2006 Record: (6-6, 4-5)
Coach: Mike Stoops (12-22 at Arizona, 12-22 overall)
Starters Returning: 19 (9 offense, 10 defense, 0 specialists)
Defensive Starters Lost: S Michael Johnson
Defensive Starters Returning: DT Yaniv Barnett, DT Lionel Dotson, DE Louis Holmes, DE Johnathan Turner, LB Dane Krogstad, LB Spencer Larsen, LB Ronnie Palmer, CB Antoine Cason, CB Wilrey Fontenot, S Dominic Patrick
Starting Specialists Lost: K/P Nick Folk
Starting Specialists Returning: None
For starters: Arizona needed to do something to spark their offense and Coach Mike Stoops went all out. New coordinator Sonny Dykes will take over the offense and that means the former Texas Tech coordinator and Coach Stoops will be looking to air it out. The Wildcats did finish a respectable 6-6 battling through an extremely tough schedule. It never gets too easy in the Pac-10, but as long as the offense can find the end zone a few more times, Arizona will not just be bowl eligible in 2007, but actually will be invited to a bowl game.
Offense: Despite the concussion filled season in 2006, quarterback Willie Tuitama showed plenty of promise. Yet, how well he can adapt to the new offense will be almost as important as his health in 2007. Thankfully for Tuitama, he should not be sacked 21 times this season due to the new offensive scheme and the return of the entire starting offensive line. The less Tuitama gets hit, the more healthy he remains and the more confidence he will gain running the show. The line is young with three starters being sophomores, but the year of experience can only be helpful.
The Wildcats will need some more receivers to throw to since four receiver sets will be common place. Mike Thomas is a good place to start. The 5-8 junior caught 50 passes for a team high 597 yards last year. Anthony Johnson is a bigger target at 6-2 and 210 pounds and will be used as one of the main threats in the red zone. Tuitama will need to get some young players involved as well, most notably sophomore Terrell Turner and much hyped redshirt freshmen Delashaun Dean and Terrell Reese. Even with the new spread attack, the running game needs to find some yardage and it is hoped spreading out the defense will make it easier for running backs Chris Jennings and Xavier Smith.
Defense: So the offense averaged a dismal 16 points per game and the team still won six games. That is about all anybody needs to know about how good the Arizona defense was in 2006. The line is suddenly extremely experienced with seniors Yaniv Barnett and Lionel Dotson clogging the middle and seniors Louis Holmes and Jason Parker and junior Johnathan Turner on the ends. Holmes, who tallied four sacks and five tackles for loss in 2006, is the premier pass rusher and will give the opposing quarterback a few nightmares.
The linebackers, led by Spencer Larsen, may be the best unit on the defense…and that is saying quite a bit. Larsen led the team with 89 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss. When they let him loose, the 6-1 senior is an absolute terror. Having Ronnie Palmer in the middle and Dane Krogstad on the other side certainly helps keep the offensive from keying in on Larsen. Palmer, a 6-3, 239 pound junior, may take a backseat to Larsen this year, but he has the ability to impact the game just as much.
Antoine Cason is one of the best corners in the conference and fellow four-year starter Wilrey Fontenot will be on opposite end. With senior free safety Dominic Patrick returning, the Wildcats only have one concern in the secondary and that is replacing strong safety Michael Johnson. Sophomore Brandon Tatum, who only saw action in four games last year, is the likely starter.
The Bottom Line: As long as the offense does not implode entirely in the new spread system, Arizona should be better than their 6-6 record of a year ago. The defense only gave up 19.6 points per game last year and, with ten starters returning, there is every reason to believe they will be even better this time around. Ten of the eleven projected starters on defense are upperclassmen and eight of those are seniors. If this is not the year for Arizona, it may never be.
CB Antoine Cason is one of the top cornerbacks in all of college football.