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Awaiting the call

Citizen Staff Writer



To fare better in the NFL draft, the Arizona Wildcats needed to shape up their program – and their bodies.

“Our player development was not very good,” said UA coach Mike Stoops, who took over a 2-10 team in 2004. “That comes with your strength and conditioning year-round. You have to have it in place to give the players opportunities.”

Based on UA’s recent draft success, and the chance of two to six players getting picked this weekend, the Wildcats are getting those opportunities now.

Arizona failed to have anyone drafted in 2004 and 2005, and only one player in 2006 – until Stoops’ philosophy became engrained.

Eight Wildcats were picked in the past two years, including cornerback Antoine Cason (first round, San Diego) in 2008 and tailback Chris Henry (second round, Tennessee) in 2007.

UA offensive tackle Eben Britton is expected to be a first-round pick during the two-day event, which has seven rounds, two on Saturday and five Sunday.

Receiver Mike Thomas is slated to be a third-to-fourth round pick, while safety Nate Ness, kicker Jason Bondzio, linebacker Ronnie Palmer and quarterback Willie Tuitama are among those hoping to get picked.

“We’re starting to develop players for the next level,” Stoops said. “That’s a very positive sign for what we’re doing. When you look at the kids who are leaving, we’ll have kids that will go relatively high.”

Arizona junior tight end Rob Gronkowski is a possible first-round pick in the 2010 draft if he decides to leave early.

“As much as players may not like” the extra conditioning, Stoops said, “it has to take place . . . to move on to the next level.”

The Wildcats, after that big draft void, have seen linebacker Spencer Larsen (Denver), kicker Nick Folk (Dallas), safety Michael Johnson (Giants) and receiver Syndric Steptoe (Cleveland) go in the late rounds in the last two years and stick with their NFL teams.

Ness is hoping to follow their cue before the weekend is over.

The UA safety, who had seven interceptions in two seasons, has been contacted recently by Seattle, Chicago, Green Bay and San Francisco.

“I visited Seattle last week. I got a good vibe from them,” Ness said. “I’m really anxious and nervous. There’s a lot of anxiety about where I’m going to be and what I’m going to be doing, and if I’m going to be drafted. Even if I don’t get drafted, I know opportunities are going to present themselves in time. I’ll be all right.”

Ness’ stock is on the rise, according to NFLdraftscout.com., and the Web site lists Bondzio as the ninth-best kicker. SI.com believes Palmer is capable of being a backup middle linebacker in the NFL.

“It all starts in the weight room,” Ness said, “with (strength) coach Corey Edmond and (assistant strength coach) Brian Odom doing a great job of developing us to get us stronger and faster for when we get on the field.”


Arizona Wildcats drafted in the NFL under coach Mike Stoops, who arrived in 2004.


Player Pos. Rd. Team

Kili Lefotu OT 7th Redskins


Chris Henry* RB 2nd Titans

Nick Folk* PK 6th Cowboys

Michael Johnson* S 7th Giants

Syndric Steptoe* WR 7th Browns


Antoine Cason* CB 1st Chargers

Spencer Larsen* LB 6th Broncos

Wilrey Fontenot CB 7th Falcons

Lionel Dotson DL 7th Dolphins

*Still on NFL roster



1 p.m., ESPN, NFL; 6 p.m., ESPN2, NFL


7 a.m., ESPN, NFL

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