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Spring Practice Stories: Arizona

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Scrimmage spin.
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The rhetoric is much different around Arizona football this Spring. Last year, SMQ chronicled and even bought into the athletic department's unqualified decree that "[t]he 2006 Cats are a bowl team." This was not a projection, merely "the next logical step for a vastly improved program," a roster "peopled by those who believe," possessing a "chemistry" that gave Arizona "a dose of impetus like no other factor," and having gained "a centralized understanding" of the reasons for a run of close losses (five by a touchdown or less) in 2005. The freshman performance of quarterback Willie Tuitama had "caused the team to coalesce on all fronts like no other influence." The path was clear, the future bright. This was just logical.

And actually, Arizona almost achieved it, beating UCLA and going on a surprising three-game run late against Washington State, Cal and Oregon that left UA 6-6, one game shy of SMQ's projection and its coveted postseason appearance after losing to Arizona State in the finale. Not good enough, though, for Mike Stoops, who doubled his win total but humbly admits now, at "the critical crossroad" of his tenure, "I'm not a miracle worker." (HT: The Wiz)

But you know who might be? Mike Leach. Think about it. Stoops did, and decided if he can't have his old Oklahoma coordinating counterpart, maybe he can get the next best thing - in this case, that's Leach's longtime quarterbacks coach, Sonny Dykes, progressive progeny of crusty former Tech coach Spike Dykes, and the new department head of Arizona's offensive staff, which has three other newbies charged with installing a very Red Raider-like spread attack. The Wildcats opened Spring practice Wednesday with the notion of throwing the ball 50 times a game, a mark only Tech's "Air Raid" and Hal Mumme's chuck-around at New Mexico State reached last year. Arizona threw about 29 passes per game, and the fewer, the better.

We can actually take you all the way out here, away from the line. And they have to send somebody out here to cover you! Were you aware of this?
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SMQ encourages anything that reinforces the stereotype of the Pac Ten and Western football in general as a pass-happy land of points, which Arizona's low-octane generics in particular have been boringly flouting since well before Stoops came aboard. He also supports any decision that in any way extends Mike Leach's influence in the sport, which Stoops trusts so much in the form of Dykes and "running game coordinator" Bill Bedenbaugh that the defensive-minded head coach says he hasn't sat in on a single offensive meeting. That's trust, man.

And also an apparent realization that his meddling in the scheme wasn't helping. Stoops knows defense, but the old two-back base scheme he and coordinator Mike Canales trotted out actually failed to crack the 300-yard mark in all but two games against I-A competition last year. The Wildcats had 301 yards against Washington and 363 at Oregon and otherwise were nearly helpless with the ball. In seven different games, Arizona was held under two yards per carry, in three of which the average run actually lost ground,  but in all of those games it spent more than a third of its snaps, sometimes up to half, trying with no success to run. Texas Tech had four games in 2006 its offense was held under three yards per carry, and TTU didn't spend its time trying to hammer away; Leach never called more than 25 percent runs in any of those games, and usually much less than that.

The key there, because - with the exception of Arizona's upset of a Cal, a defensive victory - both teams still lost every one of those games, is that Texas Tech had many fewer games its attempts to run were completely thwarted, due mainly to the fact defenses had to essentially stop thinking about the run altogether. The spread-thin fronts Texas Tech faced yielded more than twice the per carry yardage of the compact units lining up against Arizona's "pro style" sets. This is ostensibly the entire point of setting up the Wildcat offense in the Red Raider image. But then, there's also this:

Stoops claims to have given just one piece of advice to new coordinator Sonny Dykes, who helped teach Arizona's new offense at Texas Tech for the past seven seasons.

In addition to all the four-receiver passing sets, Stoops wants the offense to practice with traditional running formations, serving two purposes.

It emphasizes the physical nature Stoops doesn't want to lose and it ensures the defense sees the kind of plays it will have to stop against most teams on the schedule.

"We will not become a soft football team just because we spread the field," Stoops said."

Soft, eh? What do you call a team that finishes 110th in rushing offense without spreading the field? Rugged? Determined? Or just stubborn?