The prognosticators' reasoning, in part - the Cats' worst-ever tie for 9th place with a 1-7 league mark in 2002, and a schedule which this season features 10 bowl teams including LSU, Purdue and Texas Christian on the non-conference slate. Plus the Cats lost three of their yeoman performers in quarterback Jason Johnson, linebacker Lance Briggs and wide receiver Bobby Wade.
No matter that the Wildcats lost three key games at mid-year last fall by a combined 21 points. Such pivotal contests are the stuff of good seasons. A couple of plays here and there and Arizona might have been a modest 7-5 but at least in the hunt for a bowl bid.
In each of the past three years, the last two under the watch of head Coach John Mackovic, Arizona had such October opportunities that dramatically impacted the season. No one knows more than those in the UA camp that until the Cats can win those games, they'll be lumped with the have-nots.
Enter a new direction in 2003 in the quest to get the job done, to step beyond having chances to win. The Arizona program sports new offensive and defensive coordinators, a different special teams coordinator, three other new coaches and - definitively - a different defense and a cohesive temperment.
In spring practice a change in Arizona's team chemistry was evident. On the defensive side of the ball, UA's players seemed eager to put the double-eagle flex behind them and play a more reactive 3-4 system newly installed under coordinator Mike Hankwitz. On offense, Mackovic and coordinator Mike Deal turned over every available stone to find answers to poor production in last year's running game, and worked exhaustively to find which of the two top quarterback prospects could step into Johnson's shoes.
Clearly, Arizona's hopes for success in 2003 hinge most heavily on what Mackovic calls a "tough and rough" defensive mentality, the "two-horse race" at the quarterback spot and re-establishing the running game. All are do-able goals, and progress is under way.
Defensive coordinator Hankwitz, most recently of Texas A&M but a Mackovic colleague from 1970s staffs at Arizona and Purdue (both under Jim Young), is credited by the head coach as a superbly well-organized tactician with tried and true methods. Offensive coordinator Deal, late of NFL Europe but a Mackovic assistant on staffs at Illinois and Texas, gets a nod from the coach as a run-blocking and pass-protection expert of some note, and one in whom he trusts as knowing Mackovic's offensive peculiarities well.
Nothing gets done by word alone, though, and Arizona's spring methodology dispensed with rhetoric and focused on the tasks at hand. There are more questions to be answered entering fall camp, but Arizona seems poised to provide suitable answers, and get on with the business of winning football games.
Stopping the Opponents
"We set out to install our defense in spring ball, and arrange the personnel in the right spots. We did a better job than we did two years ago when we kept the same scheme Arizona had been running," Mackovic said after spring ball.
The Cats switched to a 3-4 after a decade of the flex. The latter, when used at full strength with marvelous players, was as good a defense as any in America. But the Desert Swarm legacy of the '90s softened as opponents became familiar with its nuance and made adjustments. Too, without All-Americans like Rob Waldrop, Tedy Bruschi, Sean Harris, Tony Bouie and Chris McAlister manning key spots, the defense became improbably difficult.
"We have to play better defense to have a better team. No question," Mackovic says.
The "new" system under Hankwitz, actually a football staple for decades, gives UA some different stunts, blitzes, dime and nickel coverages and other straightforward schemes that help limit players' responsibilities to upfield work, rather than so many side-to-side details of the double-eagle. "We put in far more than one might have anticipated," Mackovic said, and noted that UA has some players geared to the change.
"It's a better match versus the Pac-10," Mackovic said of the Cats defense. "We see a lot of three- and four-receiver alignments and with the flex that stretched us and put our run defense in trouble. The 3-4 gives us two linebackers in the middle of the field, and two safeties in the middle of the field. We can roll coverages and match up. I felt that opposing quarterbacks could 'read' us too easily. This kind of defense hopefully will help," he said.
The entire release will be posted over the next few days, or go to arizonaathletics.ocsn.com.