The Arizona football decade is a wrap, save for the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska on Dec. 30, but it’s safe to make our picks for the program’s all-decade team.
A tough call came at running back. It would have been easy if junior Nic Grigsby had been healthy all season. As it was, a shoulder injury limited him to 75 carries for 559 yards and five touchdowns, the bulk of which came in the nonconference season.
So it came down to Grigsby’s three-year total of 2,416 rushing yards vs. Clarence Farmer’s 2,530 yards, his 2001 All-Pac-10 season, his attitude problems and his eventual dismissal by interim coach Mike Hankwitz during the 2003 season.
I went with Grigsby.
Also joining the list based on a strong 2009 season is Colin Baxter, who moved to center last season when Blake Kerley was injured and continued to excel this season. I went with Baxter over Keoki Fraser, who was a stalwart on some bad teams from 2001-04, starting 41 games, including his final 34. He was honorable mention all-conference as a senior.
Here is our version of Arizona’s All-Decade team for offense (defense to come later):
Willie Tuitama is congratulated by fans after Arizona's 34-24 victory over second-ranked Oregon in 2007/Tucson Citizen photo
QB — Willie Tuitama (2005-08)
He didn’t turn out to be Arizona’s long-sought NFL talent at the position, but Tuitama played long enough and well enough to rewrite the school record books. His commitment helped spark coach Mike Stoops‘ recruiting, and Tuitama further stoked hopes when he came out of his redshirt halfway through his freshman season. Set back by concussions as a sophomore, Tuitama helped usher in UA’s spread offense in his final two seasons, finishing as the UA career leader in passing yards (9,211), passing touchdowns (67), attempts (1,276) and completions (786).
RB — Mike Bell (2002-05)
Fourth on UA’s career rushing list with 3,163 yards, trailing Art Luppino, Trung Canidate and Ontiwuan Carter (the latter two would be your all-1990s running backs). Bell never had a 1,000-yard season, but he had three 900-yard yards and he kept grinding away through some difficult seasons. He was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2003.
RB — Nic Grigsby (2007-09)
He rushed for 1,196 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2008, helping Arizona breaks his bowl drought. Grigsby was on pace to break the UA career rushing record before suffering a shoulder injury early in the 2009 Pac-10 opener against Oregon State. He played sparingly after that but managed to contribute a 57-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run that is arguably UA’s play of the year.
WR — Mike Thomas (2005-08)
Money Mike finished with 259 receptions — getting his final catch as Arizona was killing the clock against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl — breaking the Pac-10 career mark of 258 held by Arizona State’s Derek Hagan. Thomas had 3,231 receiving yards and 23 receiving touchdowns in his Arizona career, but more than that, he was an all-purpose threat, earning first-team all-league honors as a receiver and punt returner in 2008. He had two punt returns for touchdowns in 2008.
WR — Bobby Wade (1999-2002)
Wade held the UA career record for receptions with 230 until Mike Thomas broke it late in the 2008 season. Wade still has the school mark for receiving yards (3,351), and his senior season was the receiving benchmark for the decade — 93 catches for 1,389 yards and eight touchdowns.
Rob Gronkowski runs free against Stanford in 2007/Tucson Citizen photo
TE — Rob Gronkowski (2007-2008)
Even with a mere two seasons, he is one of Arizona’s legendary players in the Pac-10 era. With his size, strength, speed and hands, he would have been a strong candidate for All-America honors as a junior in 2009, if a back injury hadn’t wiped out his entire season. He had 75 catches for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdown receptions in two seasons.
C — Colin Baxter (2007-09)
It’s been a good decade at the position for Arizona, which had senior Bruce Wiggins in the middle in 2000. Baxter was honorable mention All-Pac-10 in 2008 and earned second-team honors this season.
OL — Eben Britton (2006-08)
The most accomplished UA lineman of the decade, Britton played right tackle for two seasons before switching to the left side as a junior. He earned first-team all-league honors in 2008 before jumping early to the NFL, where he was a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
OL — Peter Graniello (2004-07)
A four-year starter who anchored the line from the left tackle spot for three seasons, including playing through a shoulder injury in 2006. Was honorable mention All-Pac-10 in 2005 and 2007.
OL — Makoa Freitas (1998-2002)
Freitas started 32 games — most of which came at left tackle — this decade, starting with his redshirt sophomore season. Second-team all-conference as a senior, Freitas was a sixth-round NFL draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 2003, appearing in 28 games over the next two seasons.
OL — Kili Lefotu (2002-05)
Started 37 games and was able to play any spot along the line, and it was that versatility that attracted the Washington Redskins, who selected Lefotu in the seventh round of the 2006 draft.
PK — Nick Folk (2003-06)
Folk, by virtue of the good work he has done with the Dallas Cowboys, has the bigger name, but this spot could easily have gone to Jason Bondzio, who hit 83.3 percent of his field goals (35 of 42) in 2007 and 2007 with a long of 49. Folk wasn’t as accurate (30 of 47, 63.8 percent) but had more range, more routinely drilled kickoffs into the end zone and, as an added bonus, was the All-Pac-10 punter in 2006 when he averaged 44.0 yards.