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2007 Arizona Preview - Offense
Posted Jun 25, 2007

Preview 2007 Arizona Wildcat Offense

Arizona Wildcats

Preview 2007 - Offense

- 2007 Arizona Preview | 2007 Arizona Defense Preview
2007 Arizona Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Arizona Preview 

What you 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.

Returning Leaders
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 offense: Junior WR Mike Thomas
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior QB Willie Tuitama
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 (when healthy)
Weakness of the offense: Pass protection, run blocking, receiver depth


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 piƱata 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 2008.
Rating: 7.5

Running Backs

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 it.       

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 and Smith.   

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 team.
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.
Rating: 6


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 spring session. 

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 blockers.

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 Arizona.    

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.
Rating: 6.5

Offensive Line

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 2007. 

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 offensive system. 

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 outstanding.   

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.
Rating: 7


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