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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Arizona

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. Defense is Mike Stoops’ forté –– he was the coordinator for dominant defenses at Kansas State and Oklahoma –– and the Wildcats had the ingredients last year for an old-school, Desert Swarm revival: they put three players on the all-conference team, not including an honorable mention nod, and four in the draft. So it must have been disappointed that the D was just average, overhwelmingly average, in every way it could be: the ‘Cats were sixth in the Pac Ten against the run, fifth in pass efficiency D, fifth in yards allowed, seventh in points allowed, seventh in sacks and tackles for loss. A pack of returning starters barely inched forward from its ‘06 yields.

The least you should know about Arizona...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 5-7 (4-5 Pac Ten, 6th)
2003-07: 19-39 (13-29 Pac Ten)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-
2004-08: 44 • 21 • 18 • 44 • 39
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (10 Offense, 3 Defense)
Best Player
You probably haven’t heard of Mike Thomas, but the one-time DB recruit caught more passes for more touchdowns than anyone in the Pac Ten last year; he’s second to Rice’s Jarrett Dillard among active players in career receptions. Buzz is Thomas might move to punt returns in addition to kick returns, although he’s still focused on the latter: Arizona hasn’t brought a kick back for touchdown in ten years.
College Football’s Greatest Quasi-Tradition
Improbably, Arizona and Arizona State claim the oldest trophy in collegiate sports: the Territorial Cup, first awarded on Thanksgiving, 1899, for an 11-2 victory by Arizona Territorial Normal School in front of 300 fans –– a big holiday crowd for the then-territory of the old West. I’d say Little Brown Jug aficionados still have a point, though: the original cup was forgotten for more than a century, even after it was rediscovered in the early 1970s and put in ASU archives until 1992, when it was lost again until it showed up in a church a few years later. The teams didn’t start playing for possession of the Territorial Cup again until 2001 –– after a 102-year break, during which time it had been replaced by something called the "Ben Goo Trophy" from 1979-1998, and then the short-lived "Saguaro Trophy," neither of which you should have heard of unless you are from Arizona. You can’t compete with a prize from pre-statehood, man.
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* According to Rivals.

More disappointing: things may get worse before they get better, because almost all that experience is gone. The draft took Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot, corners who’d started every game the last four years, picked off 20 passes and knocked down another 47 between them; Spencer Larsen, who made every play from strongside linebacker (Larsen had 23 percent more tackles than runner-up Ronnie Palmer in 2006, and 37 percent more than Palmer last-year, when he led the conference in stops); and Lionel Dotson, who was all-Pac Ten by the coaches and had 6.5 sacks from defensive tackle. Graduation took three more starters from the front seven, and two-year starter Johnathan Turner was indicted and suspended in May, leaving only Palmer at the Mike and a couple ordinary safeties left over.

Tuitama: For best results, keep upright.

Overall, opponents’ yards per carry has declined to respectable levels the last two years as sacks and plays in the backfield have increased, but it’s hard to see that trend continuing when the guys making those plays –– along with the corners making quarterbacks think twice –– are all gone. Though Arizona’s recruiting has certainly improved, unless one of the cousins Tuihalamaka makes it off the bench (Apaiata and Vuna are both listed as backups), none of the new starters is branded with particularly high expectations. It would be a hell of a coaching job to maintain middle-of-the-pack status with so many new faces in the middle of the line.

What’s the Same. The Wildcats ran a on a little more than half their offensive snaps through Stoops’ first four years, to terrible effect: UA never cracked four yards per carry, the absolute minimum for a respectable running game, and was held to a truly dismal 2.7 per carry in 2006, easily one of the worst numbers in the country –– they actually lost ground trying to run in three different games that year. Disgusted, Stoops hired Sonny Dykes from Mike Leach’s aerial circus at Texas Tech, took a hands-off approach to the offense last spring and vowed to throw 50 passes a game.

They actually hit that mark four times and finished the year at a little over 44 passes to 27 runs on average, a massive swing in favor of throwin’ that improved production by about 130 yards and 11.5 points per game. Its three-game winning streak in late October/November –– very much like the three-game winning streak the previous November –– was a direct result of Willie Tuitama’s sudden efficiency: other than his big night against Northern Arizona early in the year, Tuitama’s final TD:INT ratio of 28:12 benefits mostly from his 10:2 ratio in those three games, which included a 510-yard, 48-point carpet-bombing of Washington and 341-yard, three-touchdown barrage of UCLA. This was a major improvement from midseason, when he’d surrounded another huge game against Washington State with lousy efforts against Cal, Oregon State, USC and Stanford –– though Tuitama completed a substantial majority of his passes for a lot of yards in those games, they didn’t amount to much. He barely cracked five yards per attempt in all four losses, and his TD:INT was 2:6.

The late run would be reason for optimism if not for the reversion against Arizona State, where Tuitama was picked twice and had his lowest-rated game since he threw three picks at Oregon State. It was a tale of two seasons with this guy, and it mostly broke down according to location, location, location:

Some of that amounts to the luck (or bad luck) of the draw –– USC, Oregon State and Arizona State were probably bad games for Arizona’s offense no matter where they were played, and Tuitama did light up Washington in Seattle; although he also struggled in a one-point loss to Stanford at home. If there’s anything to the home field advantage, it could be a wild ride, since USC, Cal, Oregon State and ASU are all in Tucson this year. Given that the temporary surge wasn’t altogether new, it seems more likely the up-and-down routine is Tuitama’s signature.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. The coaches came out of the spring looking for good things to say about what they their own selves called a "no-name" defense –– "Not having a star player can work to our advantage, as long as they play hard," etc. –– and even the school’s PR department recognizes the defense has a long way to go. But the offense is only really replacing a left tackle, and in that case, if you can’t stop ‘em, throw the bomb on those bastards:

Arizona's chances of breaking a 10-year bowl drought could depend on the deep ball.

The Wildcats, coming off a 5-7 season, are clearly looking to spread the field with more deep throws than ever.

In the team's second year in the spread offense, Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama is out to bring the deep threat more into the equation.

That was obvious as the Wildcats' four- and five-receiver sets went down the sidelines with regularity and with effectiveness this spring.

"That's my game," Tuitama says when ever asked about the prospects of utilizing his strong arm more.
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This is in contrast to the dink ‘n dunk routine that was so ineffective for most of last year, with the exception of tight end Rob Gronkowski, a true freshman who averaged almost 19 per catch and scored six touchdowns. But Gronkowski is 6’6", 250 and has a name ending in "kowski," so he presumably isn’t the guy going long down the sideline. That’s going to fall to Mike Thomas, who’s way too short (5’9" at best) to be an NFL-style, over-the-top leaper, but even if more than half his Pac Ten-best 82 receptions last year didn’t result in a first down, Thomas did have ten over 25 yards and eleven touchdowns and has apparently been clocked at sub-4.4. One of his three catches in the spring game was a 29-yard touchdown, though again, that’s just as much a knock against the new corners as an endorsement to put it up more often.

For his part, Tuitama is a succinct quote. I also happened to like this quote from the athletic department following the spring game:

When asked how much he felt he has improved since last year Tuitama said, "eight times."
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If his precision on the deep curl hasn’t improved, at least his precision on hyperbolic self-assessment has.

Arizona on You Tube. Things get a little rough at the end of last year’s Zona-Oregon game:

Even at 1/15th the real speed, that was infinitely more entertaining than the actual game once Dennis Dixon went down.

See Also: A pretty amazing run by the virtual Tuitama. ... The Wildcats get Medieval on Miami in the ‘94 Fiesta Bowl .. And picture montages are usually lame, but when you add the right music, I dunno, I’m torn.

Best-Case: Arizona’s made a habit of winning games here and there it’s not supposed to win –– UCLA in ‘05, Cal and Oregon in ‘06, UCLA and Oregon last year –– and if it can actually win all the games is supposed to win, as opposing to losing to Washington (‘05 and ‘06) and/or Stanford (‘07), this could be the quasi-breakthrough season Wildcat partisans have been expecting since Stoops was hired. The non-conference schedule is more manageable without BYU, and with Washington and Stanford among the first three Pac Ten games, the Wildcats could be sitting at 5-1 when Cal comes in on Oct. 18. It gets tougher down the stretch, but a very plausible start along those lines will put UA in a position to beat Washington State at home, as expected, and upset either Cal or Oregon State in Tucson to climb to 7-5, a ticket to its first bowl game in a decade.

Stoops: Might have been fired already, but sort of gives off that ‘disgruntled’ vibe.
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Worst-Case: Tuitama was healthy last year but was knocked out of the Arizona State game as a freshman and missed at least part of six other games in 2006. There is no experience behind him, and seemingly no talent unless incoming four-star/Chris Leak doppelganger Matt Scott is a revelation, and anther injury to Tuitama could be immediate disaster –– there’s no running game and potentially no defense. Outside of injury, things could get off on the wrong foot at New Mexico (UA lost to the Lobos last year in Tucson) and at UCLA in back-to-back weeks. With a backloaded schedule, if the Cats don’t handle Washington at home after that, it could really ugly –– Cal, USC, Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State are five of the last six, so if there are fewer than three wins at the start of that stretch, there’s very little chance of making it past four. Or of Mike Stoops keeping his job past Pearl Harbor Day.

Non-Binding Forecast: Mendoza Line or Bust. It seems the offense will be a little better off with a veteran like Tuitama and the defense worse, to a greater degree, and the net result is about what you’ve come to expect from ‘Zona over the last three years. To get beyond 6-6, they need to get to mid-October at 5-1, which most likely means beating New Mexico, Washington and Stanford. Doable, certainly, but UA was 1-2 against those teams last year, and Washington and Stanford have the same aspirations as the Wildcats; a loss to one of that trio seems likely. Even at 4-2 at the midway point, the stretch run doesn’t give much hope for better than .500. The question at that point is whether 6-6 is good enough to get Stoops another year.