By Charles Renning
Claire C. Laurence/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Three Beavers try to take down running back Mike Bell during Oregon State's 28-14 win over the Wildcats on Oct. 30. Bell forms part of a triumvirate of talented ballcarriers on this season's football squad, which is expected to generate more offense than last season.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
August 26, 2005
The Arizona football team completes its final week of preseason preparation today before heading into a week of preparation for the 2005 season.
The Wildcats open the season Sept. 2 in Salt Lake City against Utah. What follows is a breakdown of the Arizona offense as it breaks camp and what the depth charts look like at each position.
The Wildcat quarterbacks put on a passing clinic at the team's final intrasquad scrimmage, showing, if nothing else, how deep the talent runs at the position.
Having a full stable of quarterbacks has never been an issue - having a stable one has.
Since the 2002 season, when the record-setting Jason Johnson last led the Wildcats, the Arizona offense has seen four different starting signal-callers, including this year's starter, redshirt sophomore Richard Kovalcheck.
Gone are Ryan O'Hara (Scottsdale Community College), Nic Costa (Portland State) and Kris Heavner (playing baseball). In step Kovalcheck, former walk-on junior Adam Austin and true freshman Willie Tuitama.
All three looked sharp throughout camp, with Kovalcheck taking a majority of the snaps after missing spring practices following back surgery.
7 out of 10
- From today until Tuesday,Daily Wildcat staff writer Charles Renning will break down the Wildcats' three main units.
- Today: Offense
- Monday: Defense
- Tuesday: Special Teams
Kovalcheck started Arizona's final five games last season, leading the Wildcats to a pair of wins, including a 34-27 victory over rival ASU.
In that contest, in which Kovalcheck was named Most Valuable Player, he went 17-of-27 for 239 yards and three touchdowns.
Kovalcheck appears to be the Wildcats' guy heading into the season opener, and unless he struggles heavily, should stay there all season.
With all the reps Austin got in spring ball he'll most likely be the main backup, with Tuitama only playing in emergency situations to save a year of eligibility.
The running back position is by far the Wildcats' most established on offense. Arizona has its top three backs returning and all should see a significant number of carries.
Senior Mike Bell was the team's leading rusher in 2004 with 950 yards, putting him eighth on the team's all-time rushing list, and he should be the focal point for the offense.
However, sophomore Chris Henry has run the ball well in fall camp and could garner twice as many carries as he did last year (56). Add senior Gilbert Harris into the mix and the backfield could be a three-headed rushing monster.
If Bell, Harris or Henry goes down with an injury, two true freshmen wait in the wings: local prep star Xavier Smith and Peoria, Ariz., product Terry Longbons.
Offensive coordinator Mike Canales has said that he been very pleased with both backs' improvement since they arrived in Tucson and feels they leave the Arizona backfield loaded for the future.
On the depth chart, the fullback spot is filled with senior Pedro Limon and junior college transfer Paul Nichols. Still, don't be surprised if the Wildcats use any combination of the running backs listed above.
When Limon and Nichols are on the field, they will be used almost exclusively as blockers. Last season no Arizona fullback even registered a carry, but Limon did haul in six passes.
Both Limon and Nichols are decent run and pass blockers and should aid the offensive line.
The Wildcats' receiving core is going to have a big say in the success of the Arizona offense.
All fall, players and coaches said the offense will feature a more vertical passing attack, which should be there if opponents choose to stack the box to stop the Arizona ground game.
Returning is Arizona's leading receiver last season, junior Syndric Steptoe, who pulled in 30 catches for 446 yards and three scores. Gone are Biren Ealy and Ricky Williams, who had 22 catches for 264 yards.
Arizona brought in junior-college transfer B.J. Vickers to fill Williams' void, and with the play of speedy true freshman Michael Thomas in fall camp, either athlete could match Williams' production.
Junior Michael Jefferson and sophomore Anthony Johnson will both be in the receiving rotation, and their play in limited duty will likely dictate their playing time as the season progresses.
Probably the most intriguing receiver is sophomore B.J. Dennard. Dennard split time as both cornerback and receiver last year and did the same during fall camp.
The Phoenix native saw more time with the offense and could be Arizona's third throwing option as well as its third option at corner.
Head coach Mike Stoops has said he wants the team's best athletes on the field at all times, and that could give Dennard time at both sides of the ball.
The Wildcats have lacked a play-making receiver since Bobby Wade took his services to the NFL. No one in this group appears to have Wade's ability, but as a group could give Arizona several options.
The most glaring thing missing this season from Arizona's 2004 offense is tight end Steve Fleming. Last season the Scottsdale native was one of six team captains and ended second on the squad in receiving with 23 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns.
It will be hard for any of the Wildcats' current tight ends to fill Fleming's shoes. Junior-college transfer Brandyn McCall and junior Brad Wood will share the task until one stands out.
Arizona has not traditionally been a school to feature pass-catching tight ends, but the Wildcats will need anyone put into this spot to play a big role in the team's rushing game.
Perhaps even more than the receivers, the Wildcats' offensive line will make or break the team's offensive success.
This unit should be a good mix of both veteran players (seniors Kili Lefotu, John Abramo, Tanner Bell and junior Erick Levitre) and young talent (sophomore Peter Graniello, freshmen Joe Longacre, Blake Kerley and Daniel Borg).
Lefotu and Bell both enter the year having lettered in their previous three seasons and will be the veteran anchors to the squad. Bell missed much of last season with an ankle injury but should come back and fill a tackle spot.
Graniello is coming off a redshirt freshman season in which he was named a second-team freshman All-American by both The Sporting News and www.rivals.com.
The most promising aspect of the Arizona offensive line is the players' versatility and depth. This unit has several players who have seen time at various line positions and could be interchangeable.
Graniello worked at both guard and tackle last year, while Lefotu had been the Wildcats' incumbent center - he's switched over to guard to give way to either Levitre or Kerley.
Whoever plays at the five offensive line positions, it will need to open up plenty of holes for the running backs and allow time for the Arizona quarterbacks and receivers to execute their vertical passing game.