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March 5, 2010

Arizona looks to take next step under Stoops

Postseason spectators for a decade, the Arizona Wildcats have made great strides with consecutive bowl appearances under coach Mike Stoops.

Now, they're looking to take the next step. Can the Wildcats seriously contend for the Pac-10 championship? Last season's eight-win campaign, which included victories over USC and Stanford, would seem to indicate the answer is "yes."

Arizona must rebuild its defense, but that is Stoops' specialty. Meanwhile, the offense appears loaded, though that unit must adjust to new co-offensive coordinators after Sonny Dykes departed to become coach at Louisiana Tech.

ARIZONA AT-A-GLANCE
Nick Foles passed for nearly 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Mike Stoops
Last season:-5 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-10. Lost to Nebraska 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl.
Spring dates: March 5-April 10.
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (8): G Conan Amituanai, C Colin Baxter, WR Delashaun Dean, G Vaughn Dotsy, QB Nick Foles, T Adam Grant, RB Nic Grigsby, TE A.J. Simmons.
Defense (4): E Ricky Elmore, SS Robert Golden, E Brooks Reed, CB Trevin Wade.
Special teams (2): P Keenyn Crier, K Alex Zendejas.
Positions of strength

The Wildcats are solid at the skill positions, although the Holiday Bowl debacle showed they need to get better. In his first year as a starting quarterback, Nick Foles passed for nearly 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns despite playing sparingly in the first three games. He does benefit from having capable running backs behind him. Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin have big-play potential. Meanwhile, five receivers had more than 20 receptions in '09. The Wildcats aren't bad at defensive end, either. Ricky Elmore, who posted 10.5 sacks a year ago, and Brooks Reed are returning starters.

Help is needed

Arizona was good against the run last season, but has to rebuild its linebacker corps and replace both defensive tackles. That leaves the Wildcats looking to fill big gaps left by all-conference selections Earl Mitchell at tackle and Xavier Kelley at linebacker. T Lolomana Mikaele is the only interior defensive lineman with starting experience and he had just 12 tackles last season. Arizona needs more production at tight end, too.

Three guys to watch

G Vaughn Dotsy: Though slowed by injuries throughout his sophomore season, he still played well enough to make several starts. Now healthy, he should be even better - and could challenge for all-league honors.

LB Derek Earls: The Wildcats need help at linebacker and Earls can provide it. He was named a junior college All-American last season at North Dakota State College of Sciences, where he posted 108 tackles, forced a fumble and had two interceptions. Arizona coach Mike Stoops has praised Earls' athleticism.

FS Joe Perkins: He made a respectable showing while sharing time at strong safety with Robert Golden last season. This season, he could be joining Golden in the starting lineup.

The pressure is on

WR Delashaun Dean: If doesn't regain the near-star form he showed as a sophomore in 2008, he could be relegated to backup status. Two years ago, Dean caught 53 passes for 593 yards and four touchdowns. But with injuries nagging him in '09, his production declined substantially. With several good, young receivers emerging, Dean needs to re-establish himself this spring as one of the Wildcats' top receivers.

The buzz

Tucson residents have grown accustomed to seeing solid defensive play from Arizona, which has ranked among the nation's top 25 in total defense in each of the past two seasons. But the Wildcats face a lot of work in building a unit that can maintain those standards. Linebacker and defensive tackle are depleted of starters and two jobs are open in the secondary. Yet the potential exists for a productive offense. Therefore, if the Wildcats can make major progress on defense this spring, they could be a major factor in the Pac-10 race this fall.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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