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Arizona is all about getting in your face, playing bruising, black-and-blue-style football in 2005. That is the way second-year Wildcat coach Mike Stoops would like to see his program after going through a rocky rookie campaign with a 3-8 record and finishing tied for eighth in the Pac-10.
"I think we lack a physical presence on our offensive and defensive line," Stoops said. "We need to become a more physical team. We did some good things, but watching the tapes I think we got pushed around too much for our liking."
Under Stoops, the Wildcats are trying to translate toughness into victories. Their offseason program has been stepped up a notch, with an emphasis on personal development that goes beyond what current players have experienced in the past.
Losing is for the weak -- that's the message.
"We have a chance to become a more physical team just being in the weight program another year," Stoops said. "You not only become physically stronger, but mentally stronger. Hopefully, it helps our minds as much as it does our bodies."
Arizona was near the bottom of the national rankings in virtually every offensive category a year ago, but there is legitimate hope for improvement if quarterback Richard Kovalcheck makes a full recovery after undergoing back surgery prior to spring practice. Kovalcheck began the 2004 campaign as the Wildcats' fourth-string quarterback but seized control of the starting job midway through his redshirt freshman season. His numbers weren't overly impressive -- 67-of-136 passing for 880 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions -- but he showed a glimpse of what he could do by throwing for 239 yards and three touchdowns in the Cats' season-ending upset over rival Arizona State.
The Wildcats desperately need to establish a running game, something that was difficult to do last season because opponents loaded up at the line of scrimmage and dared Arizona to throw the ball.
Mike Bell gained 950 yards last season and is one of the Pac-10's better runners. But in order for Bell and the other backs to find running room, the Wildcats need to open up the field. That is where B.J. Vickers comes in. The junior college transfer emerged as a legitimate deep threat in spring drills and should help free up the middle for junior Syndric Steptoe, who led the team with 30 catches in 2005.
Pressure is the key word here. The Wildcats had just 20 sacks last season, allowing quarterbacks all day in the pocket to dink and dunk passes all over the field. Arizona feels it might resolve some of its problems by getting nose tackle Byron Smith, a transfer from Kilgore (Texas) Junior College, in the mix.
Help is needed at linebacker, where the Wildcats are relying on a bunch of youngsters to anchor the middle of the defense. The starters probably won't be determined until well into preseason camp.
It is no mystery why the team's strength a year ago rested in the secondary; the Stoops brothers (head coach Mike and defensive coordinator Mark) handled this area personally. Mike Stoops believes Darrell Brooks is one of the best free safeties in the nation. The rising star is sophomore cornerback Antoine Cason, a true lock-down corner who had four picks and 70 stops in '04.
Nick Folk, who made just two field goals in '03, was a pleasant surprise last fall, making 8-of-13 attempts. Folk was consistent inside 40 yards, but he needs to improve his range; he was just 3-of-7 from beyond 40 yards. Punter Danny Baugher has the strength to boot the long ball and the precision to get the ball inside the 20, but just like the rest of the team, consistency is the key.
Arizona was being physically manhandled prior to Stoops' arrival. The Wildcats have made dramatic strides with an aggressive strength-and-conditioning program, plus an upgrade in recruiting. What is lacking is overall depth, particularly on both front lines, and the know-how to win. Arizona found a way to lose a couple of times in '04. Stoops worked on the physical aspect, but the mental strain of turning a losing program into a winner is the next step. The gap is closing.
Defense should be the team's strength once again. Kovalcheck must be fully healthy and develop a rapport with his receivers. If not, Arizona's running game will be stopped before it can get started again.