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July 8, 2011
OVERVIEW: QB Nick Foles and WR Juron Criner form one of the country's most explosive pass-catch combinations. RB Keola Antolin can rip off long gainers, too. Still, the Wildcats need more consistency. They exceeded 40 points three times last season, but were held to fewer than 20 three times as well. And there are major questions about the line. Seth Littrell will coordinate the offense by himself after sharing those duties with Bill Bedenbaugh, who left to become West Virginia's line coach. Coach Mike Stoops brought in Robert Anae from BYU to oversee the line.
BACKFIELD: The strong-armed Foles has thrown 39 touchdown passes over the past two seasons and is coming off a 2010 performance in which he threw for 3,191 yards while completing 67.1 percent of his attempts. Antolin has breakaway ability (he had a 78-yard touchdown run against Washington last season) and also consistently productive. He has gained between 525 and 668 yards in each of the past three seasons despite often playing in a backup role. He'll be a fulltime starter now, but still figures to share carries with junior Greg Nwoko and/or sophomore Daniel Jenkins. Antolin is a good safety-valve receiver, as well.
RECEIVERS: Few teams in the nation can match Arizona for talent and depth at receiver. Criner is a bona-fide star and is coming off a breakout season in which he caught 82 passes for 1,233 yards. He had a catch that covered at least 40 yards in eight games. There have been reports of late that a medical condition could sideline him for a few games this fall, but the school has remained silent. Foles also has capable targets in David Douglas, David Roberts and Terrence Miller, who all had at least 29 catches last season. Dan Buckner, a transfer from Texas, is eligible after sitting out a year, too. This is a deep and talented group.
LINE: All five starters are gone, and pass protection must improve. The Wildcats gave up 32 sacks a year ago. The coaching staff is high on redshirt freshmen Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele at tackle. C Kyle Quinn spent two years backing up Colin Baxter and now steps into the starting lineup. JC transfer Addison Bachman could supplant Quinn at center; in that scenario, Quinn could become a starting guard. Of the top four guards, only one has lettered. Depth is a question everywhere along the line. Recurring injuries forced G Vaughn Dotsy to give up football, which hurts.
OVERVIEW: Stoops typically puts a stout defense on the field, but this season may test his defensive acumen. The Wildcats suffered significant losses at end and there are issues in the secondary. Further adding to the concerns is that Arizona allowed at least 30 points in four of its final five games last season.
LINE: As a freshman last season, T Justin Washington emerged as a productive player who could provide an interior pass rush; he had six sacks. But he's the only returning starter up front. Es Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed - both known for their pass-rushing skills - were taken in the NFL draft. Their likely replacements are seniors C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman; Parish, a former fullback, redshirted last season, and Usman made seven tackles in 2010. Coaches like sophomore T Sione Tuihalamaka, and juniors Chris Merrill and Willie Mobley will press for time.
LINEBACKERS: There may be questions elsewhere, but the Wildcats are well-stocked at linebacker. Paul Vassallo is back after posting a team-leading 102 tackles. He joins hard-nosed Derek Earls and Jake Fischer to form a steady and proven group. Depth is a question, though, and expect at least two true freshmen to see time at this position.
SECONDARY: CB Trevin Wade was an all-conference selection as a sophomore, but struggled last season. If he doesn't return to top form, he could be replaced by sophomore Shaquille Richardson. CB Robert Golden is solid on the other side. Sophomore Marquis Flowers primarily has played on special teams, but is expected to move into the starting lineup at strong safety. FS Adam Hall is big and intimidating and hits a ton. But his availability is in doubt because of a knee injury sustained in spring drills. His absence would be a big loss. Golden could be moved to free safety, though that would hurt Arizona's depth at corner.
Though K Alex Zendejas has a strong leg, he's shaky beyond 30 yards and tends to kick too low. He's far from automatic on extra points, too. P Kyle Dugandzic, a JC transfer, has shown a knack for killing the ball inside the 20 and is the leading candidate to handle that job. Redshirt freshman Garic Wharton is a speedster who could make kick returns really exciting. The Wildcats are good in coverage.
Even though the Wildcats are deep at wide receiver, who couldn't use a highly recruited, big target that has played in a national championship game? That's junior Dan Buckner, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound transfer from Texas, where he had 45 catches in 2009. Buckner was the scout team offensive MVP while sitting out last season. This season, the Wildcats are looking forward to him causing trouble for defensive backs on the other team.
Arizona could be in for a good season if it can make it through September. The defense will be tested early. An opening warm-up with Northern Arizona is followed by consecutive games against Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon; each ranked among the top 10 scoring offenses a year ago and each returns a star quarterback. The Wildcats will have to be a strong road team to contend in the Pac-12 South. They travel to face division rivals USC, Colorado and Arizona State.
Success comes with a price. After years of futility, Stoops has led the Wildcats to three consecutive bowl appearances. But now the expectations are higher. Last year's 7-6 finish once would have been celebrated; instead, it was considered disappointing because of a late-season slide. With Foles, Criner and Antolin heading the offense Arizona figures to be good enough to reach a bowl again. But newcomers in the offensive line must prove themselves and the defense must improve for the Wildcats to be legitimate contenders for the Pac-12 South title.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.