Wildcats motivated by predicted 8th-place finishPosted: Updated:
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- A winning season and a victory in Arizona's first bowl appearance in a decade probably saved coach Mike Stoops' job.
So why did the Pac-10 media pick the Wildcats to finish eighth this season?
"It was a little bit shocking to me," Stoops said. "We're a very talented team."
The Wildcats have 14 starters - seven on defense and seven on offense - returning from the 8-5 team that beat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.
But the departure of quarterback Willie Tuitama, wide receiver Mike Thomas and offensive tackle Eben Britton led to the survey's low expectations.
"They see we lose a couple of big stars," safety Cam Nelson said, "but they're not here seeing what we do day in and day out, and the kind of guys we've got in the locker room."
The Wildcats have a strong 1-2 running back punch in Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin, who combined for 1,678 yards rushing last season.
They have a pair of talented returning receivers in Terrell Turner and Delashaun Dean. And they have perhaps the best tight end in college football in junior Rob Gronkowski.
The quarterback question has yet to be answered, though, between sophomore Matt Scott and redshirt sophomore Nick Foles.
"We'd love to have one guy, but we'll see how that progresses," Stoops said. "I don't think we're there yet."
The speedy Scott, 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, was Tuitama's backup. Appearing in six games, he completed seven of 11 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. He carried 23 times for 188 yards and a touchdown, averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
Foles, 6-foot-5 and 240, is more of a classic dropback style quarterback, as was Tuitama. Foles transferred from Michigan State after his freshman season and sat out last year under NCAA rules. He appeared in one game for the Spartans, completing five of eight passes for 57 yards. At Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, Foles broke Drew Brees' records for yards passing (5,658) and touchdowns (56).
"Nick is a little more of a prototypical quarterback but they're both very capable players," Stoops said. "They've got a lot of talent. They've got a lot to learn, too."
Offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes modified his trademark spread offense when he left Texas Tech to join the Arizona staff in 2007, adapting to the talent at hand.
Expect him to do the same this year to take advantage of the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski, who caught 47 passes for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns last season despite missing the first three games with mononucleosis.
Gronkowski was a third-team Associated Press all-America last year and accepts the pressure that comes with being considered among the best at his position.
"That's good and everything but you can't let it get to your head," he said. "You've got to keep working hard. You've got to prove to everyone that that's true."
On defense, Arizona returns five senior starters - including tackles Earl Mitchell and Donald Horton, linebacker Xavier Kelley, cornerback Devin Ross and the safety Nelson. Juniors Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore return as starting defensive ends.
"No big-name guys," Nelson said, "just a lot of good football players who are very aggressive."
A major area of attention in camp will be the red zone defense, where Arizona was one of the worst in college football.
After the Wildcats went 5-7 in 2007, Stoops knew his job was on the line.
"We knew the writing was on the wall," he said. "We needed to win and go to a bowl game. Sometimes when things are defined, it almost makes it easier."
The 8-5 record easily could have been better. The Wildcats lost no game by more than 10 points. Conference powerhouse USC beat them 17-10. After losses to Oregon and Oregon State, Arizona pounded rival Arizona State 31-10, then dominated favored BYU in Las Vegas.
Stoops was rewarded with a three-year contract extension.
"It just feels good to help coach Stoops get some of that pressure off his back because he doesn't get any of the credit that he deserves," Nelson said. "It felt good to help him turn that corner."
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