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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Improved talent, confidence give hope for bowl breakthrough under Stoops”

    Head coach Mike Stoops displays emotion on the sidelines during the Wildcats loss to Oregon in October at Arizona Stadium. In Stoops third season at the helm, hes instilled an expectation to succeed in his squad, but is 2006 the year he points Arizona in the direction of a bowl game?
    Head coach Mike Stoops displays emotion on the sidelines during the Wildcats’ loss to Oregon in October at Arizona Stadium. In Stoops’ third season at the helm, he’s instilled an expectation to succeed in his squad, but is 2006 the year he points Arizona in the direction of a bowl game?

    “”Baby steps”” seems to have been the operative phrase since former head coach John Mackovic was canned in 2003 and Mike Stoops swooped in to rescue the Arizona football program.

    When Stoops entered, the team had a dearth of talent and a deficit of expectations.

    It seemed that returning a once-proud program to glory – or even the postseason, for that matter – would mean not only bringing in the caliber of athletes coached by Stoops under his brother Bob Stoops at national power Oklahoma, but also instilling in the players a sense of purpose and an expectation to succeed.

    The team has clearly made strides in the former area, earning consecutive national top-20 recruiting classes despite back-to-back 3-8 seasons.

    As the Wildcats undertake their second year in a row under Stoops with palpable expectations of a bowl game berth, which would be Arizona’s first since 1998, coaches and players both expect this year to be different.

    This year, they say, will be fun.

    “”A year ago, we had a little more negative attitude – on workouts, on practices, two-a-days,”” said junior linebacker Spencer Larsen, who joined the Wildcats under Mackovic in 2002 before taking a two-year Mormon mission in Chile. “”Now, two-a-days, there’s a lot more talking, a lot more laughing, a lot more excitement. People want to be here, rather than, ‘Hey, let’s just get this over with.'””

    A wave of positive vibes has seemed to sweep through the entire program, washing away the guilt and regret accumulated over two hard-luck seasons that on paper (6 wins, 16 losses) can only be deemed disastrous.

    In their place now is an increased sense of confidence and accountability. The Wildcats know they have been close to breaking out under Stoops – they lost five games last season by seven or fewer points – and that the key lies in better execution on the field.

    “”I think they see themselves developing into a good football team,”” Stoops said. “”I think we understand from some mistakes we made last year that cost us opportunemselves developing into a good football team,”” Stoops said. “”I think we understand from some mistakes we made last year that cost us opportunities to win games. You have to have more accountability as a player and as a team.

    “”I think our players are taking on that accountable role, and that’s something we need with this team, (to) quit making excuses and those types of things.””

    Of course, it won’t hurt to have a bona fide leader under center for the first time since former Wildcat Jason Johnson set about breaking UA single-season passing records at the beginning of the decade.

    Willie Tuitama reinvigorated students and the general public with his poise and polish last season, coming off the bench as a true freshman to replace deposed starter Richard Kovalcheck.

    Throwing two touchdowns in a near-comeback against Oregon in his first game, Tuitama then presided over a close victory against Oregon State and a 52-14 walloping of then-No. 7 and undefeated UCLA.

    The question then becomes, how will his short-term success project over a full season? Tuitama downplays his “”savior”” status, insisting his production will come as long as the offensive line, running backs and wide receivers do their jobs as well.

    Still, there’s no question that expectations are sky-high surrounding his importance to the team postseason’s chances.

    “”He understands that that’s the important thing, that he is an ambassador for this university and this program, and he’s handled himself very well,”” said Mike Canales, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “”He understands what it means to be a leader.””

    If Tuitama struggles to lead scoring drives at any point this year, he can take solace in knowing he’ll have plenty of opportunities to redeem himself.

    Arizona will field its strongest defense under Stoops, led by a veteran secondary brimming with talent and bravado.

    The core group of junior cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot and senior safety Michael Johnson has been touted as among the best in the nation, much less the Pacific 10 Conference.

    Add to the defensive mix two junior-college transfers: freakish defensive end Louis Holmes (40 tackles for loss, 16 sacks in 2004-2005) and Nate Ness (19 interceptions, eight defensive touchdowns over the last two seasons) and it’s clear the team has designs on winning sooner rather than later.

    “”It’s been great, because the more talent you bring in, the better the practice is going to be and the season’s going to be,”” said senior wide receiver Syndric Steptoe. “”The competitiveness in practice is making everyone’s game that much higher. It’s always a little better.””

    Besides their usual strength and conditioning regimens, players spent the summer concentrating on team unity, holding barbecues and generally just trying to get to know one another better.

    Larsen testifies to vastly improved chemistry, adding that being on the same page could make the difference between more mediocrity and sudden success.

    “”Every game’s going to be a fight,”” he said. “”Hopefully through the things that we developed and the workouts and stuff we can understand each other and know what we expect out of one another, so when we’re in those tough times we can lean on each other and get through them.””

    Stoops’ strong recruiting and namesake have gradually led to a swell of respect from within the Pac-10.

    The Wildcats finished sixth in this year’s conference media poll, after finishing no higher than eighth in the final standings the last two seasons, and rival players and coaches see the team as being a potential standings-shaker.

    “”They’re moving forward in the fact that there’s a lot of confidence in Willie,”” said Pete Carroll, Southern California’s head coach. “”He can really throw the football, and what he accomplished last year gives them hope that he’ll be even better. I think they’re a good coaching staff that’s really getting better.””

    Said California cornerback Daymeion Hughes, “”They whipped up on UCLA and finished real strong with the new quarterback that they have. They could really shuffle some things up, especially if they get it together on defense and try to stop some of the powerhouses.””

    The Wildcats will have ample opportunities to demonstrate their offseason improvement.

    The schedule begins with games against likely bowl participants Brigham Young, Louisiana State and USC and ends with a brutal three-game stretch at home against Cal, at Oregon and at home against ASU.

    Yet the middle of the slate features five matchups against less daunting squads that should truly test the mettle of this team, if not present chances to pad its postseason resume.

    On Sept. 30, Arizona will meet a Washington team that was pitiful in 2005 yet trounced the Wildcats 38-14 on their home turf.

    After a rematch with the Bruins the next week, the team travels to Stanford, who pulled out a 20-16 win last year at Arizona Stadium.

    While the Wildcats would love to notch another upset against a conference power, a trip to a bowl game could lie in whether the team can play above the level of its lesser competition, an issue so far for the team under Stoops.

    “”We’re going to go out and play as hard as we can, and hopefully we can compete week in and week out,”” he said. “”I said that’s what we’d do when I took this job two years ago, and we’ve done a relatively good job with the talent we’ve had to go out and play hard and sound fundamentally.

    “”We just got to get better, and I think we’ve got better in a lot of key positions, especially at quarterback. We’ve added depth to our defensive line. I feel like we’re more equipped to compete stronger than we did last year.””

    The Arizona football team would qualify for its first bowl game since 1998 if it finishes at least sixth in the Pacific 10 Conference and, more importantly, above the six-win plateau:
    Pac-10 Finish Bowl Opponent
    Sixth Hawaii (Dec. 24) Western Athletic Conference team
    Fifth Emerald (Dec. 27) Atlantic Coast Conference fourth-place team
    Fourth Las Vegas (Dec. 21) Mountain West Conference team
    Third Sun (Dec. 29) Big 12 or Big East Conference team
    Second Holiday (Dec. 28) Big 12 third-place team
    First Rose (Jan. 1) Big Ten Conference Champion
    National Title Game* (Jan. 8) No.1 or No.2 in BCS standing
    *If Arizona finishes No.1 or No.2 in final Bowl Championship Series standing

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