Editor's Note: Cam Nelson was mistakenly referred to as Cam Nealy in the first installment of this article. Cam Nelson is a 6-1, 175 DB who will play a significant role for Arizona in the 2007 season.
W is for Wide Receivers.
Arizona averaged 246.9 yards of offense during conference play last season, barely edging Stanford for ninth best. The running game, at times, was abysmal. Unfortunately, the passing game, at times, was not much better. Against the speedy secondaries of the Pac-10, Arizona amassed only 175.2 yards in the air each game with the quarterbacks completing just over 54 percent of their passes. Mike Thomas returns as the team's leading receiver from 2006 when he totaled 597 yards and two touchdowns on 50 catches. Sonny Dykes' new spread attack should help Thomas evolve from a good possession receiver for the Wildcats to a marquee player in the Pac-10. Another benefactor of the new offense will be Anthony Johnson. Johnson too is a quality receiver but like Thomas, lacks the numbers to strike fear in anyone judging him simply by a stats sheet. At 6-2, 205, Johnson will make for a big target. He'll be called upon to again do the dirty work deep down the middle of the field where's he's already made some pretty fancy catches. The addition of freshman TE Rob Gronkowski will bolster Arizona's passing attack as he'll be the player defenses key on, which should free a guy like Johnson to operate one-on-one against opposing linebackers – a match up he can certainly exploit. With a mixed supporting cast of youth and veterans, players like BJ Dennard, Delashaun Dean, Terrell Turner, Mike Turner and Terrell Reese will serve to make this unit deeper than it's ever been. If Arizona's receivers play to their potential, then they alone could trigger a successful season for the Wildcats.
I is for Intangibles.
Mike Stoops' record as a head coach is 12-22. Like everything else about Arizona in the past three seasons, on paper, the record is nothing to shake a stick at. However, considering where Arizona's football program was when Stoops arrived and where it is now is night and day. Team statistics and record aside, one thing is evidently clear: Stoops knows how to run a football program the right way. He's building from the inside out by making Arizona a major player on the national recruiting scene, by generating enthusiasm in the fan base and by instilling an unprecedented work ethic amongst the players. He's also building a team the right way, focusing on creating not just depth but quality depth at all positions. For the first time since I can remember, and this includes the great Desert Swarm years, Arizona has a back up player at every position who is capable of stepping in and performing at or near the level of the starter. The Wildcats' downfall has always been their lack of depth. Once injuries set in, the second and third stringers were either too inexperienced, or simply not good enough to compete with the highest level of athletes. No more. As evidenced last season when youngsters like Corey Hall and Michael Klyce stepped in and shined during victories against Washington, Cal and Oregon, this year they, along with stars like Devin Ross, Adrian McCovy, Brandon Tatum, Jovon Hayes, Colin Baxter and Brandyn McCall, should be able to spell the starters without the team experiencing a drop off in production.
L is for Linebackers.
In 2006, Arizona shut out four teams in the game's final 30 minutes. The performance of Arizona's linebackers in 2007 will determine if this type of lockdown defense continues. With Arizona's secondary touted as being one of the nation's best, and with the anticipated improvements along the defensive line, the Wildcats' LB Corps should be able to be more proactive in applying pressure to opponents. Although the unit lacks size, they are bigger across the board than in seasons past. More importantly, they're much faster this year and should be able to better cover the field from sideline to sideline. The unit is led by Spencer Larsen (team high 89 tackles in 2006) and Ronnie Palmer (69 tackles). Dane Krogstad, Vuna and Apaita Tuihalamaka, Xavier Kelley and McCovy give the unit depth. Most opposing offenses will look to exploit the middle of Arizona's defense in fear of attacking a talented secondary. This will provide the linebackers with ample opportunities to utilize their speed and nose for the ball to wreak havoc underneath. Similar to Arizona's wide receivers, the already good Arizona linebackers have the most potential to become the defense's most improved unit.
D is for Defensive Line.
In John Mackovic's final two seasons, Arizona lost by more than 21 points 11 times. Since Stoops arrived, Arizona's suffered only five such setbacks with four of those coming to Cal (twice), USC and LSU. This season, win or lose, Arizona will be in every game because of the expected play of their defensive line. The line is experienced and has the size inside and the speed outside to finally stop the run while still applying pressure on the opposing quarterback. Louis Holmes should have a break out year that is worthy of his five star recruiting rating (which strangely dropped to four stars after deciding not to attend USC). He'll do so because interior lineman Yaniv Barnett and Lionel Dotson will be more than capable of tying up opponents so as to free Holmes and fellow DE Jonathan Turner to be much more aggressive this year. The team only had 11 sacks in 2006 but with Arizona's depth and skill in the secondary, combined with the Wildcats' continued improvement at stopping the run, Holmes & Company should find themselves in enough third and long situations to be able to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.
C is for Conference Play.
Arizona has been anything but good in conference play since Dick Tomey left. Even then, things did not always work out for the Wildcats. They've yet to have a winning conference record this millennium. What's worse, last season's 4-5 conference mark was the first time Arizona had more than two conference wins in a season since the 2000 campaign when they had only three. Under Stoops, Arizona is 8-17 in the Pac-10. The good news is five of those eight victories came on the road, which is where they'll need to come from this season if the Wildcats have any intention of contending for a league title. Road games at Cal, OSU, USC, Washington and ASU won't be easy by any means. However, it's not as if Arizona isn't capable. Last season, the Wildcats proved their mettle by winning 75 percent of their conference road games, surprising everyone by winning their last three games away from Tucson (Stanford, Wazzu and Oregon). Arizona opens 2007 at BYU. A victory in Provo would continue their road winning streak and provide the Wildcats with the confidence they'll need heading into their Pac-10 opener in Berkeley on September 22.
A is for Arizona State.
Arizona has not faired well head-to-head with any conference foe, but the Sun Devils have particularly been a thorn in the side of the Wildcats. Stoops led his team to the upset of then #18 ASU in his inaugural season. Since then, Willie Tuitama has been knocked out of both games in the 2nd Quarter, resulting in consecutive losses to their in state rival. In fact, including the 2004 upset, Arizona is 1-4 against ASU in the last five meetings. Last season's 28-14 loss was an extremely bitter pill to swallow. Arizona entered the game winner's of three straight (#25 Wazzu, #8 Cal and Oregon). The game was in Tucson. A victory would secure a bowl bid for the first time since 1998 and give Arizona that coveted winning conference record. Tuitama or not, the team laid an absolute egg, dropping open passes, missing tackles and so forth. That game alone should have provided returning players all the motivation needed to work extra hard in the off season and all indications are that it has. Arizona leads the all-time series 44-35-1. With Dennis Erickson now at the helm for the Sun Devils this already heated battle for the Territorial Cup (nation's oldest traveling trophy), oftentimes referred to as the "most hated" rivalry in college football, just got way more intense.
T is for Turnovers.
Arizona has had tremendous success in the turnover department under Coach Stoops. Last season the Wildcats finished tops in the conference in committing only 12 turnovers. Defensively, Arizona forced 20 turnovers (#4 in conference). This season, Arizona will look to attack more on defense which again should create turnovers. The key will be if Arizona can do a better job of converting turnovers into points as the offense has failed time and again to capitalize on the opportunities presented to them. Arizona had 12 interceptions last season; a stat that should rise in 2007. The key is if Arizona's front seven can force more fumbles. Getting to the quarterback more often would help, as would a better upfront push on running plays to disrupt the quarterback/running back exchange. Offensively, the new spread attack may cause problems if the Wildcats don't execute, throwing off their timing. With Texas Tech, Dykes' offenses in 2005 and 2006 had 16 and 18 turnovers, respectively. If Arizona does experience growing pains in their new offense, this could be the facet of the game that rears its ugly head the most.
S is for Safeties.
Wilrey Fontenot and Antoine Cason might be the nation's best cornerback tandem. If anything, they're the nation's most experienced (combining for 68 starts). Their experience AND talent will take some of the pressure off of the safeties who will be more free to roam the field searching for the big hit. More importantly, it'll create more opportunities for Arizona's strong safeties (Nate Ness, Cam Nelson and Klyce) to attack opponents at the line of scrimmage and provide run support. Dominic Patrick has the potential to be the next great Arizona free safety, but he'll be pushed for playing time by Hall and Tatum all season. The internal competition should force all to play at a high level. If Arizona's safeties can play with the same intensity as the gifted cornerbacks they support, then the Wildcats secondary will have proven themselves worthy of their preseason Top 10 Unit ranking.