Palmer, Longacre in group of five to stay the course with Cats
Linebacker Ronnie Palmer was working behind the counter at Taco Bell when the Arizona Wildcats made their pitch to land the highly regarded prospect from Spring, Texas.
Hired one day after the 2003 season ended, UA coach Mike Stoops and his staff quickly spread out to find as many players as they could after getting a late start on recruiting.
Stoops worked day and night to put together his first class in 2004, but there wasn’t much to sell. UA had just ended 2-10 amid player turbulence following the firing of John Mackovic.
Palmer considered making tacos and cheese quesadillas more enticing than going to Arizona – until Stoops got involved.
“I never thought in a million years that Arizona would be my home,” Palmer said. “Prior to my senior year I used to get letters (from UA) and not even open them and put them on the side.”
It took five years, but Stoops is poised to finally deliver a bowl game to Palmer and the other four Wildcats who remain from the coach’s first recruiting class.
UA (5-3, 3-2 Pac-10) can become bowl eligible with a win Saturday at Washington State (1-8, 0-6). A strong finish in their last four games would improve the stock of the Wildcats, who haven’t been to a bowl since a 23-20 win over Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl.
Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops recalls the frantic times after he and his brother were hired.
“We were running all over the country trying to get the best players we could,” Mark Stoops said. “The first year is always a mess. It makes me chuckle looking back. We’ve come a long way. It’s been a grind and a lot of work. We don’t feel like we have arrived to where we want to be yet, but we’re improving.
“It’s a joy to come to practice every day. It was very difficult there in the beginning.”
So difficult that Stoops had to wait for Palmer to finish work at Taco Bell to make his recruiting pitch. The former Oklahoma assistant coach showed up early for a 7:30 p.m. meeting, but Palmer had to work longer.
“He came to my job and got something to eat, and then when I got off, we went home and sat down with my family,” Palmer said. “It was great.”
At first, Palmer said Stoops showing up at the fast-food restaurant “was a little embarrassing.”
“But at the same time, (it showed) they meant business and they were coming for a reason,” said Palmer, who eventually chose the Wildcats over LSU and Notre Dame, among others.
UA coaches had to be aggressive to sign a 29-player class. It was ranked ninth in the Pac-10 by Rivals, but there were some key recruits from that group.
The brightest star was 2007 Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Antoine Cason.
Many of the recruits didn’t reach the ultimate goal of going to a bowl game, but Cason ended up a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers.
The remaining players from Stoops’ first class are on the verge of making the mission successful.
“He was telling me that I would be part of a group that was going to rebuild the program and go to bowl games,” offensive lineman Joe Longacre said. “I bought into it all the way. I kept buying into it. I never jumped ship. It was really tough, I wanted to at times, but I kept believing and it really feels nice to have a little bit of it pay off.”
Place-kicker Jason Bondzio, receiver B.J. Dennard and fullback Brandon Lopez make up the rest of the first bunch inked by Stoops.
Bondzio sat for three years before taking over the place-kicking duties. He has made 30 of 37 field goals since taking over for Nick Folk last season.
Dennard and Lopez have become journeyman players adding depth to the Wildcats.
Longacre has played in 43 games and has started 31 straight.
“It’s been satisfying. Nothing came as easily as I thought it would,” Longacre said. “Looking back, it helped me grow as a person and made me tougher and helped shape the person I am today. It has made me mentally tougher. It feels good to start reaping the benefits.
“It will be great to be part of a senior class that gets us back to a bowl game.”
AND 5 REMAINED
UA coach Mike Stoops signed 29 players in his first class with the Wildcats. Five are left after redshirting:
Jason Bondzio Kicker
B.J. Dennard Wide receiver
Joe Longacre Offensive lineman
Brandon Lopez Fullback
Ronnie Palmer Linebacker