he held under Dick Tomey from 1987 to 1996.
The return happened a few days short of the opening of spring practice, and enabled the defensive staff to keep Arizona's double-eagle flex system instead of re-tooling with a new alignment. Mac Duff, it should be remembered, helped create the defense in the early 1990s, and Arizona has used it since.
Mackovic said early in the year that he felt Arizona had a chance to be better on defense in 2001, but the practice-field demeanor and coaching style Mac Duff brings to the table might have impressed him some more. "Larry Mac Duff will raise the intensity," he says.
It seemed that way in spring. While Mackovic and Dykes were installing the new offense, Mac Duff's charges were teeing up and coming at them with impressive vigor. The UA running game, a staple of Wildcat football for 14 years, was stopped. Six passes were intercepted in the final two scrimmages. Sacks were plentiful, with defensive end Eli Wnek notching six (of the No. 1 unit's 11) by himself in the Spring Game.
Of course, the action was on the practice field. But the defensive unit showed that its mental preparedness, style of play and depth will be a team strength in 2001. The unit returns its entire secondary, an All-Pac-10 inside linebacker and seven starters - eight if you count Wnek's return from two years' exile as a fullback.
In the interior, two senior veterans should be key on the defensive line - nose tackle Keoni Fraser and tackle Anthony Thomas. All eight top rotation players across the front bring Pac-10 experience to the mix, but those two are expected to anchor play inside.
Fraser was good enough to play as a true freshman in 1998 when his goal-line effort at Washington helped UA get the ball back for the winning drive in a key game during UA's 12-1 stellar season. Thomas has started games in both his sophomore and junior seasons (nine last year) and is a fifth-year player. Each is in the 6-2, 285 range and capable of play in the gap-control system. Behind them are junior two-year lettermen in Young Thompson and Ben Alualu.
Fraser was an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection and part of the reason UA's front was effective enough to finish eighth in the nation in rushing defense.
Mackovic and Mac Duff want more pressure from the line and if the spring showing by ends Wnek, Alex Luna, Johnny Jackson and Austin Uku means anything, they'll get it. They combined for 31.5 sacks in three scrimmages - and that doesn't count redshirt freshman Fata Avegalio's contribution of another seven tag-offs. (No one was going to hit UA quarterbacks for real.) Avegalio will earn spurs on special teams and push hard for some real playing time.
Wnek's story should be one of the good ones for 2001 Arizona Football. A May 2001 graduate, he's been an H-back for two years. Says Mackovic: "Eli is rejuvenated by the chance to go back on defense. He's a significantly different player on defense. He was a structured offensive player but has some ingenuity on the other side and uses his quickness."
Such was noted during his redshirt freshman season, when he notched 31 tackles and five sacks. He's clearly capable of those numbers, but moreover brings the kind of fervent desire for which Mac Duff and line coach Marty Long clamor.
Inside linebacker Lance Briggs, the leading returning tackler in the Pac-10, spearheads action behind the line. A first-team all-league performer in his first season at the position after a true freshman year at fullback, Briggs is the guy for the middle of the action.
"Briggs could start for any team in college football," Mackovic noted after spring ball. "He deserves all the accolades coming his way." Among those are one publication's preseason Pac-10 defensive player of the year honor. "He's very talented. And when I hear that our defense is set up for linebackers to make the tackle - every defense is set up that way. Lance makes the tackles."
He made 113 of them in 2000, and his junior year in 2001 should show another measure of his superb talent.
Two-year letterman Shelton Ross, a senior, has 16 games experience including all 11 last year as the No. 3 inside linebacker and figures for serious duty beside Briggs. Then UA brings on some youth. Inside linebackers coach Scott Pelluer discovered two bright spots in spring ball -- redshirt freshman Patrick Howard and junior redshirt Ray Wells. Howard was among team leaders in three scrimmages with 12 tackles and Wells contributed a number of tackles, an interception and four pass breakups. Mackovic says "Wells really had a terrific spring" and Howard clearly stands a chance of being a linebacker force of the future.
At the whip linebacker spot critical to the flex, sophomore Joe Siofele steps in for his first taste of regular duty after a year as the top reserve. He showed a fondness for the ball with nine tackles, two sacks, an interception, and two pass deflections in live spring live action. A year ago he chipped in 17 tackles in spot duty and is expected to flourish as a starter.
Siofele and sophomore Matt Molina should give Arizona a good situation at outside linebacker. "Joe did really well and Matt Molina also did a real nice job. He's coming on," Mackovic said after spring ball. The position, as in the past, works closely with the defensive front and is coached by coordinator Larry Mac Duff.
"He's for real, a good cover man," both head coach Mackovic and defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff have said of sophomore cornerback Michael Jolivette. The former notes, "He has a great sense of the ball in the air." Jolivette, the team leader with five interceptions and 19 passes defensed in 2000, should again be a leader in the defensive secondary.
He won't be alone. The Cats return the other three starters in senior strong safety Brandon Nash, junior free safety Jarvie Worcester and senior cornerback Jermaine Chatman. Nash and Worcester have the intellectual savvy to contend for all-academic honors to go along with their football skills. Chatman, a junior college transfer in 2000, was a quick learner who started five of the final six games and finished with three interceptions.
Chatman faces strong competition from sophomore David Hinton, who started the first five games last year and like all defensive backs was a regular on special teams. Two-year letterman Anthony Banks also had a 2000 start at corner and will be a strong candidate for a bigger role, as could junior two-year letterman David Laudermilk.
Senior Zaharius Johnson has played several positions in the backfield and looks to push Nash at strong safety while sophomore Clay Hardt gives Worcester a run for it at the free safety spot. Another young player, redshirt freshman Tony Wingate, enters 2001 contending for a role at strong safety.
Arizona's defensive backfield gets tested every week in the Pac-10, notably because of the team's success at rushing defense. But it's an active group with a firm grasp of the flex defense and should be a strong point for the Cats in 2001.
The Wildcats could have one of the nation's top place-kickers in junior Sean Keel. He finished second in the league in accuracy (76.5 percent, 13 for 17) and has cleared 18 of 25 career attempts. The 2000 figure was good enough to place him 18th nationally. Mackovic made some 'wait-and-see' comments about Keel prior to spring ball, then afterward said he's clearly one of the Cats' top honors candidates. "He can be as good as anyone in the Pac-10 and is well above the curve nationally. He's stable. I like him," he said. Keel's 13-for-15 mark inside 50 yards in 2000 shows he's capable of mid-40s-yard field goals.
Despite Keel's prowess, Arizona would like to boost its scoring-zone offense and forego some of his opportunities. The Cats crossed the opponents' 20 yard-line 33 times and scored touchdowns only 52 percent of the time. Coaches want Keel kicking more extra-points.
Some kicking units proved special at times - the Cats were No. 18 nationally in kickoff returns and No. 27 in punt returns. But punting and punt coverage was more sporadic. Senior Chris Palic will be pushed hard by sophomore Ramey Peru for the No. 1 punter role.
Palic, a two-year starter, has an arsenal of specialty punts (rugby, pooch, sky) and stuck 18 inside the 20 yard-line, but needs more consistency on the deep punt with hang time to allow coverage. UA finished with a 34.6 net punting average. (Opponents were not much better, at 34.7.)
Kick returner Bobby Wade, the first-team All-Pac-10 return specialist in 2000, is back. UA led the league in punt returns with Wade (26-10.1) and Anthony Banks (6-13.5) handling the chores. Gary Love (15-21.2), Andrae Thurman (6-20.7), Leo Mills (4-28.2), Larry Croom (4-15.2) and Wade (3-22.0) each returned kickoffs with effectiveness. Love earned Pac-10 special teams player of the week honors after a 2001 game in which his kick coverage and one return helped UA win. Coaches also tried Thurman and Michael Jolivette on punt returns in spring ball with Wade out. Any of those players and possibly a true freshman with speed should help give Arizona a solid corps of return men.
Eli Wnek spent time in spring ball handling long snapping chores, working to fill the shoes emptied by four-year starter Nate Campbell. Others should get a tryout at this spot in early camp. Special teams coordinator Scott Pelluer wants to find someone like Campbell, who few outside the team ever knew because he never had a bad snap.
Arizona blocked two punts and three point-after tries in 2000 to continue a steady performance spanning a decade. The team has blocked 42 kicks in the past 11 years. Peter Hansen, with seven blocks to his credit in his three years of duty, will again put his 6-foot-8 frame to use as a middle-leaper on place-kicks.
On the organizational front, head coach John Mackovic, offensive coordinator Rick Dykes, defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff and special teams coordinator Scott Pelluer each have some urgency to their tasks in 2001 -- all are new, although Mac Duff is using his own defensive system.
Among UA's other six coaches, three are new and three were hired by Mackovic from former coach Dick Tomey's staff. Defensive secondary coach Steve Bernstein, tight ends coach Jay Boulware and running backs coach Bobby Kennedy will have been on campus eight months after a week of fall camp. Offensive line coach Charlie Dickey, defensive line coach Marty Long and wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello bring a combined 21 years of experience to the Wildcat program.
Too, strength coach Brad Arnett and his staff have made significant strides since the end of last season, notably in the discipline and self-reliance critical to top-level conditioning.
It's a good staff with quality leadership, bowl experience, recruiting savvy, coaches who have mentored numbers of collegiate all-stars and subsequent professionals, and coaches who are aware of the other side of the college football experience - work in the classrooms and player citizenship.
*Inside linebacker Lance Briggs has been named to the Lombardi Award Watch List with 51 other outstanding linebackers or defensive linemen from throughout the nation.
"Our immediate goal is offensive improvement. We will put emphasis on a quality passing game - that is our highest priority." -John Mackovic
*The Cats were 21st nationally in total defense, eighth in rushing defense and fifth in turnovers gained last year - and seven starters who helped do so are back in 2001.
*Place-kicker Sean Keel made 13 of 15 field goals inside 50 yards last year and appears poised for a stellar junior year. He's a pre-season selection for the Lou Groza Award watch list.
"The value in play calling is not so much what you call but when you call a play, and why. You have to have a sense of the ebb and flow of the game. To me that's the art of the game. We want to put strategy into play and use it to paint the Saturday afternoon or evening picture." -John Mackovic
*The Cats return 12 players who earned UA's Mary Roby Award last spring for 3.0 grade point averages.
*Arizona's three All-Americans in 2000 were freshmen - running back Clarence Farmer, cornerback Michael Jolivette and center/guard Reggie Sampay.
*Strong safety Brandon Nash, a fifth year graduate, earned a Pacific-10 Conference Postgraduate Scholarship in May. He and defensive end Eli