- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Arizona coach Mike Stoops is a straightforward guy. He isn't terribly subtle or evasive when he breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of his football program.
Of course, even a football wonk obsessed with nuance and complexities would struggle to offer complicated analysis of the Wildcats' 2006 team.
Good defense. Bad offense.
"We ranked 115th out of 119 teams on offense and we still won six games," Stoops noted. "So what does that tell you?"
It tells you to get a new offense. No, this isn't particle physics.
So Stoops dumped his offensive staff and hired four new assistants, topped by Sonny Dykes, offensive coordinator at high-flying Texas Tech, which has consistently stood atop the statistical rankings since 2002.
With 10 starters back from a defense that yielded only 19.6 points per game a year ago, Arizona should be pretty good at stopping people. If the seven returning offensive starters can become merely mediocre in Dykes' new spread system, the Wildcats should go to a bowl game for the first time since 1998.
And if the offense is, gasp, better than mediocre? Well, then things could get interesting, and that would quiet the critics who have been murmuring that Stoops' reclamation project, entering its fourth season, isn't moving quickly enough.
Fact is, Arizona's offense might not have been so lousy -- 2.7 yards per rush, 16.6 points per game -- if junior quarterback Willie Tuitama had stayed healthy the entire season. Tuitama got his bell rung during the early moments of an ill-fated visit to LSU in the season's second weekend, the first of multiple concussions that had him in and out of the lineup much of the year.
Stoops doesn't want his quarterback to get concussed. He hired Dykes not just because his offense piles up passing yards and points. He also saw that the spread protects quarterbacks by emphasizing the shotgun formation, three-step drops and quick reads and releases. No Red Raiders quarterback missed a start due to injury during Dykes' seven years at Texas Tech.
Stoops also knows that when the talented Tuitama is healthy, he can really deliver the rock.
"I don't think in two years we've done a good job of utilizing what a talented player he is," Stoops said. "Hopefully, this system will show that."
Dykes is quick to point out that the spread isn't some mystical, high-concept offense. He lauds its simplicity. He said it took him just three practices to install the basics of the scheme, which tries to stress a defense by stretching it horizontally and vertically, making it accountable for the whole field.
It won't be a pure Texas Tech spread. The Wildcats still will use fullbacks and tight ends, and they won't abandon the running game. Stoops noted that the Red Raiders were at their best when they complemented their spread with a running threat. The hope is sophomore tailback Xavier Smith is ready for a breakout season.
"We can't line up in four wides all the time," Dykes said. "We don't have the depth at receiver."
Developing that position is an obvious area of emphasis this spring. Junior Mike Thomas has been Tuitama's favorite target for two seasons, but after him things are wide open. Youngsters Terrell Turner, Terrell Reese and Delashaun Dean are in the mix. Seniors Anthony Johnson and B.J. Dennard are getting looks at hybrid positions.
In the fall, hotshot 6-foot-6, 250-pound freshman tight end Rob Gronkowski arrives, and Stoops indicated he'll be expected to contribute immediately.
Another reason for optimism is the offensive line, which was brutalized by LSU, should be much improved. Stoops opted to start three undersized redshirt freshmen a year ago, and the results were often ugly. He believes that experience, plus an offseason in the weight room, will pay dividends this fall.
The early results have been slightly north of mixed. In a scrimmage over the weekend, Arizona threw the ball 55 times, with Tuitama completing 22 of 31 passes for 155 yards with a touchdown.
There were sloppy moments. And hints of promise. Much like Stoops' first three seasons.
"It may take a little time for this offense to get going, so we've got to play great defense," Stoops said.
That could happen. Stoops called cornerback Antoine Cason "the premier cover corner in all of college football." And word is that defensive end Louis Holmes, a touted junior college transfer who was inconsistent a year ago, could become one of the Pac-10's premier pass-rushers.
Said Stoops, "We're loaded on defense."
And if the Wildcats are just half-loaded on offense, they could make some noise this year.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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