TUCSON--Arizona coach Mike Stoops and staff -- with a new offensive coordinator and three other new offensive coaches -- are in final preparations for the opening of 2007 spring practice. [Schedule at bottom.]
The Cats are scheduled to begin their NCAA-sanctioned allotment of 15 spring practices on Wednesday, March 21, with the annual spring game scheduled for Saturday, April 14. Arizona returns 19 starters, with 10 of those on defense, and 44 lettermen from last year's bowl-eligible 6-6 club.
As far as countdowns, consider that there are only seven months until the 2007 season gets under way. Season tickets are on sale. Last year, UA drew an average of 55,798 fans per game, it's No. 2 figure in 100-plus years of football. The Cats play a six-game home schedule in 2007.
High on the list for serious scrutiny in spring is the Wildcats' new spread offense, spearheaded by coordinator Sonny Dykes, co-architect last year of one of the nation's prolific attacks at Texas Tech. Informal interviews with UA quarterbacks Willie Tuitama and Kris Heavner resound with a "we get it" indication that the learning curve in early study with Dykes has gone well. Tuitama said he feels the pace and fluidity of the offense will give QBs quicker decisions -- a factor which clearly could help him avoid some of the numbing hits that knocked him out of action for literally half the 2006 season.
Another focus will be on running back, where UA returns six-game starter Chris Jennings and sophomores Xavier Smith and Terry Longbons. The corps was trimmed by the early departure of junior Chris Henry to the NFL draft pool. Henry reportedly performed well in physical testing at the NFL Combine last week. Jennings had a 200-yard game against Stephen F. Austin in 2006 and appears more than capable.
Observers also wonder how UA's new offense will use the skills of sophomore Earl Mitchell, a tight end/fullback combo back Stoops has touted as potentially one of the nation's best young power players in a skill position.
Also on tap for spring is the close evaluation of younger players who redshirted last year. The group includes some elder statesmen in junior safety Nate Ness, receiver B.J. Dennard and offensive lineman James Tretheway, but also is laden with players who helped UA earn high marks for the '06 recruiting class and who figure to contend for roles in 2007.
Dykes joins returning tight ends coach and o-line collaborator Dana Dimel, and will help Stoops incorporate the additions of running backs coach Michael Smith, wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. Those three joined the offensive staff earlier this year.
Smith came from Rice University, with a serious background at Kansas State that coincided with Stoops' tenure as a defensive coach there; Wyatt coached receivers for the Minnesota Vikings last year, with earlier overlap at Oklahoma during Stoops' defensive coordinator days in Norman; and Bedenbaugh came from Texas Tech, where he worked closely with Dykes in Lubbock.
UA coaches have been huddling this week with defensive coaches from a number of top football schools such as Georgia, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, among others, in the annual information-trading and system-evaluation work staffs typically adopt in the off-season.
UA's defensive staff, headed by coordinator and secondary mentor Mark Stoops, returns intact with line coach Mike Tuiasosopo, ends coach Joe Robinson and linebackers coach Tim Kish. The Cats fielded the No. 4-rated defense in the Pac-10 a year ago and expect to improve this year. The headliner on the unit is first-team all-league pick Antoine Cason in the secondary, a semi-finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award last year.
Arizona's Returning Starters
Junior QB Willie Tuitama
Junior WR Mike Thomas
Senior WR Anthony Johnson
Senior OT Peter Graniello
Sophomore OG Daniel Borg
Sophomore C Blake Kerley
Junior OG Joe Longacre
Sophomore OT Eben Britton
Sophomore TE Earl Mitchell
Others: Senior TE Brandyn McCall (5 starts),
Senior RB Chris Jennings (6).
Senior DT Yaniv Barnett
Senior DT Lionel Dotson
Senior LB Spencer Larsen
Senior LB Dane Krogstad
Junior LB Ronnie Palmer
Senior CB Antoine Cason
Senior FS Dominic Patrick
Senior CB Wilrey Fontenot
Others: Senior DE Jason Parker (5 starts)
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OG Conan Amituanai, Fr. ... moved from defensive line and tight end, fight for top role
OL Cody Anderson, Fr. ... could move from tight end to LT
C Colin Baxter, Fr. ... likely to work as backup center in rotation
RB Glyndon Bolasky, Fr. ... knee injury in '06 camp, otherwise had speed for ST duty
P Keenyn Crier, Fr. ... walk-on punter who could earn the role
WR B.J. Dennard, Jr. ... veteran explosive player with speed, he'll play
OL Cory Elmore, Fr. ... still growing, likely a tackle on right side
DE Ricky Elmore, Fr. ... physically ready, will help on the edge
OL Jovon Hayes, Fr. ... highly touted, contend for top guard spot
QB Tyler Lyon, Fr. ... will fight for backup or more in new offense
DT Lolomana Mikaele, Fr. ...solid young defender, probably at nose
S Nate Ness, Jr. ... coveted Juco signee, ready to contend for rotation
TE Brooks Reed, Fr. ... physical skills to play some position this year; easily ST
DE D’aundre Reed, Fr. ... rangy athlete with speed, the near future here
WR Terrell Reese, Fr. ... almost made rotation in '06, will make it this year
TE A.J. Simmons, Fr. ... another physically endowed guy, maybe multi-positions
OL James Tretheway, Jr. ... injury thwarted chance at starting role in '06
CB Mike Turner, Fr. ... likely to earn spurs behind Antoine Cason at strong corner
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(Weekdays 4-6 p.m., Saturdays 9-11 a.m. Schedule is subject to change.)
(15th practice TO ADD)
Wednesday, March 21
Friday, March 23
Saturday, March 24
Monday, March 26
Wednesday, March 28
(Thursday, March 29 ?- Coaches Clinic, no practice)
Friday, March 30 ?- Coaches Clinic
Saturday, March 31 ?- Coaches Clinic; scrimmage
Monday, April 2
Wednesday, April 4
Friday, April 6
Monday, April 9
Wednesday, April 11
Friday, April 13 ?- Football Alumni Weekend
Saturday, April 14 ?- Spring Game,
Practices are closed to the public and media with the exception of the Spring Game and Saturday scrimmages.
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Senior Cornerback Antoine Cason
2007 Jim Thorpe/Ronnie Lott Awards Candidate