The fate of University of Arizona football coach Mike Stoops and UA’s nine-year bowl drought will be the primary story lines for the 2008 campaign, but there is more to the upcoming season.
The Wildcats officially report this weekend and kick off fall camp at 6:15 a.m. Monday at the Rincon Vista Complex at 15th Street and Plumer Avenue.
They’ll have an offense that might be as good as there is in the Pac-10, a young defense that needs to be hungrier than in years past and with individuals ready to show off their skills on a national level.
So much for the only talk being about Stoops starting his fifth year and having every player on the roster being his recruits, and about how the last bowl was a 23-20 win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl in 1998.
Question No. 1: Will the defense be better?
Arizona was supposed to rely on a defense that had 10 starters back a year ago. Instead, the offense proved to be a more reliable outfit.
The offense has 10 starters returning, but there are only three returnees on defense this season.
Which would you rather have a question about entering a season?
“Probably defense,” Stoops said. “A lot of defense is attitude, effort and preparation. If you have good athletes it makes it easier defensively. For us it will be easier to put a defense on the field than getting all the offensive players that you need. It has taken us some time to get the weapons we needed.”
Arizona broke in a new offense last year and improved from 16 points per game to 28, while adding nearly 100 yards of total offense per game.
The defense, even with Pac-10 tackles leader Spencer Larsen and Jim Thorpe Award winner Antoine Cason, still only managed to rank seventh in the league in points allowed per game at 26.8, and was fifth in total defense, allowing 372.2 yards per game.
“Were we better when we had eight, nine starters back?” Stoops asked. “I don’t think so.”
Question No. 2: Spreading the wealth
UA has a seasoned quarterback in Willie Tuitama, its top four returning receivers, a prototypical All-American tight end and possibly its best offensive line in at least a decade.
Sounds good, but will Arizona, in the second year in the Texas Tech-type spread offense, continue to put up points like it did in a three-game, late-season winning streak?
UA won 48-41 over Washington, 34-27 over UCLA and 34-24 over No. 2 Oregon.
Or will the offense falter as it did in losses to Arizona State (20-17), USC (20-13) and Stanford (21-20)?
“We are going to move the football. I promise you that,” Stoops said.
The Wildcats set dozens of individual and school offensive records a year ago, with many likely to fall again.
Question No. 3: Gronk time
Why isn’t Gronkowski being used more?
That was the question often asked by fans about sophomore tight end Rob Gronkowski. “Big Country” set UA tight end school records with his 115 receiving yards against Washington State and 525 yards for the season. He also scored six touchdowns.
More was expected, and more will be.
“We are going to use him in a lot of different ways,” Stoops said. “We will flex him out, try to match him up, so we can get him on a linebacker or a safety. He will be able to be a much better receiver.”
Stoops boldly said Gronkowski could catch between 50 to 70 passes, much more than the 28 he had a year ago.
Question No. 4: Mental breakdowns
Arizona, no matter what it did, or how the schemes changed, still had the mindset that something bad was going to happen.
Years of losing plays havoc on your psyche, even Larsen admitted after losses a year ago. He could tell the team was waiting for a pivotal mistake or the ball to bounce in the other direction.
That train of thought doesn’t help in close games. Arizona lost games by 1 point, 2 points, 3 points and 7 points.
“The last thing to come is changing the mindset of winning. That is how all turnarounds have happened,” Stoops said. “We have been on the threshold I can’t tell you how many times. We understand this is a new year and a drastically different team. We are very focused on what our task is at hand.”
Question No. 5: Long bowl drought
It seems like an eternity ago since Chris McAlister sealed the Wildcats’ victory over Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl.
Arizona needs at least six wins to become bowl eligible and to finish at least seventh in the Pac-10 standings to qualify for a postseason game.
The Pac-10 has seven bowl slots. The champion will go to the Rose Bowl unless ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the final BCS standings.
The rest of the Pac-10 bowl affiliates include the Holiday (second), Sun (third), Las Vegas (fourth), Emerald (fifth), Hawaii (sixth) and Poinsettia (seventh).
Seven chances for a bowl. Seven better be Arizona’s lucky number.
1. Can the Wildcats’ defense rebound?
2. Which offense will show up?
3. Why isn’t Rob Gronkowski (BELOW) used more?
4. Can Cats cut down on mental mistakes?
5. Will UA break its nine-year bowl drought?
UA FOOTBALL KEY DATES
Saturday: Newcomers report
Monday: First practice, 6:15-8:30 a.m., Rincon Vista complex, Plumer Avenue and 15th Street
Aug. 14-16: Workouts in Fort Huachuca
Aug. 23: Fan Appreciation Day, scrimmage, 10:30 a.m., Arizona Stadium
Aug. 30: Opener vs. Idaho, 7 p.m., Arizona Stadium