August 01, 2011
The least you should know about the 2011 Wildcats. Part of Pac-12 Week.
• Juron: Emo? For the past couple months, Wildcat fans been consumed by the drama surrounding receiver Juron Criner, his mysterious sabbatical from the football program and whether he'll actually play this fall. Coach Mike Stoops assuaged fears that the Wildcats would be without the Pac-10's leading receiver by giving a vague account of Criner dealing with his mother's undisclosed illness and said the senior would be in camp.
The loss of Criner would have been tough for the Wildcats, but one they could have handled. Arizona's passing game is probably one of the best in school history especially with the return of quarterback Nick Foles and the addition of Texas transfer Dan Buckner. Keeping Criner in the mix just makes the Wildcats that much more dangerous.
Even when Criner returns, though, you have to wonder: Where his head will be? Obviously, his mother's illness was enough to take him away from school for a significant amount of time. Stoops didn't give much information on her current status, so if she's still ill, it will obviously be a distraction -- and may be one that affects the entire team.
• We're going streaking! Last season, Arizona hit the meat of its schedule at the end of the year and ended up losing five straight. This year, the schedule is brutal from the start. After a season-opening game against Northern Arizona, five of the next six opponents defeated Arizona a year ago. Included on that list are Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, USC and Oregon State, which doesn't inspire a lot of confidence for a successful season. With the exception of the passing game, Arizona is either thin or inexperienced all around the field.
• Don't forget protection. While the passing game might be one of the best in school history, it won't live up to that potential if the offensive line can't give Foles time to throw.
The Wildcats are breaking in an entirely new offensive line and new line coach in former BYU coordinator Robert Anae. The only player to start a game on the line is center Kyle Quinn and that start came during the Alamo Bowl. Redshirt freshmen Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele are manning the tackle positions while Chris Putton and Trace Biskin are the guards. The good news is that the line was able to stick together throughout the spring and learn Anae's style. The bad news is that all the pressure will be on the men in the trenches, especially if they can't open enough holes to make a poor running game mildly relevant and give the passing offense a chance.
• The thrill is gone. The defensive line and the pass rush were actually part of the highlights of last season, but the Wildcats lost their three-man defensive end rotation of Brooks Reed, Ricky Elmore and D'Aundre Reed to the NFL draft. The Wildcats also lost starting safety Adam Hall, starting linebacker Jake Fischer and second-string defensive tackle Willie Mobley to ACL tears this spring, putting the excellent pass rush in jeopardy.
During the spring, the Wildcats worked with converted linebacker/fullback C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman at the end spots and will look for junior college transfer Lamar De Rego to compete for time.
Sophomore defensive tackle Justin Washington (right) is the only returning starter. He started nine games, had 46 tackles, including 11.5 for loss and six sacks. However, everyone around him is inexperienced. That, combined with the schedule, won't give the defensive line much of a learning curve.
• Don't go kicking yourself. Alex Zendejas was a bit of a villain for the Wildcats last season after struggling mightily on both field goals and extra points. One of his most memorable moments came when he had an extra point blocked by Arizona State that would have put the Wildcats in front by one in the final minute of regulation, then had another blocked the second overtime. To say he's endeared himself to Arizona State fans would be an understatement.
So it's no surprise tat Zendejas will have to earn his job back this fall after the coaches brought in junior college transfer Jaimie Salazar. Salazar was a second-team All-American at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas after making 14 of his 15 field goal attempts. This competition will be one of the most heavily scrutinized during fall camp.