In the first two seasons under John Mackovic, Arizona underscored his reputation as a master of the passing game. He led an unheralded fourth-year junior quarterback from 2001 obscurity to emergence as a potential NFL signee this past summer, and along the way re-wrote a pile of Arizona passing records. The work with Jason Johnson was truly remarkable.
"The quarterbacks have developed a feel for many of the things we do, and in strategy situations they're coming along. I'm comfortable but not satisfied," Mackovic said after spring ball.
Yet a primary point of emphasis in spring practice was the Arizona running game. To be more accurate - the near lack of one in 2002. Arizona checked in nationally at last in Division I with an average of 44 yards per game. In Pac-10 play - where seven of the Cats' eight losses came - the figure was a ghastly 13 yards per game and a measly 0.5 yards per attempt.
This from a squad that the year before sported a 1,000-yard rusher in halfback Clarence Farmer, a first-team All-Pac-10 pick in 2001. In 2002 he missed eight games with a knee injury, but UA still had some good youthful backs who couldn't get the running game going. Nor could the people up front help in a consistent way. Tackles for losses dumped 628 yards from UA's gross rushing figure and a whole slew of missed blocks had to be a root cause. "We set off in spring ball to get our running game back together. We shifted to more downhill running plays and made a lot of strides," Mackovic said. "You're never too old to learn, and we changed one or two things on power plays that helped," he said.
Quarterbacks - Coach Jeff Hecklinski
Whether Arizona has a remarkable successor to Jason Johnson at the quarterback position is one of the key questions for 2003 Wildcat football. Clearly, it was a primary focus of spring practice.
"We wanted to get our quarterbacks trained. They had good days and bad days," Mackovic said of sophomore Nic Costa and redshirt freshman Ryan O'Hara. It's hard to say where we are. The quarterbacks have developed a feel for many of the things we do, and in strategy situations, they're coming along. I'm comfortable but not satisfied," he said.
UA partisans have to hope the head man knows his stuff as well as it appeared in his transformation of Johnson from placekicks holder to East-West Shrine Game starter two scant years later.
The primary new coaches on staff affecting quarterbacking are offensive coordinator Mike Deal (the offensive line coach) and quarterbacks coach Jeff Hecklinski, an up and coming young coach who's already been a coordinator. So Mackovic not only goes about developing the next quarterback, but does so with new leadership. Spring ball showed the chemistry can work.
Welcomed back to camp but hurt at spring's end was junior-to-be John Rattay, who left the program after spring 2002 practice and played in junior college. He underwent summer knee surgery and is not likely to be available in early fall. That reduced the competition, in Mackovic's words, to a "two-horse race" between Costa and O'Hara. Costa (5-11, 200) has some game experience, albeit minimal, under his belt. One of his plays a year ago was a scramble at his own goal line and a toss of 92 yards for a score. Pound for pound he's one of the strongest players on the team, and mobile. O'Hara, at 6-foot-6, gets a different look at things and enjoyed one scrimmage with an 11-for-12 passing and four TDs passing effort. Pound for pound he's yet underdeveloped, but he's surprisingly mobile, too. Mackovic expects the competiton to continue, likely to the first game. Plus, he wants a close look at incoming freshmen Richard Kovalcheck (6-3, 205) and Kris Heavner (6-3, 215), both well-regarded quarterback prospects. While the two-horse race is at the turn, Mackovic says he's not ruling out something unexpected down the home stretch. Whoever the 2003 starting quarterback is, he won't bring a wealth of experience.
Running Backs - Coach Jay Boulware
Arizona's offensive staff worked diligently with running backs in spring ball as a means of getting back a productive running game. The group did not include 2001all-league talent Clarence Farmer, who was not allowed to practice due to undisclosed reasons. But, Farmer returned to offseason strength and conditioning workouts with the team early in the summer and is on track to bring his ability back into the fold as a senior in 2003.
His return will be a nice addition to a group of young guys, all of whom saw action last year -- sophomores Mike Bell, Gainus Scott, Gilbert Harris, Beau Carr and Sean Jones. Sophomore fullback Pedro Limon, switched from linebacker in late 2002, and junior Chris Harris add even more depth. Bell ended up as UA's lead rusher last year, with a modest 341 yards (3.2 per carry). But he, Scott and Jones also missed time with various ailments, one reason the Cats developed more young experience playing true freshmen in Carr and Harris.
Mackovic, coordinator Deal and running backs coach Jay Boulware have tweaked UA's playbook to emphasize more downhill, physical running, and Mackovic said the club made improvement. He specifically cited Bell, Carr and Harris for substantially increasing their awareness of the running game's complementary nature to the passing offense. Though Scott was sidelined for spring with an injury, coaches feel his hard-running style will be a plus with an expected return in August.
UA brings in two fall freshmen at running back, including California prep 100-meter champion Chris Henry, but they likely will find a list of trained guys ahead of them in the rotation. There's no question the head coach is a proponent of moving the ball via the pass, but UA needs the short game to help improve its goal line offense and third-down efficiency.
In a perfect injury-free preseason, UA would work Farmer, Bell, Carr and Scott at halfback in various doses depending on their overall backfield skills (blocking, catching, route-running), with Gilbert Harris and Jones at fullback. Farmer's a known commodity, but Mackovic likes the young guys, too. It's a good situation. All six started games in 2002.
Offensive Line - Coach Mike Deal
The Cats worked through the offseason with an intact group up front, a development unlike 2002 when UA was able (due to injuries) to start the same line only three consecutive games all year. "We came along nicely, and no one was out - a critical factor" in fostering the cohesion so necessary along the offensive line, Mackovic said.
Senior tackle Brandon Phillips should spearhead the group at right tackle, though junior left tackle Chris Johnson earned the Most Improved Offensive Player award for spring practice. "The two tackles gave us solid play," Mackovic said.
Under his guidance, Deal trimmed some of the line's responsibilities in pass protection and blitz pick-up, and worked to get the quarterbacks to stay in the pocket. The interior - where junior center Keoki Fraser and guards John Parada and Kili Lefotu check in as probable starters, also will be a key to the integrity of the pocket. Three-year letterman Reggie Sampay, who started at both guard spots and center in 2002 games, soph tackle Tanner Bell and redshirt freshman tackle Keith Jackson will contend for starting roles but minimally give the unit seven-man depth and flexibility. UA brings in center Tom Robinson, a junior college transfer, in the fall and he's expected to join that group plus contend for all the placekick- and deep-snapping chores.
The size up front is good. Phillips is one of the Cats' biggest at 6-foot-8, 330 pounds. All the other top guys combine to average 6-5, 309. Upon his arrival for the 2001 year, Mackovic promised Arizona would not be intimidated by stature up front, and he's made good on the word.
Tight Ends - Coach Charlie Dickey
After 11 seasons working with Arizona's offensive line, coach Charlie Dickey moves outward and will coach tight ends in 2003. It's a critical position for UA, with two lettermen lost and a spring 2003 practice limited to a corps comprised of a redshirt freshman, a junior walk-on and a sidelined junior two-year letterman.
The redshirt freshman, Matt Padron (6-5, 259), made the most of some exhaustive work, but the walk-on also drew notice. Clarence McRae (6-1 235), in fact, could end up on scholarship after being named the Most Outstanding Newcomer on offense in spring ball. Junior Steve Fleming (6-6, 250) sat out spring with an injury but started a game in 2002 as a top rotation player. He knows the quirks in the offense the others have to learn through game experience.
With knowledge of UA's system and Dickey's influence, those three factor as the top candidates for 2003, but Arizona also went out and recruited a couple of junior college tight ends. Mackovic likes a four-man tight end group among his 60-man travel party so one of those guys needs to step up.
Dickey has had outstanding success training relative no-names into guys with NFL potential - "potential" as in recent Super Bowl starter Edwin Mulitalo of the Baltimore Ravens. His move to working with tight ends - an integral part of the running game and pass-protection/pass routes schemes - could be a most helpful development. Arizona was successful throwing to tight ends only 17 times last year, but with 93-catch wide-out Bobby Wade gone, the number should grow. And, the big guys on the edge will have a great impact on UA's 2003 running attack.
Wide Receivers -- Coach Mose Rison
Mackovic had to scramble a bit in mid-June, but secured the services of Mose Rison to coach wide receivers, after Mike Borich left the staff for personal reasons. Rison spent the last two years coaching for the New York Jets, and brings some quality experience in the receiving game to the staff. It's a great sign for the Cats receiving group, which will operate in 2003 minus the school's all-time leader, Wade.
The new leader will get a swift lesson in UA's passing attack prior to the start of fall camp, but should have some good talent in the receiving corps in 2003.
Senior Andrae Thurman complemented all-time UA receiving leader Bobby Wade with 61 grabs for 915 yards last season, making them easily the top tandem in Arizona history. Thurman enjoyed a productive spring campaign and seems poised to make a bid to match his predecessor's big numbers in 2003. However, there are plenty of guys willing and able to step forward for a piece of the action.
Senior Lance Relford and sophomore Biren Ealy bring rotation experience to the mix, but redshirt freshman Mike Jefferson is a bright young prospect in Mackovic's view and sophomore letterman Ricky Williams made a solid bid for a bigger role during spring ball. Those five and senior letterman Juan Valentine, who played as juco transfer in 2002, give Arizona a half-dozen trusted targets.
Ealy, Jefferson and Williams have the taller stature Mackovic sought in his last two recruiting classes. Thurman and Relford have the been-there-done-that six combined years' experience. A trio of newcomers in the fall -- Marcus Thomas, Syndric Steptoe and Anthony Johnson - have some explosive skills, notably Thomas, who rushed for 3,500 yards his last year in high school but wants to open his career as a wide receiver. Steptoe's a "flyer" according to Mackovic and Johnson's a multi-dimensional athlete who also played quarterback, safety and shooting guard in basketball as a prep standout.
The bottom line at wide receiver is affording a new quarterback time to get the ball to the aforementioned guys. Spring showed it can be done. If any player on a John Mackovic-coached team knows he's likely to get the ball by doing the right things, it's a receiver. Arizona ought to have a nice, balanced group in 2003.
Offensive Starters Returning:
C Keoki Fraser (11)
OT Brandon Phillips (9)
OG Kili Lefotu (6)
OL Chris Johnson (6)
HB Clarence Farmer (11 in '01)
Due to the length of the original press release we will post it in segments over the next few days. If you want to read it in it's entirety go to the official Athletic Department site at arizonaathletics.ocsn.com.
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