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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Expectations are sky-high for program that returns 19 starters

    Three and eight. Three and eight. Six and six.

    Those are the records of Wildcat head coach Mike Stoops in his first three seasons at Arizona.

    “”When you look at the entirety of last season, to win six games shows constant growth in our program,”” Stoops said. “”To win some of the games we won, after what our kids went through and then to win our last three road games was good for us.””

    But after a third straight postseason-less campaign, the team shed four coaches and hired four new ones. Meanwhile, 19 starters return, 10 on defense and nine on offense.

    After a season in which the team became bowl eligible for the first time since 1998, this year it fully expects to be playing past Dec. 1. Players are making zero excuses. It’s now or never.

    “”I came back because that’s one of the goals I wanted to accomplish,”” said senior cornerback Antoine Cason. “”I feel this team has worked hard enough to get there, and I think we will.””

    The biggest change with this year’s team is the addition of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Sonny Dykes from Texas Tech to help revive an anemic Arizona offense. Last season, it ranked 115th out of 119 NCAA Division I schools in total offense and 105th in scoring offense.

    Dykes brings with him his offensive line coach and running game coordinator Bill Bedenbaugh.Spread offense specialists, they put together an attack that averaged 32.5 points per game in 2006 and which has ranked in the top six nationally in total offense the last four years.

    Yet, Dykes said there are a lot of parallels between his new and former teams.

    “”It’s really similar,”” he said. “”The athleticism here is really good. It compares well to what we had at Tech. What we had there were guys who had been in the system for a long time, which made it pretty easy. We knew how they were going to handle things. They had done things a million times and been through it all a million times.””

    In Dykes’s system, quarterback Willie Tuitama, who suffered three concussions last season, will assuredly have better pass protection. From 2005 to 2006, Tech nearly halved its sacks allowed, 19 from 36.

    But perhaps the biggest thing that excites the program about Dykes’s addition is that his teams win games. Tech has made a bowl game seven straight years.

    Tuitama said the team doesn’t feel a lot of pressure to make a bowl this season, despite factors that suggest otherwise.

    “”We know the kind of talent that we have,”” he said. “”We know what we can do. Now we just need to go out there and do it, because if we think about all that, we’re not going to be focused.””

    Within the program, there is a growing mentality that the team has the talent to play in a postseason game, but it simply hasn’t played at the right level, said senior linebacker Spencer Larsen.

    “”This year I just want to make sure we never lose a game because we didn’t pay well enough.””

    “”As a senior you have a lot of expectations,”” he added. “”You want this to be the best year, and I think we have everything in place now.

    The team’s general inconsistency the last few years – last November, Arizona won three straight games, only to roll over at home against ASU – likely influenced a seventh’s place finish in the preseason Pacific 10 Conference media poll.

    “”We don’t get a lot of respect here in the Pac-10 or the country, so right now it’s us against the world,”” said wide receiver

    Anthony Johnson. “”As a team and as a program we’ve come a long way. As an offense, just in the little bit of time that coach Dykes has been here, we’ve made such great steps towards our success, and I’m just happy to see how we’re going to do this season.””

    Members from last year’s team knew that if they had played to their potential or hadn’t lost Tuitama to a concussion in the season finale against the Sun Devils, the outlook for 2007 would be much different.

    “”We didn’t finish the way we had liked to,”” Stoops said. “”The loss against Arizona State cost us a lot, including a bowl game. Hopefully that will have an impact.

    “”Our expectations are much different going into this season. The way we persevered last season – winning against top teams – I think that gives us some legitimate confidence, and our work habits really match those expectations.””

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