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Ex-Cat on Akina: ‘I would chew nails and spit blood for that guy’

Duane Akina

Duane Akina will be directing Wildcats next season, not Longhorns. Photo by Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

How excited were former Arizona Wildcats to hear that Duane Akina is coming back to coach the secondary under Mike Stoops?

So excited that two ex-Cats called me to talk about it.

The Wildcat network was absolutely abuzz Sunday night with the news that Akina is leaving Texas, where he has worked since 2001, to return to Arizona, where he coached from 1987 to 2000. (Read our confirmation story).

One of those who called was Heath Bray, the former Arizona quarterback/safety/linebacker/receiver/special teams captain/assistant coach.

He had already talked to several ex-Cats. He said he was so excited that, “I’m going to find it hard to sleep tonight.”

That Akina is a great secondary coach is not for debate. In a battle of resumes, he wins. But for guys like Bray and a whole cadre of Dick Tomey era players, it’s not all about Akina’s considerable teaching skills.

When Bray says this: “I would chew nails and spit blood for that guy,” I’m pretty sure he would chew nails and spit blood for that guy.

Some coaches just make their players feel that way. They not only teach, they inspire. Some have it; some don’t. Some coaches form loyalties for a lifetime.

What Bray expresses about Akina is, in my experience, the rule and not the exception.

“Anything that I have ever experienced — playing for my dad, playing at Arizona or in coaching — there has never been any single human being on the planet that has made a bigger difference in my life than Duane Akina. That is straight from the heart,” Bray said.

“If Mike Stoops could have hired anyone on the planet, he couldn’t have hired anyone better than Duane Akina. He’s that good. Period.

“He turned me into a competitive player in the Pac-10 as a free safety, and I had no business playing the position. I had never played a down of defense. People to this day may think I was a good player. It was not me. It was him.”

Duane Akina coaches at an Arizona practice in Sept. 1998.
Tucson Citizen file photo, Mary Chind

At Arizona, Akina had a knack for player development, such as Bray. Akina took another high school quarterback, Jeff Hammerschmidt, and turned him into an All-Pac-10 safety. Akina’s most noted case at Arizona was converting running back Darryll Lewis to cornerback.

Lewis won the 1990 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

“In terms of X’s and O’s, there is no one on the planet who makes a bigger difference than Duane Akina,” Bray said.

At Texas, Akina began with a more elite cut of recruit, and he produced stunning results: The Longhorns’ football factory has turned out five first-round defensive backs since 2002. That’s Akina.

Stoops has hit a home run with this hire and, not in a small way, has reconnected to Arizona’s past and its players.

He did that, too, with the hiring of former Arizona defensive lineman Joe Salave’a to coach defensive tackles. He already has Hammerschmidt on his staff as the defensive ends coach/special teams coordinator.

Those red-and-blue connections mean something.

Hiring Akina, said Bray, is a “game-changer” for how he perceives Stoops and the state of the program.

“It’s rejuvenated my love for Arizona. It really has,” Bray said. “It’s the best news I’ve heard since I graduated.”

Related: Akina’s bio from the Texas athletic department

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