Preview 2007 - Offense
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need to know:
After averaging a 100th place finish in total offense
over the last three years, Mike Stoops has handed the unit off
to former Texas Tech coordinator Sonny Dykes. Dykes has learned
from the likes of Mike Leach and Hal Mumme over the last decade,
so expect to see a rejuvenated Willie Tuitama in the shotgun,
putting the ball up a ton more than last season. The Wildcats’
quest to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally in the
spread offense will hinge on their ability to develop dependable
receivers other than junior Mike Thomas. The beleaguered
offensive line is a year older, intact and poised to benefit
from a system that forces the quarterback to make quick passes
and even quicker decisions. Sophomore Eben Britton is on the
brink of becoming a prodigy at right tackle.
Passing: Willie Tuitama
118-211, 1,335 yds, 7 TD, 6 INT
Rushing: Chris Jennings
105 carries, 451 yds, 3 TD
Receiving: Mike Thomas
50 catches, 597 yds, 2 TD
Star of the
Junior WR Mike Thomas
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior QB
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore RT Eben Britton
Best pro prospect: Britton
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Britton 2) Senior LT
Peter Graniello 3) Thomas
Strength of the offense: The tackles, Willie Tuitama
Weakness of the offense: Pass protection, run blocking,
Projected Starter: In 2006, Willie Tuitama
was the poster boy for sophomore slumps, falling way short of
the expectations that he created as a freshman sensation a year
earlier. In ten games, he managed only seven touchdown passes
and finished 81st in the country in passing
efficiency, a far cry from his potential. In all fairness to
Tuitama, it wasn’t all his fault. He got absolutely no support
from his running game or offensive live, and was treated like a
piñata throughout the season. Injuries mounted and a serious
concussion put his career in peril. When not under constant
pressure, Tuitama still has the rifle, athletic ability and
charisma to be a Pac-10 star. If he adapts quickly to a new
offensive system, Sonny Dykes’ high-octane spread attack could
be the perfect remedy for a rebound.
Projected Top Reserves: Talent has surpassed
tenure in the all-important battle for the No. 2 job behind
injury prone Tuitama. Redshirt freshman Tyler Lyon has
pretty much locked up the backup job, beating out senior and
three-time letterwinner Kris Heavner. Lyon is 6-5 and
215 pounds with a big arm and surprising mobility for such a
large athlete. He’s an integral part of the future at
quarterback in Tucson, so the sooner he gets up to speed with
the new system, the better. Heavner is not the answer at the
position, having thrown just a dozen career touchdown passes to
21 interceptions, but it’s still a luxury to have a veteran of
19 games and 14 starts on the roster.
Watch Out For… Tuitama to look a lot more like the
2005 quarterback than the one that imploded in 2006. While he
doesn’t have the receivers or the grasp of the offense to
flourish just yet, any system that asks its passers to take
short drops, make quick reads and get rid of the ball is
tailor-made for a quarterback that gets poor pass protection.
Dykes has never had a quarterback miss a start because of
injury, a trend Tuitama hopes to continue.
Strength: Arm strength. Although the Wildcats
will be living off short and intermediate routes, when they want
to air it out, Tuitama, Lyon and Heavner all have the rockets to
deliver the ball downfield. They all have the thick frames to
take punishment, something that’s happened all too frequently
the last two seasons.
Weakness: Consistency. The support around him may
have shared some culpability, but Tuitama did lack consistency
and seemed to regress with his reads last fall. He was locking
on to his receivers too much in the spring, and still needs to
get more comfortable in the retooled offense.
Outlook: Whether Tuitama can stay healthy and
succeed in a radically different offense is one of the sneaky
good Pac-10 subplots for 2007. While he’s not ready to
challenge for all-league honors, he will light a fire under the
Arizona offense and set the table for even bigger things in
Projected Starters: The Tennessee Titans drafted
Chris Henry in the second round last April, recognizing that his
lack of production had a lot to do with a lack of running room.
Might the Wildcats be harboring another sleeper in senior
Chris Jennings, the back that forced Henry to the sidelines
for part of 2006? While Jennings doesn’t possess Henry’s
explosiveness, he’s got a good burst of his own to go along with
the power of a 5-10, 220-pound back. After rushing for 451
yards and three touchdowns in his first season out of Arizona
Western College, he’s capable of doubling those numbers if he
can trim some fat and catch passes in an offense that requires
Somehow, someway, sophomore Earl Mitchell is going to be
a big factor in the Arizona offense in 2007. Part fullback and
part tight end at 6-2 and 250 pounds, he’ll be the H-back in the
new spread attack. Mitchell has soft hands out of the
backfield, and can destroy defenders when he gets a head of
steam in the open field.
Projected Top Reserves: Jennings’ backup is likely
to be sophomore Xavier Smith, who logged 23 carries in
his first season of action in 2006. A no-frills, north-south
runner and top recruit from 2005, he’ll need to show more
breakaway potential to unseat Jennings this summer.
Also contending for touches is Terry Longbons, a
sophomore that impressed in the spring now that he’s finally
healthy. More of an inside runner than a threat to scoot
outside the tackles, he’s the clear No. 3 choice behind Jennings
Watch Out For… the running game to receive a fair
amount of attention, even as the offense shifts to the more
passer-friendly spread. Yes, the Cats are going to throw plenty
more than in recent years, but that doesn’t mean they’ll totally
abandon the ground game or ignore their roots as a power running
Strength: Inside running. While the Wildcats may
be becoming more of a finesse team, the backs on the roster were
recruited to Tucson because they can run between the tackles and
pick up the tough when needed. All of the backs are north of
200 pounds, and not shy about making contact.
Weakness: Lack of a long ball hitter. The backs
are a little too similar in Tucson, all capable of moving a
pile, but lacking the big play threat to take a pitch or screen
pass and scoot through a secondary for a score. In 379 carries
last year, Arizona had just one run of more than 50 yards.
Outlook: The Wildcats have a few solid backs in
Jennings and Smith, but lack the kind of star power Henry could
have brought had he returned to school this year. No longer the
focal point of the offense, their main objective in 2007 will be
to improve as receivers.
Projected Starters: If the new spread offense is
going to have a prayer in 2007, it’s imperative that someone
other than junior Mike Thomas steps up and makes plays in
the passing game. Thomas has been terrific the last two years,
catching at least 50 passes in his first two seasons, and
showing a knack for turning short hitches into long gains. At
only 5-8 and 175 pounds, the program’s smallest receiver will
have the biggest impact on the passing game in 2007.
The antithesis of Thomas is Anthony Johnson, a
well-sized, physical player who’ll be working as an inside
receiver or “small tight end” in Sonny Dykes’ offense. He’s
started 19 games over the last three seasons, catching 71 passes
for 821 yards and six touchdowns, and is coming off a strong
On the outside, the Wildcats are counting on sophomore
Terrell Turner to be one of this year’s young playmakers
that can get the most from Willie Tuitama’s strong arm. Already
a polished route runner with seven games of experience, he’s 6-2
and has the straight line speed to get behind a defense. In
this offense, a noticeably stronger Turner is going to have a
chance to catch a lot of balls and make a lot of big plays.
When the offense uses a traditional tight end, it’ll lean on
6-6, 245-pound Travis Bell, a junior that played in all
12 games in 2006, but caught just one pass. A better receiver
than a blocker, he has the reliable hands and decent speed to be
a much larger option in the passing game this season.
Projected Top Reserves: The other Terrell from the
Class of 2006 is redshirt freshman Terrell Reese, a
receiver with boundless physical upside, but still a year away
from being a complete receiver. Although he’s big and strong at
6-4 and 210 pounds, he won’t really blossom until he digests all
of the fundamentals of the position.
When the Wildcats use four receivers, junior B.J. Dennard
is likely to be lined up at “small H-back” this fall. He was
slated for bigger role in 2006, but was injured after two games,
opting to sit out the rest of the season to preserve a year of
eligibility. Despite being just 5-11 and 194 pounds, he’s a
tough receiver in traffic and one of the team’s better downfield
Backing up Bell at tight end will be senior Brandyn McCall,
who actually started five games in 2006, and finished fifth on
the team with 11 receptions. Provided a nagging back injury
doesn’t get in the way, he bolsters an already deep position at
Watch Out For… the arrival of true freshman Rob
Gronkowski. In order to land one of the country’s premier
prospects, Arizona had to beat out the likes of Ohio State,
Louisville and Clemson. He’s worth it. The prototypical tight
end, Gronkowski is a chiseled 6-6, 255-pounder that can run,
catch and block. He’s special, and physically ready to live up
to the hype right away.
Strength: The tight ends. With can’t-miss recruit
Gronkowski now in the mix, the Wildcats have an impressive
stable of big, sure-handed tight ends that can catch passes and
turn them into long gainers.
Weakness: Depth. For the spread to really hum,
Arizona has to have a deep rotation of reliable receivers, but
after Thomas, there are no sure things. Thomas will catch his
50, but it’s a must that two or three of his teammates play
beyond their resumes in 2007.
Outlook: By 2008, Turner, Reese and Gronkowski
could be on the verge of stardom, but for now, they’re not quite
ripe enough to carry this corps of receivers beyond the boundary
of mediocrity. While the numbers will be gaudier than in 2006,
this group is still a year away.
Projected Starters: The Wildcats return all five
starters from 2006 and a combined 78 career starts among its
linemen. Mike Stoops went with three freshmen a year ago, and
the offense suffered the consequences in the form of 31 sacks
allowed and just 2.7 yards a carry as a team. If they learned
any lessons from last season’s debacle, it’ll help the team in
The veteran of the unit is senior left tackle Peter Graniello,
who has started 33 games going back to his freshman season. A
quality pass protector at 6-5 and 296 pounds, he had an off year
in 2006 that was attributed to a painful shoulder injury.
Graniello went under the knife in the off-season, but will be
ready in time for the start of the season.
At right tackle, Eben Britton is only a sophomore, yet
he’s well on his way to becoming the anchor of the line and one
of the rising stars in the Pac-10 . A Freshman All-American in
2006, he was one of the bright spots on a unit that struggled
throughout the year. Britton is 6-6, light on his feet and
still getting bigger and stronger in the off-season.
Manning the middle for the second straight year will be
sophomore center Blake Kerley. Although just 6-2 and 273
pounds, he held up just fine last year, making every snap of the
season for the Wildcats. One of the fiery leaders of the line,
Kerley must adjust to making a ton more shotgun snaps in the new
The guards will once again be junior Joe Longacre on the
left side and sophomore Daniel Borg on the right. Now in
his third year as a starter, Longacre is a physical, 305-pound
lineman that needs to improve at pass protection. After
splitting time with Adam Hawes in the lineup last year, the job
is all Borg’s in 2007. The most versatile of the Arizona
linemen, he has the head and the feet to play just about any
interior position if needed.
Projected Top Reserves: The second unit of the
front wall will be young and untested, but loaded with upside
thanks to solid recruiting classes from 2005 and 2006. Junior
Bill Wacholz is 1A to Borg at left guard, but can also
play tackle if a need suddenly arises. Well-sized at 6-6 and
300 pounds, he’s a returning letterwinner that’ll be counted on
heavily to provide regular depth in 2007.
Junior left tackle James Tretheway is set to contribute
to the offensive line after using last season to get a little
bigger and a little stronger. A former Junior-College
All-American, he made noticeable strides in the off-season with
his strength, agility and change-of-direction.
Redshirt freshman Jovon Hayes was the headliner of a nice
haul of linemen in 2006 by Mike Stoops, who beat out the likes
of USC, Oklahoma and Florida to land the 310-pound guard. He’s
been so impressive as a pass blocker in practices that he might
challenge for a starting job in year one. Whether he starts or
backs up Longacre in 2007, Hayes’ future in Tucson looks
Watch Out For… a substantial reduction in sacks
allowed versus last year. A healthy Graniello, an older Britton
and a passing game that’s based on getting rid of the ball
quickly will keep Willie Tuitama from getting pummeled for a
second straight year.
Strength: The tackles. Graniello and Britton are
athletic, All-Pac-10-caliber tackles that will keep the heat off
the quarterbacks off the edge.
Weakness: Run blocking. Unlike the passing
attack, there’s no schematic solution for a line that was
dominated at the point of attack in 2006, and did a poor job of
opening holes for Chris Henry and Chris Jennings.
Outlook: Last year was supposed to be the best
offensive line in the Stoops era, but the group was too young
and often overmatched against physical opponents. This season,
however, they’ll deliver, keeping the quarterback healthy and
creating more space for the backs.