TUCSON--UA's football team opens spring practice today and head coach Mike Stoops told reporters this morning that the 2006 Wildcats have taken solid steps toward changing the dynamics of Arizona football.
"As opposed to the last two springs, being here two years we're much further ahead than at any time. I just feel we can go out there and run close to maybe 80 to 90 percent of our stuff that we ended up with last year. Obviously having the nucleus of our team back -- you look at eight starters on offense and nine on defense -- we're just a little further ahead of the game. We're looking to getting out there and really being able to execute some things well right off the bat.
"We have a lot of experience. That's the thing, Finally, we have some experience to build off. Another thing, you want to see how much they developed through the out-of-season (strength) program. We look much bigger, stronger and faster than we did coming off the end of last year," Stoops said.
UA will hold 15 practices, most at the Jimenez Practice Facility, and several in Arizona Stadium. Spring practice culminates April 22 with the annual spring game. Most sessions are closed, but Saturday action April 1 and 8 and the 22nd are open to the public.
The Cats return nine starters on defense and eight on offense from the 2005 club that finished 3-8 and 2-6 in Pac-10 play.
Stoops said improvement throughout the program is evident, notably at quarterback the healthy return of the starting linebacker trio, better depth on the offensive line and experience in the defensive secondary.
Several questions in spring focus on the running back position, where drills will determine whether heir apparent Chris Henry steps into the breach left by NFL hopefuls Mike Bell and Gilbert Harris, and at defensive tackle where the team lacks the depth Stoops and the defensive staff need for a rigorous 2006 schedule. Replacing graduated free safety Darrell Brooks, another prospect for the NFL draft, is another quest and should center around sophomore Brandon Tatum and junior Dominic Patrick in spring.
Sophmore quarterback Willie Tuitama (6-3, 218), whose five-game career started what most feel will be a new era in Arizona quarterbacking, brings back some big-play style that helped him record a 136.99 pass efficiency rating, sixth best in UA history. He threw for nine touchdowns and an average of 221 yards per game after coming out of a redshirt season in UA's seventh game. One of his key targets was then freshman Mike Thomas, who while not labeled a starter (4 starts) behind Syndric Steptoe, snagged an Arizona freshman-record 52 receptions -- 13th best on Wildcat single-season totals. In Tuitama's four starts, he completed 19 passes to Thomas alone, 14 of those for first downs and three scores.
"(Willie) is probably stronger and in better condition than during any time that he played those last five games. I think he'll be a better player mentally and physically than he was a year ago. I'll know after today if he has more zip on the ball. He's healthy and five or eight pounds heavier than he was a year ago," Stoops said. Tuitama missed the final half of the season finale at Arizona State after getting banged up early in the third quarter.
Backup Adam Austin, a senior, and the return of senior Kris Heavner to the program after a year away, give Arizona a much better quarterback situation than in any recent year, Stoops said. "We have a guy who we think can take this program to new levels, a guy we feel really comfortable with in Adam who will push Willie... and then adding a guy in Heavner who started for us in our first year... we have a lot of quality depth at quarterback," he said.
"Replacing running backs Mike Bell and Gilbert Harris will become a main focus. I really like (junior) Chris Henry, Xavier Smith and Terry Longbons (both redshirt freshmen). All three of those guys have had great winters and we need them to come and translate that to the field. We probably have more speed in the backfield than we ever have -- and those guys are game breakers who can take the ball the distance. The consistency level that Mike brought is something we have to work on," he said.
"We have a chance to put two (offensive) lines on the field that have really quality players across" the board, Stoops said, citing newcomer James Tretheway, returning regular Adam Hawes and redshirts Daniel Borg and Blake Kerley among those contending for starting roles with returnees Tanner Bell, Joe Longacre and Erick Levitre.
Sophomore middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer, and juniors Spencer Larsen (weakside) and Dane Krogstad (strongside) each missed significant parts of the season in 2005 with injuries, and their return gives UA's defense its biggest improvement according to Stoops.
"We took a really tough shot losing those linebackers throughout the course of the whole year. That devastated us. We started maybe four or five groups of linebackers and really never got good continuity in the second level of our defense," Stoops said. "Having those guys (and some younger players) back is going to help. I don't think we ever saw the true linebacking corps (in 2005) that we're capable of having."
Senior strong safety Michael Johnson and junior cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot give UA a solid start in the backfield. "Those guys have all-conference ability," he said. Cason and Fontenot have played every snap of every game in the first two years of action.
Returning Offensive Starters
WR Syndric Steptoe, 5-9, 182, Sr., 3L
OT Peter Graniello, 6-5, 296, Jr., 2L
C Erick Levitre, 6-1, 282, Sr., 2L
OT Tanner Bell, 6-8, 294, Sr., 3L
WR Anthony Johnson, 6-2, 205, Jr., 2L
QB Willie Tuitama, 6-3, 218, So., 1L
TE Brad Wood, 6-2, 228, Sr., 2L
WR Mike Thomas, 5-8, 173, So., 1L ?- 4 starts
OG Joe Longacre, 6-3, 303, So., 1L ?- 4 starts
OG Adam Hawes, 6-4, 302, Sr., 1L ?- 3 starts
Returning Defensive Starters
DE Johnathan Turner, 6-3, 250, Jr., 2L
DT Yaniv Barnett, 6-1, 285, Jr., 2L
DT Lionel Dotson, 6-4, 278, Jr., 2L
LB Ronnie Palmer, 6-3, 239, So., 1L
LB Spencer Larsen, 6-1, 236, Jr., 2L
LB Dane Krogstad, 6-2, 236, Jr., 2L
CB Antoine Cason, 6-0, 192, Jr., 2L
SS Michael Johnson, 6-2, 205, Sr., 1L
CB Wilrey Fontenot, 5-9, 174, Jr., 2L
DE Marcus Smith, 6-5, 266, Sr., 3L ?- 2 starts, ’04 starter
NB Marcus Hollingsworth, 5-10, 228, Sr., 3L ?- 7 starts