TUCSON AZ - Air Zona set to takeoff. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Arizona Wildcats football team kicks off the season with its first practice August 4. Between now and September 3, Mike Stoops and company have several major issues to address in order to get the 'Cats pointed in the right direction.
Last season's five-game slide, capped by the humiliation in the Alamo Bowl, has kept the program from turning the proverbial corner. Doesn't it always seem like Arizona approaches the corner, but then that damn corner just looks back, laughs, and leaps forward further down the road as Arizona forgets to turn and hurtles off the road?
But, after the long off-season, and fall camp starting this Thursday, Arizona has the chance (again) to correctly navigate the corner and come out a program with a rosier future outlook. And, because everyone loves a good list, here are five stories to watch this August.
1) Who will start at sam linebacker?
With 2010 bright-spot and presumptive starter, Jake Fisher, out for most if not all of the season to a knee injury, who will step up and take over the strong-side linebacker position? Luckily for Arizona, they return 2010 starters Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls, so the linebacking unit is not left without any experience. That's it as far as experience goes, however, as Earls and Vassallo are the only returning linebackers after R.J. Young and Trevor Erno quit.
So, who takes over and starts at SLB? The candidates: David Lopez (6-3, 230, JC-Jr.), Hank Hobson (6-2, 220, Fr.), Rob Hankins (6-1, 220, Fr.), or Bilal Muhammed (5-10, 235, Sr.). The leader in the clubhouse is currently JC-transfer, David Lopez, as he sits atop the pre-season depth chart. 100+ tackles and All-American honors at JC in California in 2010 means he's probably the most ready right now. I would not count out Hobson or Hankins pushing him all camp for reps, however.
2) Will the young offensive line come together by September 8th?
Arizona returns exactly zero starters from last year's less-than-stellar offensive line. In August pre-season fluff pieces, that usually comes out a few different ways: New bloood! They're unproven, and therefore will try harder! They are coming in with a chip on their shoulder because no one believes in them!
In reality, this is a huge issue for Arizona, no matter how many times they tell us in the next few weeks they are "gelling." We will not know until the trip to Stillwater if this line, is in fact, ready for a rigorous September and October. NAU and Flagstaff are fine places, but no one is going to confuse the Lumberjacks with T. Boone Pickens' Cowboys. September 8 is the day to circle on the calendars as Offensive Line Cohesion Test Day. Stoops and Company will wake up September 9 knowing a lot about the direction of the rebuilt line. Quarterback Nick Foles' rib-cage is hoping like the rest of us Wildcat fans that the pre-season cliche-speak comes true.
3) The kicking game
I'm sure this needs no introduction. Returning place-kicker, Alex Zendejas, will be challenged by JC-transfer Jaime Salazar this August. Zendejas last year connected on 14-19 field goals, which sounds respectable enough on its face. Let's dive a little deeper into the numbers shall, we?
In two seasons as the primary place-kicker, Zendejas has had seven (7!) PATs blocked. What in the name of Nick Folk is going on? I don't care who the kicker is come September 3, but it would be nice if whoever it is could make it through the season without kicking a PAT into the chest of an opposing defender.
4) Dan Buckner's addition to the Air Zona offense
Because one 6-4 super-freak receiver was not enough, Texas-transfer Dan Buckner joins an already loaded Wildcat passing attack this season. Buckner sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, but all 6-4 220 lbs. of him is ready to contribute this year, opposite stupid-awesome Juron Criner. Beyond that lies roughly 37 capable contributors at wide-out, led by David Douglas, Richard Morrison, David Roberts, Tyler Slavin, Austin Hill, Gino Crump, and Terrence Miller. And, just in case you missed Bug "You aren't supposed to catch punt returns off your face mask?" Wright, Arizona has a budding explosive kick returner in freshman Garic Wharton.
Back to Buckner. His addition allows the Wildcats to truly spread the field and let the Air Zona offense go. His talent is unquestioned. Is he on the same page as the rest of the offense and coaching staff? Last year sitting on the sidelines certainly gave him time to absorb the playbook. This summer participating in passing drills with Foles adds to that. I can't wait to see how Buckner's addition forces opposing defenses to adjust their coverage.
5) Impact newcomers
College football is, by nature, defined by roster turnover. Players graduate, transfer, or leave early every single off-season, while 20-30 new bodies show up every August ready to fill the empty holes. Fans love hearing about new recruits and transfers. It's the promise of the unknown, and the possibility of signing that player who every other program wishes they had. In what would kindly be called a pedestrian recruiting class, what newcomers will Arizona Wildcat fans be excited about?
a) Dan Buckner (Junior WR) - See above. He was technically new last year, but 2011 will be the first time we get to see him under the bright lights.
b) David Lopez (Junior LB) - One of several players vying for playing time at linebacker. Likely the most polished of game-ready of the group.
c) Ka'Deem Carey (Freshman RB) - The jewel of the aforementioned middling recruiting class. Carey is a CDO product, and could make an impact in the running game immediately, with incumbent Keola Antolin having battled injuries in the past, and with Greg Nwoko out for at least half the season with a knee injury.
d) Addison Bachman (Junior OL) - Bachman is another JC-transfer who will spend time in August fighting for playing time, particularly at center.