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CFN preview: Arizona

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Rich Cirminiello

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The hardest part is over. Now, Arizona and head coach Mike Stoops can go about the business of becoming more competitive in the Pac-10. The Wildcats simply had to qualify for a bowl game in 2008 after missing the postseason every year this century. The coach had to have last year's Las Vegas Bowl in order to remain employed. The players needed it to build some confidence and momentum. Fans of the school just wanted something to finally feel good about. Beating a ranked BYU team last Dec. 20 might not seem like much to some schools, but it was a pivotal moment in the modern history of this program. Now what? The sense of urgency that permeated throughout Tucson a year ago has been replaced by a sense of excitement. That'll happen when you taste a winning season for the first time in a decade. Stoops can breathe a little easier this season, and do what he does best: develop players. The talent pool on both sides of the ball is deeper than it's been in a while, thanks to some really good recruiting, so there'll be no excuses for not playing another December bonus game. Sure, a four-year starting quarterback has departed, but rest assured that the 'Cats are ready for life after Willie Tuitama. Arizona broke ground with last year's return to the bowl season. Now, it's time to start building again in the desert. What to watch for on offense: More from the running game. Instead of becoming a three-ring circus, which most expected when Sonny Dykes came on board in 2007, the Wildcats have been surprisingly balanced on offense. And it's going to continue. Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin offer an exciting one-two punch out of the backfield. The offensive line has traded finesse for ferocity, attracting a slew of 330-pounders capable of manhandling opposing linemen. Heck, if mobile Matt Scott winds up winning the quarterback derby with Nick Foles, don't be surprised if a little read-option doesn't make its way into the playbook. Obviously, Arizona won't abandon the passing attack, but with so much talent in the running game, why not leverage it? What to watch for on defense: Tons of speed. Yeah, they're all football players, but it's the athletes that make this Wildcat defense so difficult to navigate. They swarm tackle like it's the good old days in Tucson, bringing pressure, taking good angles, and rarely allowing the opposition to break free into space. The linemen, even the 295-pound tackles, are explosive. The linebackers move laterally like defensive backs. And the defensive backs are suffocating. With veterans back at every level, Arizona just might be tough enough this fall to challenge USC as the Pac-10's premier defensive unit. The team will be far better if... it improves in tight games. When the outcome was decided by 10 points or less in 2008, the Wildcats were just 1-5, including painful losses to Stanford, USC and Oregon State. The players and the coaching staff still aren't used to winning, having just broken a string of nine straight years without a winning season. It takes time to develop that attitude or swagger at the end of close games, something Arizona witnessed up close a year ago.

10 best players

  • 1. TE Rob Gronkowski, Jr.
  • 2. CB Devin Ross, Sr.
  • 3. RB Nic Grigsby, Jr.
  • 4. DE Brooks Reed, Jr.
  • 5. DT Earl Mitchell, Sr.
  • 6. WR Delashaun Dean, Jr.
  • 7. P Keenyn Crier, Jr.
  • 8. OL Colin Baxter, Jr.
  • 9. RB Keola Antolin, Soph.
  • 10. FS Cam Nelson, Sr.
The Schedule: The non-conference schedule builds to a big day at Iowa that could set the tone for the season, but the opener against Dan LeFevour and Central Michigan will be tricky. The trip to Iowa City begins a run of three straight road games with the first two Pac 10 games at Oregon State and Washington, but at least there's a week off between the two conference games. While there's a nice three game home stretch against Stanford, UCLA and Washington State, three teams that didn't go bowling last year, the payback comes in the end with three road games in the final four against most of the big boys. Closing out at Cal, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC means the first half of the season has to be strong. Best offensive player: Junior TE Rob Gronkowski. With a blend of imposing strength and seam-busting speed, Gronkowski is an NFL-ready tight end playing in the Pac-10. At 6-6 and 265 pounds, he looks like a tackle, yet is the most dangerous player on the field, especially when the Wildcats need a first down or a touchdown. In his first two years out of high school, he already has 16 touchdown receptions, raising the likelihood he won't be an amateur beyond the upcoming season. Best defensive player: Senior CB Devin Ross. The fact that the Wildcat pass defense flourished the year after Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot were drafted by the NFL is all you need to know about Ross. He stepped into the lineup and shut down all comers in an All-Pac-10 debut as a starter. He'll be even tougher to beat this fall, as he makes his case for joining Cason and Fontenot at the next level in 2010.

Schedule

    CFN prediction: 5-7

    9/5 Central Michigan
    9/12 Northern Arizona
    9/19 at Iowa
    9/26 at Oregon State
    10/3 OPEN DATE
    10/10 at Washington
    10/17 Stanford
    10/24 UCLA
    10/31 OPEN DATE
    11/7 Washington State
    11/14 at California
    11/21 Oregon
    11/28 at Arizona State
    12/5 at USC
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore quarterbacks Matt Scott and Nick Foles. Whoever wins this offseason battle is going to have sizable shoes to fill. No, neither has to be Willie Tuitama right out of the chute, but he does have to help keep the offense cranking by getting the ball to the playmakers and keeping drives going on third down. The quarterback situation will be just fine in Tucson, but does that mean 2009 or 2010? The season will be a success if ... the Wildcats bowl for a second straight season. Hey, let's not get greedy, folks. It was just last year that Arizona was pining to end its decade-long postseason drought. Before labeling this program a sleeper out of the Pac-10, take a gander at the road schedule, which includes trips to Iowa, Oregon State, Cal, Arizona State, and USC. If the 'Cats can keep the momentum going with another eight-win season, write it down as a solid year. Key game: Sept. 26 at Oregon State. Losers of nine of the last 10 in this series, the Wildcats desperately need to break through against the Beavers. Doing it in Corvallis will not be easy. The first Pac-10 game of the season has a way of setting the tone for the rest of the year, so this trip could dictate how seriously and how long the program contends for a conference crown.
Tagged: Iowa, Michigan, Central Michigan, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, UCLA, USC, Oregon

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