Five Minute Guide to '99
An old recipe -- overachieving with homegrown talent -- may finally vault the Wildcats into college football's elite
Arizona learned a similarly tough lesson in the '90s. After the Wildcats finished 10-2 and shut out Miami 29-0 in the '94 Fiesta Bowl with a roster of overachievers, coach Dick Tomey thought he could start signing blue-chippers. But just because Arizona finished in the Top 10 that season didn't make it Notre Dame. Not only did Tomey lose the blue-chippers to the real Notre Dames in his region -- UCLA, Texas, etc. -- but he also failed to sign enough blue-collar kids of the type he had molded into a Top 10 team in the first place. The result: a mediocre 26-20 record from '94 to '97 that put Tomey's job on the line.
Last year the Wildcats went 12-1 and finished No. 4 in the nation. Recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello, who came to Tucson in 1994 after assisting Barry Alvarez in turning things around at Wisconsin, has helped Tomey strengthen the Wildcats' roster. For one thing, they signed multisport players like junior quarterback Ortege Jenkins, who spent two years as a backup shooting guard on the Arizona basketball team, and senior free safety Rafell Jones, who hit .303 as a Wildcats outfielder this past spring. For another, Tomey and Ianello now focus on Arizona and California while conducting raiding parties into Hawaii, where Tomey and linebackers coach Bob Wagner spent a combined 19 seasons as coaches, and Texas. "I'm not going to go into Texas against the University of Texas," Ianello says. "I'm trying to find a kid like Bruce Wiggins." The 6'3", 278-pound junior center from Houston, who chose Arizona over SMU, has developed into one of the Pac-10's best offensive linemen.
Or a kid like Marcus Bell, the senior middle linebacker from St. John's -- not Queens, but a wide spot in the road in northeast Arizona. Bell, a high school running back and wrestler, was thinking about Utah State and I-AA Northern Arizona when Tomey saw him in a wrestling match. Impressed by Bell's aggressiveness, Tomey offered him a scholarship. Last season the 6'2", 235-pound Bell made more than twice as many tackles as anybody else on the team. "Marcus never lost a football game or a wrestling match in high school," Tomey says. "He's the best linebacker we've ever had here. He's a tenacious competitor, and he runs like a defensive back."
Tomey's trademark Double-Eagle flex defense made All-Americas out of linemen Rob Waldrop and Tedy Bruschi in the mid-'90s, but this year the stars of the scheme will be Bell and his fellow senior linebackers. DaShon Polk, the flex linebacker, lines up where he thinks the ball is headed, breaking down the blocking scheme and funneling the ballcarrier to Bell. Polk gets a fair share of stops, too: Of his 56 tackles last season, 13 were for losses. Scooter Sprotte, Rizzuto-sized by linebacking standards (5'11", 219), has the Scooter's nose for the ball.
Tomey certainly didn't sign Bell because of anything Bell said. Even now, Bell speaks as if he's being charged by the word. On this team he doesn't have to say much, though. There's only so much oxygen in a locker room, and senior tailback Trung Canidate uses most of it. "Give me three steps, and I'm in front of you," Canidate says.
Bell smiles. "He's allowed to talk," he says. "He ain't been caught."
Though Canidate, a product of Phoenix's Central High, was hotly recruited by Arizona and Arizona State, he took some time to find his niche with the Wildcats. For his first season he played wide receiver and on special teams, where he once blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. "I remember you as a freshman," fifth-year senior quarterback Keith Smith said to Canidate recently over dinner. "Nobody knew who you were. Who would have thought you would be up for the Heisman Trophy?"
As a sophomore Canidate rushed for four touchdowns, three of which were of 96, 67 and 66 yards. Last year he overcame an early-season stress fracture to his right ankle to run for 1,220 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 7.3 yards per carry made him only the third 1,000-yard rusher in Pac-10 history to average more than seven yards for a season, joining Kermit Johnson of UCLA (7.5, 1973) and Jackie Jensen of California (7.4, 1948). But that's dryer lint next to his 15 career touchdown runs, which have averaged 51.7 yards.
Canidate is given to self-promotion, but it's more innate enthusiasm than boastfulness. On his 1998 debut against Stanford in the third game of the season: "I came out of a cast and gained 110 yards." On his breakaway ability: "I need 18 inches of daylight." On Tomey's getting the team to believe in the quarterback duo of Smith and Jenkins last year: "He sold us an Accord for $100,000. That's the sales job he did." Not that Canidate feels like the Wildcats got swindled. "Our attitude starts with Keith and O.J.," says Canidate. "We have the two best quarterbacks in the country."
Smith and Jenkins will continue to ham-and-egg the Wildcats to the end zone, though there may be more ham than egg this year: Even Jenkins acknowledges that Smith, in his last season, should get the majority of the snaps. But Canidate will continue to be the offense's meal ticket, one they'll feed off all the way to January. Arizona has played 20 seasons in the Pac-10 without reaching the Rose Bowl. Come New Year's Day, the Wildcats will be dancing in the end zone in Pasadena. Just not in their underwear.
-- Ivan Maisel
1998 record: 12-1 (7-1, 2nd in Pac-10)
Coach: Dick Tomey
Aug. 28 at Penn State
Oct. 30 at UCLA
Tomey has his best team since arriving in Tucson in 1987. If you don't see the Wildcats in Pasadena on Jan. 1, look for them in New Orleans three days later, playing for the national championship.
Five Minute Guide to '99
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
All Rights Reserved.