National rank: 26th
This looks good. Trung Canidate, who averaged 100 yards rushing per game, is back at tailback. Two starting quarterbacks, Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins, return. The only worry will be deciding who to select as starters at each spot. Canidate might lose his job to a flashy challenger like Leon Callen, who missed last season recovering from knee surgery, or touted freshman Leo Mills (if he's academically eligible). Both quarterbacks are good runners, but Jenkins has an edge in passing. A platoon may develop. Arizona figures to have a formidable offense-finally.
The rebuilding will start with JC transfer tackle Manu Savea and sophomores Marques McFadden, a guard who missed '97 because of academics, and Bruce Wiggins, a center. They or a couple of other newcomers could unseat mammoth returning starters Edwin Mulitalo (tackle) and Yusuf Scott (guard). Size hasn't always made the 'Cats effective.
The coaches welcome back Jeremy McDaniel, who missed last season with a hamstring injury. He should more than compensate for the graduation of Rodney Williams. Dennis Northcutt, who developed into the team's leading receiver, mans the other side. If tight end Mike Lucky finally proves he's more of a pass catcher than an extra tackle, the quarterbacks will have ample options.
It's hard to imagine this unit being a possible weakness after the Arizona defense was the Pac-10's best last season (330 ypg), but the "Desert Swarm" days are long gone. Daniel Greer provides stability at one tackle and Brandon Manumaleuna, when he isn't playing tight end, shows promise. JC transfer Terrell Jurineack needs to add a presence at end for a club that led the Pac-10 with 47 sacks last season. The other end-maybe Joe Tafoya-will be relatively untested. Depth is iffy.
Chester Burnett won't be around to make his 8.5 tackles per game, so Marcus Bell must go from being a complementary guy to the guy on the inside. To fill the other spots, the Wildcats will look to JC transfer Antonio Pierce, DaShon Polk, Stadford Glover or former safety Scooter Sprotte.
All-American cornerback Chris McAlister gives the Wildcats a leg up on most foes. He'll be joined on the other side by Kelvin Hunter, provided he's recovered from a broken leg suffered in the bowl game. JC transfer Greg Payne should start at free safety, where he'll battle Rafell Jones. Leland Gayles and LeChaux Rich will vie for the job at strong safety, and Charles Nash is another capable corner. Most of them will be busy as offenses avoid McAlister.
Finally, the Wildcats have a kicker. JC transfer Michael Johnson can boot the ball into the end zone, meaning Arizona won't have to gimmick every kickoff to avoid a long return, a ploy that haunted the 'Cats last season. There are two veteran punters, as one of many injuries last year forced Chris Palic to assume duties from Ryan Springston. McAlister is steady on returns, and Callen or Mills likely will join him on runbacks.
Four of the first five games are on the road, including a pair of Thursday night games against WAC teams Hawaii and San Diego State. At least it means four of the last five are at home. Except for a trip to Washington, Arizona's toughest Pac-10 games are in Tucson.
Homer Smith retired for health reasons, so running backs coach Dino Babers becomes offensive coordinator. Arizona also hired Jeff Woodruff, the former offensive coordinator for Don James at Washington, to tutor running backs. Former Hawaii coach Bob Wagner, who worked for Arizona coach Dick Tomey at Hawaii and succeeded him as coach, rejoins his former boss as inside linebackers coach. He has been out of coaching for two years.
With Tomey in the last year of his contract, the 'Cats can't afford a slow start that could lead to poor attendance in late-season games vs. Northeast Louisiana, Oregon and Washington State. There's skill on offense, but both lines must develop to guarantee success.