With both personality and experience being better suited to the defensive side of scrimmage, Stoops is working to rebuild this unit to serve as the foundation for the program until the offense can hold it's own in a conference widely recognized as a scoring league.
Despite a legacy at Arizona that includes a measure of success building a team around a dominant defense – specifically Dick Tomey's Desert Swarm years - such a contrarian's approach has never resulted in a conference title or Rose Bowl trip for the Wildcats. That track record should be a red flag to Stoops and his staff. Unlike the Big XII where he could fashion a defense that only needed to shut down two, maybe three potent offenses to compete for a championship each season, in the Pac-10 every opponent is going to line-up against the Wildcats with enough firepower to post a big number on the board.
Working in Stoops' favor is that expectations for the football program will always be less than those carried by the basketball program, and if afforded an opportunity to fly under that radar for five years or so, it is possible the Wildcats can again return to the upper division in the conference. Making the move to the top of the standings appears beyond reach – at least until the program understands that while defense DOES win conference championships in the Pac-10, it also requires an offense that can regularly post 28 points on the board, more on occasion. That is simply the nature of the Pac-10. Makovic – also from the Big XII prior to his tenure at Tucson – never was able to make that transition in game philosophy. As the 2005 season approaches, the program remains in that shambles and in the hands of a similar philosophical practitioner. Call me skeptical.
To what degree Stoops and his staff are successful in restocking the roster will remain an open question for another couple of years, though their first year of recruiting was considered to be a solid class of prospects.
Offensively, the Wildcats still will struggle mightily. There is returning experience at QB in Richard Kovalcheck (136 attempts-67 completions –6 interceptions) – a 6'2", 211 pound sophomore, though at no point during last season did he appear to be in charge of a unit that could impose it's will upon even the most pedestrian of defenses. That circumstance is unlikely change this coming season, particularly with Kovalcheck out for the entire spring camp due to injury - the Wildcats aren't going to score a lot of points.
Other than Kovalcheck, the Wildcats' offense also returns RB Mike Bell (6'1", 218), who led the team with 920 yards rushing on 168 carries and a capable receiver in Syndric Steptoe (5'9" 170), the team leader in receptions with 30 for 446 yards. Steptoe added 384 return yards as well.
The stated intention of establishing a defensive presence is aided with eight starters returning to the unit, including all four members of the secondary, led by sophomore CB Wilrey Fontenot (5'9", 170). Though not a sizable defense, there is decent speed to be found. Marcus Smith (Senior, 6'5", 245) and Copeland Bryon (Senior, 6'4", 240) man the ends, while Byron Smith (Junior, 6'2", 295) and Paul Philipp (Junior, 6'3", 278) will line up in the interior. The linebacker corps will be young, the depth chart lists a sophomore (Dane Krogstad, 6'1", 226), a redshirt freshman (Ronnie Palmer, 6'2", 217) and a one-year lettering senior (Randy Sims, 5'11", 225) as the starters coming out of spring camp.
If the front seven are able to get pressure on the opposing quarterback, the secondary will be able to lock down all but the very best of the Pac-10 receiving corps. Far more likely, the defense will be spending far too much time on the field due to the offensive impotence, meaning the front seven will find it difficult to get that pressure consistently, and their larger counterparts across the line of scrimmage will open up running lanes that will force the secondary into supporting the linebackers against the rush. From there it shouldn't be too difficult for an offense to fully dissect the defense to the tune of 28 points per game given up last season.
Northern Arizona and Washington – both in Tucson – are likely victories. Beyond those two opponents, it is hard to identify any other who would not be favored over the Wildcats. The 3-8 record of last season looks to be about the measure of this.
Till the next time…