Arizona has new coaches, new formations, a new quarterback and a new outlook. John Mackovic and his staff enter the 2001 season with a lot of question
marks, but a sound strategy for success.
With his reputation as an offensive coach, you can bet that Mackovic is hard at work installing his offense.
"It will be a new offense," Mackovic promised. "There'll be split backs, single back, and even no backs. We'll use three wide receivers, four wide receivers. It will be a multiple, pro-style offense. The offense will look similar to what we ran at Texas."
Mackovic will call the plays on game day, but expect offensive coordinator Rick Dykes to be heavily involved as well.
"I'll call the plays," Mackovic said. "But I'll let Rick do some things. I don't want to be the only one involved."
Mackovic feels that calling his own plays is one of the keys to his offense's success.
"The value of play calling is not so much what you call, but when you call (a play) and why. You have to have a sense of the ebb and flow. To me that's the art of the game."
Mackovic believes offense is an art as well as a science. Preparation as well as gameday adjustments are vital to the team's success.
"We want to put strategy into play and use it to paint the Saturday afternoon or evening picture. It can't be a science on game day--that's during the week. On game day you get your creativity working."
Although known for his work with quarterbacks and the passing game, Mackovic understands the importance of the running game. Remember, this is the man who recruited and coached Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams.
"There are times you have to run the ball because it will work against your opponent that day. We have some players who are capable of 1,000-yard seasons if things work out that way."
With Ortege Jenkins graduating, there is a huge hole at quarterback. Junior Jason Johnson emerged from spring practice as the slight leader, but developing a consistent signal caller will be vital for offensive success.
"There are six quarterbacks," Mackovic said. "They're all starting new to our system, but the good news is there is some talent."
The defense appears to be in good hands with the return of Larry Mac Duff as the defensive guru. Hiring Mac Duff away from the New York Giants ensures that the double-eagle flex will remain intact.
"We were fortunate to have Larry Mac Duff join the program because he knows and helped design the defensive system," Mackovic said.
With players like Lance Briggs, Keoni Fraser and Michael Jolivette the pieces are in place to return to the glory days of the "Desert Swarm."
"I believe we have good players who are familiar with this defense and who will give us a chance to continue its performance and reputation. The double-eagle flex defense is different from what most people play, and that gives us a ready advantage. It's a defense builtin the style of guerilla warfare."
Both defensive ends and two starting linebackers must be replaced. Eli Wnek returns to the defense and had a phenomenal spring. Joe Siofele and Ray Wells also look to be standouts in the linebacking corps.
Another concern for Mackovic is the once strong special teams unit that has suffered the past few seasons. After a tradition of outstanding specialists, the kicking game has become a liability at times for the Wildcats. It has gotten so bad that one of the most frequently asked questions of Mackovic on his tour of Southern Arizona was about fixing the special teams.
"These plays can cost a season," Mackovic said of the special teams. "There are returning place kickers, and we'll develop a program for them to follow."
One of the returning kickers is Sean Keel. Keel was solid last season, and has even garnered some preseason honors.
"Sean Keel has shown the improvement that one might expect. Based on his statistics, I think he can be a quality kicker and improve even more."
With a new staff, all jobs appear to be open. Expect returning starters to get long looks, but the days of deferring to seniors could be at an end.
"Players at all positions know they have to continue to perform, but we owe a certain respect to guys who have performed in the past."
Once again the Pac-10 appears to be a very balanced conference, a fact that has not escaped Mackovic.
"The league had three co-champions in 2000 and that portends outstanding strength from top to bottom. It's difficult for me to assess the total conference without having coached against the teams yet. I have watched a lot of games, but have not had a chance to game plan or coach against what we'll face."