The replacement killers
Arizona Summer Wildcat
Callen, Mills, Croom seeking starting role
By late June, most collegiate football teams have named their starters and entered summer camp prepared to begin the season with a solidified starting lineup.
However, the 2000 Arizona football team is not your average squad. Hesitant to replace departed running back Trung Canidate, the Wildcats will rotate between three tailbacks into summer practice and possibly into the early stages of the season.
Senior Leon Callen and sophomores Leo Mills and Larry Croom will each split time as the team's primary runners, according to UA head coach Dick Tomey.
"All three guys are capable," he said. "We'll need all three and some other guys back there."
The teams likely starter appears to be Mills, a 5-foot-11 speedster from Humble, Texas.
While Mills rushed for 177 yards on 27 carries last season, Tomey conceded that the running back needs to improve away from the ball.
"Leo took better care of the football in spring, so you'd have to say he opens as the strongest candidate," Tomey said. "(But) Leo needs to be a better blocker."
First-year running backs coach Randy Robbins agreed.
"Coming out of spring ball and into the opening game, (the starter) would be Leo," he said. "They all need to work on blocking."
Callen, a 5-foot-9 back from Concord de la Salle High School in Pittsburg, Calif., averaged 16.6 yards per game on the ground in 1999 and is the elder statesman of the group.
"Leon has more experience," Tomey said. "(He's) the more accomplished blocker."
"Age is nothing but a number," he said. "I guess it does help because I have a little more experience."
But while Callen has two years of experience on the other two, Robbins claims age will not give Callen an advantage.
"It doesn't matter what grade you're in," he said. "We may have an incoming freshman come in. You never know."
Croom is the most elusive of all three backs, but ran the ball only 12 times in 1999.
"Larry showed some good all-around talent as a true freshman," Tomey said.
With the three running backs all vying for a starting role, the battle for minutes will not occur on game days but will be determined solely on which player performs best in practice.
"My job as a coach is to make sure that they're mentally and physically ready to go," Robbins said. "If you leave it within those guidelines, there is no controversy."
Robbins, an Arizona alum and former Denver Broncos defensive back, believes that the friendly competition will bring out the best in each player.
"Oh yeah, everything is wide open," he said. "They're all working hard to give themselves a chance to compete and better themselves as a football team. Those three guys will determine who plays."
Callen believes that the competition between the three backs can only help bring the best out of each player.
"I like to watch them run (on film)," he said. "When I watch film, I try to get something from them and incorporate it. Although we know one is going to play more than the others, the competition is still a good thing."
The Wildcats will have little time for experimentation.
Arizona opens up its season on the road Sept. 2, against Utah, a preseason top-25 team. The next week, UA returns to Tucson to face Ohio State, a perennial national powerhouse.
"All three guys will play in the first game," Robbins said. "Whoever emerges will emerge. As a coach, I'm betting that all three guys will perform."
Callen, Mills, and Croom are trying to make Robbins' decision a hard one.
"I feel our job is to put it on the coaches," Callen said. "We all think we're good enough to take over."
Robbins, however, is hesitant to make any long-term predictions.
"Talking about the season beforehand is kinda like putting a Ouija board out there. We have to do what works and what is successful for us. We have to do what wins."