Spring Football Gets Under Way Saturday
TUCSON--The Arizona football team will commence spring practice Saturday, March 8, to continue offseason preparations for the 2008 season, head coach Mike Stoops' fifth year.
The team will practice behind closed doors at 4 p.m. at the practice facility, although most planned scrimmages will be open to the public, said Erick Harper, director of football operations.
Spring practice culminates Saturday, April 12, with the Spring Game in Arizona Stadium, slated to start at 1:30 p.m.
Stoops and staff -- which includes one semi-new assistant and another returning former UA assistant coach -- face the task of re-tooling a defense that lost eight starters including Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Antoine Cason and fine tuning an offense that set a number of school passing records in 2007 and returns 10 starters.
Five mid-year junior college signees will be an immediate focus, to check on their ability to immediately contend for key roles. The group includes big offensive linemen Mike Diaz (6-5, 340), Phillip Garcia (6-7, 340) and Herman Hall (6-3, 325). Diaz and Garcia come to UA by way of Cerritos Community College, while Hall played at Blinn College in Texas. The other newcomers in the fold are linebackers Vuna Tuiahalamaka, formerly of El Camino College in California, and Sterling Lewis, a teammate of Diaz and Garcia at Blinn.
Reports from head strength coach Corey Edmond and assistant Brian Odom are that the juco group is a hard-working, dedicated bunch physically ready for the rigors of a Pac-10 spring camp.
They're up against some returning vets, led by second-team All-Pac-10 pick Eben Britton at offensive tackle, along with returning starters Blake Kerley at center, and Colin Baxter and Joe Longacre at guard. Returning tackles James Tretheway and Adam Grant, and guard Jovon Hayes, also figure to push.
UA players have been working out since the season ended last December so spring ball is a benchmark, not a starting point. With a lifting regimen and multiple running sessions each week, the 15 allowed practices from March 8 to April 12 are aimed more at the offensive and defensive systems rather than conditioning, Stoops said.
Among personnel items for scrutiny are the switches of junior H-back Earl Mitchell to defensive tackle and of sophomore receive Mike Turner to cornerback. The Cats lose starters Lionel Dotson and Yaniv Barnett up front, and Mitchell joins a group including sophomores Lolomana Mikaele and Kaniela Tuipulotu, junior Donald Horton, sophmore Cory Elmore and redshirt freshman Hans Philipp.
Turner will compete for a top role with senior Marquis Hundley, junior Devin Ross and redshirt freshman Trevin Wade to replace the departed Cason and Wilrey Fontenot on the corners. Those two and a number of other Wildcats participated in the NFL Combine last week. They started -- and played almost exclusively -- every game the past four years. Ross and Hundley played on special teams in 2007, but saw limited duty in the secondary.
Mitchell is considered one of the Cats best players and coaches think a possible switch might be a way to keep him on the field. His blocking and pass-catching ability as an H and tight end were keys to the offense, but his physical presence (6-3, 265) and athleticism could be more of a factor in the thick of things on defense. Too, the development of young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and A.J. Simmons in 2007 makes the change more palatable.
Some coaching tweaks were made by Stoops in the past month, and that's another factor this spring. Dave Nichol, a graduate assistant working with offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes and offensive line and running game coordinator Bill Bedenbaugh last year, was elevated to fulltime status in early February.
Former Wildcat assistant and an All-Pac-10 safety at UA, Jeff Hammerschmidt, was hired as assistant defensive line coach and special teams coordinator in late Feburary. He's been a special teams and defensive coordinator at various stops and has Pac-10 playing and coaching experience. He comes to UA from the staff at San Jose State, where he assisted former UA mentor Dick Tomey as linebackers coach.
Nichol will coach outside receivers, while last year's running backs coach Michael Smith moves to inside receivers coach. Dana Dimel, the UA's tight ends coach, will take over the RB duties.
The quarterback position, where senior-to-be Willie Tuitama set a slew of Wildcat records with a Pac-10-best 28 touchdown throws, 3,683 passing yards and 327 completions a year ago, is not a question mark, although the staff is eager to see how much push comes from redshirt freshman Bryson Beirne and sophomore Tyler Lyon.
Dimel and Stoops also are eager to see improvement from sophomore Nic Grigsby (704 yards), juniors Xavier Smith and Terry Longbons and redshirt freshman Joe Reese. Coaches are expected to try sophomore Glyndon Bolasky, a former RB, at H-back, where senior Brandon Lopez returns.
Redshirt freshmen receivers Devin Veal and Bug Wright also will be scrutinized closely at an inside receiver position.
Senior receiver Mike Thomas gives UA a go-to guy of immense capability on the outside. A first-team All-Pac-10 pick and the league leader with 83 catches last season, Thomas will be a clear contender for national honors in 2008. He posted 1,038 receiving yars and a league-best 11 touchdown grabs last year, and also factors as a kick returner. Joining him outside are junior Terrell Turner (50-575), sophomores Delashaun Dean and Terrell Reese, and juco redshirt Derick Barkum.
Senior middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer is one of the returnees on whom UA will depend to help bring along a number of newcomers on the defensive unit. He and safeties Cam Nelson and Nate Ness are the returning starters, although senior defensive end Johnathan Turner has 25 career starts under his belt.
Two spots spring ball should not affect are punter and place kicker. Sophomore punter Keenyn Crier (43.7) is the returning league leader and first-team All-Pac-10 player at his position, while senior Jason Bondzio turned in a remarkable season in 2007 in his first action as the placekicker, hitting 21 of 26 field goals to finish second in the league in scoring with 100 points.
Arizona Spring Practice - Tentative Schedule
Saturday, March 8 4 p.m., practice field
Sunday, March 9
Monday, March 10
Wednesday, March 11??? Scrimmage
Monday, March 24
Wednesday, March 26
(Thursday, March 27 Coaches Clinic starts)
Friday, March 28
Saturday, March 29?????? Scimmage
Monday, March 31
Wednesday, April 2
Friday, April 4
Saturday, April 5
Monday, April 7
Wednesday, April 9
(Friday, April 11 - Football Alumni Weekend starts)
Saturday, April 12 Spring Game, Arizona Stadium 1:30 p.m.