2011 Arizona Preview
Arizona LB Paul Vassalo
Arizona LB Paul Vassalo
Posted Jun 11, 2011

Is Arizona going to finally get over the hump, or is this as far as things are going to go under Mike Stoops? Will the new Pac-12 format allow the Wildcats to be a bigger player in the conference race? There are plenty of terrific players returning, including linebacker Paul Vassalo, but can the team finally put it all together? Check out the CFN 2011 Arizona Preview.

Arizona Wildcats

Preview 2011

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- By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Mike Stoops
8th year: 40-45
Returning Lettermen
Off. 23, Def. 18, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 21
Ten Best Arizona Players
1. WR Juron Criner, Sr.
2. QB Nick Foles, Sr.
3. LB Paul Vassallo, Sr.
4. DT Justin Washington, Soph.
5. CB Trevin Wade, Sr.
6. RB Keola Antolin, Sr.
7. FS Robert Golden, Sr.
8. WR David Douglas, Sr.
9. WR Dan Buckner, Jr.
10. LB Derek Earls, Sr.
2011 Schedule

Sep. 3 Northern Arizona
Sep. 10 at Oklahoma State
Sep. 17 Stanford
Sep. 24 Oregon
Oct. 1 at USC
Oct. 8 at Oregon State
Oct. 20 UCLA
Oct. 29 at Washington
Nov. 5 Utah
Nov. 12 at Colorado
Nov. 19 at Arizona State
Nov. 26 Louisiana

Has Mike Stoops really gotten Arizona over the hump or has it just been a mirage in the desert?

Seven years into his tenure, the head coach is still under .500 for his career in Tucson. The Wildcats are in better shape than when he arrived, sure, but where's that elusive Pac-10, and now Pac-12, crown? Heck, where are the impressive showings in the postseason? While the program has been to three consecutive bowl games, the last two did more to uncover its warts than highlight its progress.

In 2009, Arizona got obliterated by Nebraska, 33-0, in the Holiday Bowl, and last December, it was out classed by Oklahoma State, 36-10, in the Alamo Bowl. The latter capped a disappointing 7-6 season that unraveled when the schedule began to get tougher. After starting 7-1 and rising deep into the Top 25, the ‘Cats lost their final five games, making for a long offseason. h and eliminating the memory of last year's dreadful finish. Being more than just another December speed bag, however, won't be easy. The Pac-10 has now grown by two members, becoming the Pac-12, and USC is one step closer to being USC again. Plus, the roster has taken some hits since that lopsided loss in San Antonio, losing a handful of key players to graduation and injuries, including four ACL tears in the spring alone.

Hope of exceeding mollified expectations will rest on an incomplete offense. The skill positions are outstanding, led by next-level QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, and Juron Criner and the rest of a dangerous receiving corps. The line, however, has been stripped of all five of last year's starters, a major concern with no easy solution. Line play, in general, will be an issue now that defensive ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore are both in the NFL.

Stoops may have stopped the bleeding when he guided Arizona to the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl, ending a decade-long bowl drought, but the program isn't quite ready to be discharged from the ER. Mediocrity continues to be the trademark of the Wildcats, which will be looking to reverse last year's troubling finish to a once-promising campaign.

What to watch for on offense: The rebuilt offensive line. When Colin Baxter was injured late last year, Kyle Quinn took over in the Alamo Bowl at center. It represents the only start of any member of this year's offensive line. The Wildcats are in a precarious position in the trenches, losing all five starters, including all-stars Baxter and Adam Grant. Quinn is one piece of the puzzle, as are redshirt freshmen tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele. Both of the rookies have high ceilings, but will need to deliver right away in order to prevent Nick Foles from running for his life.

What to watch for on defense: Wade on a crusade. CB Trevin Wade entered the 2010 season as arguably the top Wildcat defenders. He ended it as one of the unit's biggest disappointments. Dinged at times and benched for a period of time for allowing too many big plays, he needs to do an about-face for the good of the defense and his pro prospects. He has the talent and the experience to put 2009 in the past, but has a reduced margin of error, especially with sophomores Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson improving all the time.

The team will be far better if… it stops treating the red zone like a minefield. Whether it was when Arizona had the ball in 2010 or was defending its own end zone, it was wildly ineffective, an underlying cause for the five-game season-ending losing streak. The Wildcats were a paltry 91st in red zone touchdowns and 70th in red zone D, results that have to be reversed if the school is going to improve this fall.

The Schedule: A schedule is half empty thinker looks at the first half of the slate and freaks out that the storylines going into mid-October will center around who the next head coach will be. A schedule is half full optimist looks at the first six weeks and hopes beyond reasonable hope that if the Wildcats roll, really, really big things will come. Starting out with Northern Arizona isn't just forgivable, it's a must with a trip to Oklahoma State and its high-octane offense to follow before kicking off the Pac 12 slate with Stanford, Oregon and a trip to USC. Fortunately, the battles with the Cardinal and Ducks are at home, but it's not all that fair that the Cats have to play the two BCS bowl teams of last year. The second half of the season doesn't exactly ease up only because of a stretch of three road games in four weeks going to Washington, Colorado, and Arizona State wrapped around a date with Utah. With this schedule, the team deserves to close out with a cupcake like Louisiana-Lafayette.

Best offensive player: Senior WR Juron Criner. One of the nation's top big-play wide receivers, he could have easily gone to the NFL at the conclusion of 2010 and been drafted in the spring. Instead, he's back for one more season to torment opposing Pac-12 defensive backs with his 6-4, 215-pound frame and deep speed. A true field-stretcher on the outside and Nick Foles' preferred target, he's caught 20 touchdown passes over the last two seasons. Last fall, he made a team-high 82 receptions for 1,233 yards and 11 scores in a breakthrough junior year.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Paul Vassallo. The perfect remedy for a rebuilding Arizona linebacker corps, Vassallo exploded out of the chute in his debut out of Sierra (Calif.) Community College. A physical 6-3, 240-pounder at weakside, he racked up a program-best 102 tackles, eight stops for loss, and two sacks, earning honorable mention All-Pac-10. A one-time walk-on at Nevada, he's bloomed into a terrific run-stopper, using his range and instincts to sniff out the ball.

Key players to a successful season: New D-ends C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman. While there's no way to adequately replace Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore this fast, that won't stop the ‘Cats from searching for answers to the pass rush. Parish is a converted fullback and Usman began his career at Houston, but both ends played in just three games before an injury and academic problems shelved them, respectively. They've got to provide a little heat around the edge or else an already shaky Arizona defense is going to suffer the consequences, particularly in a league with so many good quarterbacks.

The season will be a success if ... Arizona goes bowling for a fourth consecutive year. Too conservative? Possibly, but the schedule has a lot of rough spots, including trips to Oklahoma State and USC, and visits from Stanford and Oregon. Even with Foles & Co. guiding the offense, there are way too many holes along both lines to make a South Division crown the benchmark for success in 2011. The Wildcats want to remain on the rails for another year, developing all of the young talent currently occupying spots on the two-deep.

Key game: The bowl game. It's a little presumptive, but assuming the Wildcats qualify, they've got to deliver a better showing than the last two Decembers. Whatever progress Arizona made under Stoops during the regular season was squandered in the postseason after the team got exposed by Nebraska and Oklahoma State. For a school that doesn't get a ton of chances to be on a national stage, it must raise its bowl bar if the opportunity arises again this winter.

2010 Fun Stats:
- Passing yards: Arizona 4,000 – Opponents 2,719
- Third down percentage: Arizona 48% – Opponents 41%
- Second quarter scoring: Arizona 105 - Opponents 66

- 2011 Arizona Preview | 2011 Arizona Offense
- 2011 Arizona Defense | 2011 Arizona Depth Chart
- Arizona Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006