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Tim Layden
August 29, 1994
Defense isn't the whole story, but it's enough to elevate the Wildcats to the top spot in the nation this fall
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August 29, 1994

Raising Arizona

Defense isn't the whole story, but it's enough to elevate the Wildcats to the top spot in the nation this fall

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Nowhere are Tomey's two sides more in sync than at his staff retreat, at a cool 9,000 feet up in the Santa Catalina Mountains outside Tucson. Coaches spend three days in cabins, cooking their own meals, running and hiking together in the morning and unburdening themselves of deeply personal experiences in nightly group-therapy sessions. "Hirings, firings, ups and downs in their lives." says Tomey. "We don't talk about football."

Defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff says, "The whole thing reinforces guys' feelings about each other." And there's a motive to all of this that could pay off on the field. "When things go bad for a football team," says Mac Duff, "it unravels from the inside first." Not when you've been to the woods together, it doesn't.

Arizona's recruiting approach has been similarly unusual. The Wildcats' roster is populated by the too short and too light, by players overlooked for their seeming academic deficiencies or for simply not conforming. Damaged goods, unworthy of recruitment by the elite. From these cracked bricks. Arizona has built a fortress, ignoring what defensive line coach Rich Ellerson calls "stature." while emphasizing athleticism (read: speed and quickness) and a certain manic enthusiasm.

"When we love a guy on film and we love the way he plays, we're not going to stop loving him when he walks through the door and he turns out to be short," says Ellerson. "This isn't track. The heart and soul are important." Says Brooks, "They've got guys there who are not necessarily No. 1 NFL draft choices but who are great college football players."

Part of this philosophy springs from necessity. "The most important thing in recruiting is to be realistic," says Tomey. "You get who you can get. We like guys who love to play football, even if that makes us just about the shortest team in the country." Without past glories or weekly national television appearances, Arizona can't match wish lists with Southern Cal and hasn't even tried to. Among Arizona's 22 projected starters, no more than half a dozen took the five NCAA-allotted campus visits as high school seniors. This blueprint is only vaguely similar to the one used by Miami and Florida State in the '80s. Those schools, also without significant history or instant appeal, grew by tapping into the vast pool of talent in Florida, which has since taken its place alongside Texas, California and Pennsylvania as the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country. Arizona, with no such territorial advantage, has prospered with athletes who don't look so great on paper but who turn out to be terrific on the field. Such as:

•Jim Hoffman, senior defensive tackle.

On paper: Undermotivated high school offensive tackle from San Diego. Too much beach time, too little incentive. Was prepared to enroll at Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., in the fall of 1991.

On the field: Converted to defensive end and filled out to 6'4", 275 pounds. Quick hands, quick feet, best NFL prospect on the team. Tough? Took a surfboard to the head between double sessions as a high school freshman. "My buddy got out of the water and said, 'You broke my fin, dude,' " says Hoffman. "I made the afternoon practice." Arizona got him because a high school all-star coach called in the summer of '91, amazed that Hoffman had been offered no grants.

•Sean Harris, senior inside linebacker.

On paper: Local kid from Tucson High with no hope of academic survival. "I didn't have any grades at all," Harris says, "in my junior year I was below a 2.0 in my core and below 700 on the SAT." The recruiters all bailed out except Arizona.

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