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Arizona football preview: Five storylines

Mike Stoops, intense as ever, is entering his eighth season at Arizona. Photo by Michael Chow, The Arizona Republic

In collaboration with our Gannett partner, The Arizona Republic, we will be providing a weekly series throughout the summer, previewing the Arizona Wildcats football team.

The Republic sent a photographer to Tucson three times in the spring to capture the pictures needed for its slick presentation of the preview, which you can find here at azcentral.com. You can also read about those other guys all summer in the ASU preview.

At TucsonCitizen.com, we can’t offer the cool look of the preview that you’ll find on azcentral.com, but we’ll give you the text and some of the photography.

Here is the first part: Five storylines for the 2011 season. Look for updates every Friday.


Arizona coach Mike Stoops, entering his eighth season, has taken Arizona to a stable position. The Wildcats’ streak of three consecutive bowl games is the second-longest in the league behind Oregon. One more bowl this season would set a school record for consecutive appearances.

But the five-game losing streak to end last season doused rising hopes and reset the expectations to middle-of-the-pack levels.

Where to the Cats go from here — up, down, sideways?

They are, generally speaking, not far away from challenging in the Pac-12 South … and not far away from sliding and missing the postseason. It’s an up-for-grabs season. How will Arizona answer its most pressing questions?

1. The rebuilt offensive line

With the passing game at perhaps a high-water mark in the history of Arizona football, the offense could come undone if an all-new starting line can’t protect the quarterback and can’t balance the attack by providing room for a semblance of a running game.

The Wildcats have no seniors on the top deep and two redshirt freshmen — Mickey Baucus on the left side and Fabbians Ebbele on the right side — at tackle. The only player to start a game is center Kyle Quinn, whose lone start came in the Alamo Bowl.

Good news? Arizona kept the same starting five together through spring and this is a more athletic unit than last year’s veteran group.

“That, to me, gives us a chance,” Stoops said.

2. How about the pass rush?

Arizona lost its three-man rotation at defensive end to the NFL — second-rounder Brooks Reed, sixth-rounder Ricky Elmore and seventh-rounder D’Aundre Reed.

Given the spring ACL injuries on defense — starting safety Adam Hall, starting linebacker Jake Fischer and second-string defensive tackle Willie Mobley — this is a bad time to be without playmakers at end.

In the spring, the Cats worked with former linebacker/fullback C.J. Parish at one end spot; coaches like his quickness. Mohammed Usman, who played in only three games last season after running into eligibility issues following his transfer from junior college, is penciled in at the other end spot.

A key recruit is going to be junior college transfer Lamar De Rego, who arrives for fall camp.

3. The rugged early schedule

Last year’s schedule was back-loaded, and Arizona lost five in a row. This year, the schedule is front-loaded with three likely preseason Top 10 teams — Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon in September.

After opening with NAU, five of the first six opponents defeated Arizona last season.

Could the season be wrecked by the halfway point?

“We’ve played all these teams. We’re not overwhelmed by it,” Stoops said. “It’s going to be a great challenge, but I’m not overly concerned with having them all at the beginning.”

But a slow start, combined with last year’s late-season slide, could make Stoops’ job security the No. 1 topic surrounding Arizona football.

Alex Zendejas kicks in the spring. Will he be kicking in the fall? Photo by David Kadlubowski, The Arizona Republic

4. Special teams improvement

The enduring image of Arizona’s 2010 season will be the two blocked extra points in the loss to Arizona State — one in the final minute of regulation, the other at the end of the second overtime.

Place-kicker Alex Zendejas is back, having further focused this spring on the height of his kicks.

“It’s definitely some motivation to come back and work your butt off,” he said of those blocked extra points.

The coaches needed to bring in competition, though, so Zendejas will have to battle junior college transfer Jaimie Salazar in the fall. At punter, strong-legged but frustratingly inconsistent Keenyn Crier is gone, replaced by JC transfer Kyle Dugandzic, whose strength is placement over distance.

5. The passing attack

Quarterback Nick Foles begins the season as one of the nation’s highest-rated NFL quarterback prospects, and receiver Juron Criner earned some second-team All-American honors last season.

UA returns everyone of importance at receiver and adds Texas transfer Dan Buckner opposite Criner, giving Foles two 6-foot-4 targets on the outside.

“He provides a whole other threat,” Criner said of Buckner. “If they double-team me, who is going to hold him? If they double him, how are they going to double me?”

Arizona is going to be faster-paced and will be in more four-wide sets this season. The Cats led the Pac-10 in passing last season (307.7 yards per game), and look for that number to go higher. The school record is 308.5, set in 2007.

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