Offensive Woes: Player Development

Even the most diehard, myopic Wildcat fans realize there is a problem with the offense. Every fan has their solution. To us there are four things you have to look at on offense: talent/experience, play calling, player development and execution. We'll devote a column to each and try to pinpoint what some of the problems are and see if they are fixable. Now we discuss player development.

Now that Editor-In-Chief Brad Allis examined the talent level at Arizona, or lack thereof, we can discuss the development of the players that have been in a Wildcat uniform since the current coaching staff arrived almost three years ago.

It has become clear that the successful development of players on the offensive side of the ball is truly a mixed bag of results. From players like B.J. Dennard to Syndric Steptoe the development has been so varied that it has been frustrating to watch, both as a fan, and most assuredly as a coach.

Quite possibly the most developed player in the Stoops era offensively has been the rise of senior wide receiver Syndric Steptoe. When the current staff got here Steptoe was thought of as a good athlete with great open field skills but many questioned his true ability to get open and to hang on to the ball with regularity.

In part time duties as a freshman in 2003 Steptoe caught just 9 balls for a total of 77 yards and no scores while playing in all 12 games and starting just one. As a sophomore, and first as a full time starter (started 10 of 11 games) and the first of the current coaching staff, Steptoe had a breakout year of sorts. In 10 games, all starts, he amassed 30 catches for 446 yards and caught three touchdowns.

Last year as a junior Steptoe continued his growth as a player and as a leader while grabbing 37 balls for 493 yards. So far this season, while battling varying injuries, he has totaled 22 catches for 291 yards and a touchdown through five games. On top of the output at wide receiver Steptoe has developed into one of the Pac-10's most dangerous return men on both punts and kickoffs.

On the other side of the development issue is another wide receiver, junior B.J. Dennard. When Dennard signed with Arizona head coach Mike Stoops said he was basically one of the better high school all around athletes he had seen, which may have been his ultimate downfall, at least so far.

Because he was so highly thought of as a pure athlete Dennard was initially worked and tried on both sides of the ball as he worked at both receiver and defensive back before finally settling in on offense a year and half into his college career. So far in his Wildcat career Dennard has totaled just 9 catches for 107 total yards and no scores.

Dennard has been a good contributor on special teams, namely punt and kickoff return coverage teams. Dennard has also had his share of troubles on special team as everyone remembers his fumbled kick return earlier this year against LSU.

In the middle of the development spectrum is yet another receiver, junior Anthony Johnson. Johnson's development has been the most frustrating of any player and any position. There is simply no question about the physical tools of the young receiver but his development has been somewhat lacking.

In his three years of on field action Johnson has totaled 62 catches for 641 yards and five touchdowns. While the numbers seem to be good, it is the numbers that Johnson has left on the field throughout his career is where the frustration comes from.

Whether it be dropping a key pass or inexplicably making a catch on his knees, his development has been extremely frustrating to watch. The biggest thing missing from Johnson's game is consistency. One game he will have a huge day and be the big threat that he needs to be and the next week he will disappear completely. Johnson's has progressed but his progression has been slow to say the least.

Other positions on the Wildcat offense are a little harder to grade at this point. Most of the offensive line currently lining up for the Wildcats have little or no experience so there is no base to grade their development. But it is the actual regression of two players on the line that has thrown up some flags.

Senior guard Adam Hawes and junior tackle Pete Graniello have both seemingly regressed quite a bit from 2005 to 2006 and the reasons for the possible regression are unknown. Graniello had a breakout year last season and Hawes was a decent enough player for the Cats a year ago. So far early in 2006 both of the supposed ‘leaders' of the overall young unit have been abysmal. Both are consistently out of position and both have rendered more than their fair share of sacks and hits on the quarterback.

Both Graniello and Hawes have had to battle injuries, which might lead to SOME struggles, but injuries are not a reason to be so out of position on so many plays. Especially in the case of Graniello, who is battling a banged up shoulder.

You also must take into account the learning of the zone blocking scheme but that coupled with youth and injuries is still not really reason enough for the overall struggles of the unit. With all of those factors it is wise to expect some rough patches of growth but the unit, save their performance against Stephen F. Austin, has been terrible all year.

The running backs, with limited experience as a group, is also hard to grade. Junior back Chris Henry is simply not a running back and is a freak of an athlete playing running back. There is no doubting the physical abilities of Henry but his lack of true running back instincts is glaring. Henry has worked at running back since coming to Arizona four years ago and he has improved as an overall back. His blocking has improved but is still not where it needs to be, especially from a fourth year junior.

Fellow junior walk on Chris Jennings has much better instincts than Henry but he lacks the break away speed and overall D-1 experience of Henry. Xavier Smith is getting his fist playing time as a red shirt freshman and his development is hard to grade as well. Aside from dropping two screen passes that could have gone to the house, he has been a good backup choice for the Cats.

With a revolving door at the tight ends coaching spot you would think that the position may be the one to lag the most but it has actually probably progressed the most as an overall unit under the Stoops regime. The development of Brad Wood, Brandyn McCall and Travis Bell has been solid and the breakout of sorts of true freshman end/fullback Earl Mitchell has been fun to watch. The unit is slowed by injuries this season as Wood is trying to regain strength after having an ACL repaired and Bell has been out much of the season for various dings.

Last is the quarterback position. Again the position is hard to grade as there has been an almost constant shuffle of players at the position. It is simply too early to tell how much Willie Tuitama has progressed. The overall numbers of the passing game are down this year but it is unclear how much of the reason for the dip in numbers is the quarterback himself. Woeful line play, receivers not finishing routes and no running game to speak of and it is simply too hard to grade the progression.

The overall player development is a mixed bag depending on position. Many things have to enter into the equation of grading the development of players at the D-1 level. Injuries, personnel changes and youth are just three things that must be included when making your grades. The development of offensive players under the current staff overall should probably be given a modest grade of a ‘C'.

From successes like Brad Wood, Syndric Steptoe and Brandyn McCall to the moderate successes of Joe Longacre and Anthony Johnson the overall development grade can't be lower than a ‘C'. But on the flip side with the lack of development, or even regression, in players like Brandon Lopez, Adam Hawes and Pete Graniello the grade can also be absolutely no higher than that.

A lot of things go into the growth of an offense and player development is key. The current offensive staff has had their successes and they have also had their failures to date at various positions. Overall the development of athletes on the offensive side of the ball has been decent but it is clearly not where it needs to be in order for the Wildcats to get to the level they want to go.

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