Part one of this two part story takes an in depth look into the spelling of Arizona and what it all means for the 2007 football season.
A is for August as in August Camp.
Fall camp is less than two weeks away. The season opener is September 1st. Between now and then, the success of Arizona's season will be decided. For the second straight year the Wildcats have had 100 percent participation in optional summer workouts. They also return 17 starters, second only to UCLA's astounding 20 returnees. In Stoops' fourth year, the veteran players now know what's expected of them and more importantly, are wise enough and experienced enough in Stoops' system to educate and prepare the talented freshman and JUCO transfers for what's to come. There's little doubt that Arizona's defense will be wired straight by the end of camp. The unit gave up 19.6 points per game last season, which improved to 18.6 in conference play – good enough for second best in the Pac-10 behind only USC. The doubt lies with the offense. Offensive Coordinator Sonny Dykes has less than one month to instill his version of the spread offense. Timing will be critical. From short step drops by the quarterbacks and wide receivers not getting jammed at the line of scrimmage to the offensive line providing enough protection and the running backs finding and hitting holes quickly, every player needs to be on the same page by the time the team boards their flight to Provo, Utah. The good news is Arizona's offense will get tested against perhaps the best defense they'll face all season – Arizona's own first team defense. A successful Fall Camp for the offensive unit against Arizona's talented defense should give the offense not only hope, but confidence.
R is for Road as in Road Games.
Last season Arizona was a respectable 3-2 on the road with one of those losses being to a strong LSU team in Baton Rouge. In Stoops' first two seasons, the Wildcats were just 2-7 so the improvement in 2006 is obvious. In 2007, the team must continue to improve how they play away from Arizona Stadium if they have any shot of not only becoming bowl eligible, but actually making it to a bowl game for the first time since 1998. Arizona opens the season at BYU where the Cougars are 8-3 in their last 11 home openers (including six wins against BCS schools). To make things more difficult, five of Arizona's nine conference games also come on the road (Cal, USC, Oregon State, Washington and ASU). These Pac-10 foes are a combined 133-34 in homes games since the beginning of the Pete Carroll Era in 2001. If that isn't enough to put a scare in Arizona's schedule then this might: These same teams in 2006 were a combined 25-5 at home. Throw in BYU's 6-0 home record last season and the challenge could not be more difficult. No wonder Arizona's strength of schedule is as high as #4 in the country in some preseason magazines.
I is for Isolation.
Arizona's new spread offense is designed to force defenders to make plays in open space. It's also designed to force opponents to defend the entire field. In years past, teams could load up eight and sometimes even nine players in the box to literally dare the Wildcats to throw the ball. Still, they couldn't. Last season, with Willie Tuitama in and out of the lineup because of injuries, opponents used this tactic and effectively held the Wildcats to less than 200 total yards of offense nine times. Only once did the Wildcats tally more than 300 total yards and that came in a loss to Washington. To make matters worse, Arizona rushed for negative yards in three straight games (all losses, of course). How well Arizona's offensive unit executes in spreading the field this season will make all the difference. H-back Earl Mitchell weighs 250 pounds, Running Back Chris Jennings is a stout 225, and Wide Receiver Anthony Johnson checks in at 205. All will be hard to tackle one-on-one. Add to them an elusive Mike Thomas and a powerful Tight End unit led by superstar frosh Rob Gronkowski and Arizona should see dramatic improvement in all offensive categories – if they can isolate defenders.
Z is for Zone as in Red Zone.
As previously stated, Arizona has had trouble scoring points in the Stoops Era. To complicate things, now that Kicker Nick Folk has graduated, the team can no longer rely on an experienced leg to convert field goals when drives stall inside the 35. In order to compete at a high level in a conference that's ranked second toughest in the nation by everyone except LSU's Les Miles, Arizona will have to improve upon last season's 26 total touchdowns this time around. Dykes was brought in for just this reason. While calling plays for Texas Tech last year, Dykes' offense averaged 32.5 points per game. In 2005, the Red Raiders averaged 39.4. Nobody in Tucson is expecting those kinds of numbers – at least not yet – but they are expecting point production to improve somewhat. The coaching staff is confident that Arizona's defense will again give up less than 20 points per game so if Dykes' offense can average as little as one more touchdown per game, Arizona should be extremely competitive. How competitive? Well, consider this: Last year Arizona held nine opponents to less than 21 points yet they still lost three of those games by only scoring 3 points against USC, and 10 each against Washington and Oregon State.
O is for Offensive Line.
Last season's statistics are as compelling as they are disturbing. In fact, fair or unfair, most of Arizona's offensive woes in 2006 began and ended with the performance of the offensive line. The unit surrendered a horrendous 31 sacks for 249 yards. Equally ugly was the teams 84 rushing yards per game with an average yards per carry of only 2.7. Worse, in Pac-10 play, both of these stats actually dropped to 71.7 rush yards per game and 2.20 yards per carry. Sure, some blame can be assessed to others on the offensive unit. The quarterbacks at times held onto the ball too long, the running backs did not hit the holes quick enough, and so on. Still, when it comes to football, the team that controls the line of scrimmage has the best chance of winning every game. Last year, the offensive line was the team's weakest link. This year, with Arizona switching from a zone blocking scheme to a man blocking scheme, their performance should improve almost immediately. Add to that the depth of players returning to the offensive line and Arizona should have the experience and skill to compete at a much higher level. Keeping Tuitama upright will be their highest priority. They should, considering that Dykes has never had a starting quarterback not finish a game due to injury. If you want stats to prove the point, then here's one: Texas Tech gave up only 12 sacks to Big 12 foes last year under Dykes. That's 14 less than the Wildcats surrendered to Pac-10 opponents in 2006.
N is for Nickel Package.
Perhaps the key to Arizona's defense this year will be how well they perform in the nickel defense. While Arizona's defense is designed to not give up the big play, this year's veteran unit should be much more aggressive – and stingy – forcing teams into long second and third downs. The Nickel Package will be called upon regularly to get the defense off the field and if they do, Arizona can avoid the one thing that plagued them last year. Arizona allowed opponents to successfully convert on 39 percent of their third downs, which is something that just can't happen this year. Cam Nelson has the potential to be a difference maker on this unit as many already have him pegged as the Nickel Back. Nelson had a strong Spring Camp and has proven to be quickest to the ball in this defensive set. He'll need to be disruptive when on the field. If he is, Arizona can improve their time of possession which has been hovering around 28 minutes a game since Stoops arrived.
A is for Average Points Per Play.
In John Mackovic's final season with Arizona, the Wildcats averaged 20.4 yards per point on offense. On defense, they allowed opponents 12.9 yards per point. It's no wonder Arizona lost games that year by scores of 59-13, 48-10, 59-7, 52-23 and 45-0. Since Stoops arrived, these stats have improved each season. Last year, our offense improved to 15.2 yards per point while the defense was it's stingiest since Dick Tomey departed, forcing teams to gain 16.7 yards per point. In order to compete with the elite Pac-10 teams, Arizona must continue to stretch these stats in the direction they are trending. For example, over the past three seasons, USC has averaged between 10.9-12.9 yards per point on offense and 18.3-21.5 yards per point on defense. Similarly, Cal is averaging 12.7-13.4 and 17.0-21.0, respectively. While coaching at Oklahoma, Stoops' defenses forced opponents to gain 19.0 yards per every point scored in both 2001 and 2002. In 2003, the average dropped to 17.0 but that includes the 55 points given up to USC in the Orange Bowl – a game Stoops was not on the sidelines for because he had already accepted the head coaching position with Arizona. Expect Arizona's defense to approach the figures Stoops' Sooner teams were generating at the turn of the century. Also, expect Arizona to near the types of stats Dykes' offenses were putting up at Texas Tech (13.8 YPP in 2006, 12.6 in 2005 and 13.6 in 2004).
Part two of this story will run on Wednesday when we'll uncover the truth behind the spelling of W-I-L-D-C-A-T-S.