Lopez fulfills lifelong dream

Every year Tucson produces a couple of top tier D-I football players. For the most part Southern Arizona just isn't a hotbed for football recruiting. Arizona has had mixed results when trying to land local products, but is thrilled with the most recent acquisition.

This story appears in the February issue of Cat Tracks Magazine out next week. The issue features a comprehensive look at the 2004 football recruiting class. For more info on how to subscribe call (520) 327-0705.

Brandon Lopez slipped under most recruiting analysts' radar screens, but the standout from Cienega High School has a lot of those in the know thrilled about his chances to be a pretty good player.

"We are really excited about Brandon," Mike Stoops said. "He is greatly underappreciated from a recruiting standpoint. He brings a lot to the table, has a lot of diversity to his game, and he is a great competitor."

Lopez rushed for almost 3,300 yards in his two-year varsity career. He scored 25 touchdowns as a senior and was one of the best running backs in the state. Despite the great offensive numbers, he will play linebacker in college.

"He's going to be a linebacker," confirmed Nemer Hassey, Lopez' coach at Cienega High School. "I think he'll be an impact player. I think he has the size and speed to do some things in the Pac-10. Early on he might have to be on special teams to get acclimated, but once he gets in there and gets his feet wet he should be one of the better players they have there."

The Wildcats failed to sign a running back in the class and many fans wonder why Lopez doesn't get his first shot at the field on offense. In fact, Stoops was posed that very question by a booster at a recent speaking engagement. It doesn't hurt that Stoops is a defensive guy, but he has one particular reason that Lopez will be a linebacker, his resemblance to a former Stoops player at Oklahoma.

"Brandon Lopez reminds me of Rocky Calmus in a lot of different ways," Stoops said. "Rocky Calmus was an All-American and Butkus Award winner; those are pretty high expectations to put on a guy. Rocky was an all-state running back, and I see a lot of similarities in the two. They both can run, but we want Brandon to be a linebacker, and we think he has all of the tools to be a tremendous linebacker."

Lopez is very excited to play for Stoops, but he originally verballed to John Mackovic and remained a firm commitment through the firing and Mike Hankwitz' tenure and never wavered as Stoops brought his staff in.

"He just wanted to be a Wildcat," Hassey said. "He wanted to play in front of his home crowd. His parents wouldn't be able to watch him if he went to Colorado State. He's got a great support system here. As soon as they offered it was a done deal.

"Other schools were recruiting him and when they changed the coach over we weren't sure what would happen, but as soon as they announced Coach Stoops it was in the books."

It has long been Lopez' dream to run out onto the field at Arizona Stadium in a Wildcat uniform. Not only did he love the school and the players, but it is close enough that his friends and family can come watch him play.

The decision was further made easier as he befriended many Wildcats after making his verbal pledge. Although the program was in a state of flux, the players remained a tight-knit group and that appealed to Lopez, who was used to a close team at Cienega.

"I was already part of the family," Lopez noted as a major reason he never looked elsewhere despite the tumultuous season. "I knew they would find a good coach there."

Lopez has become close to Kris Heavner, Ryan O'Hara, Pedro Limon and Tanner Bell, among others. He describes his future teammates as "great guys."

Tucson does not produce a ton of high D-I players. This year three signed letters of intent, and that is the most in recent memory. The Wildcats had just three scholarship players from Southern Arizona on the roster last season and have seen the likes of Reggie Robertson, Steven Berg and John Kadous look elsewhere.

Hassey coached a number of great players at Sahuaro High School before he moved on to Cienega and will stack Lopez against the likes of Robertson, Mike Wells, Tony Wingate and Khoa Nguyen.

"I've had some real good players and he has to be in the top-three for sure," Hassey noted. " If I had to rank them then Reggie (Robertson) and Brandon would have to be one and two. Brandon is one of the best players I have ever coached."

Lopez led the fledgling Cienega program into the state 4-A playoffs. The second-year program took eventual state champion Sunnyside to the limit, falling to the Blue Devils by a point in a game that came down to the final play.

Although he wasn't well known when he pledged to the Cats, he has since made a name for himself. Lopez did not attend any of the major summer camps, but his play on the field this season earned him numerous honors, including an All-West selection by PrepStar and All-Area honors by both local newspapers.

It was fitting that Lopez signed his letter of intent inside Cienega's weight room. Lopez is a workout junkie who is not afraid to sweat. In fact, he's only been away from the field for a couple of months and he's already itching for action.

"I can't wait honestly, I already miss playing football," Lopez said. "I want to come back right now. It's pretty exciting."

He's working hard to be as ready as possible to play this season and he's already set goals for his improvement.

"I want to work on my speed a little bit," Lopez said. "I'm pretty fast but I want to get faster. I'd also like to add 10 more pounds."

Said Hassey, "He's just an amazing kid and I'm glad he has a chance to play at Arizona and I'll get to see him," Hassey said. "I'm a complete Wildcat fan and I am so glad that the UA offered and Brandon accepted. He's so excited to be a Wildcat and so excited to play for Coach Stoops."

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