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Football: Stoops, players looking ahead to 2005 season

DAVE HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Sophomore quarterback Richard Kovalcheck scans for an open receiver during Arizona's 34-27 victory over ASU to close out the 2004 season. Spring workouts began yesterday without Kovalcheck, who didn't practice because of recent back surgery.
By Kyle Kensing
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
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Year two of the Mike Stoops era of Arizona football officially began yesterday with the first practice of the spring season.

Returning players from last year's squad had an afternoon workout that lacked pads but not enthusiasm for the 2005 season.

"It feels great to get out of the office and see the progress we've made," Arizona head coach Mike Stoops said.

"It's no contest, now from a year ago," he said of Arizona's improvement in his short tenure at the program's helm, adding a program "makes its greatest strides from the first year to the second."

"Things are running more smoothly than in the past. We've had a year under our belts to learn the system," said senior safety Darrell Brooks.

Brooks was the Wildcats' leading tackler in 2004 with 73.

Sophomore quarterback Richard Kovalcheck, who started the second half of last season's 3-8 campaign, missed the opening day of spring workouts because of a back injury.

Taking the snaps in his place was junior Adam Austin, a former walk-on who has earned a scholarship for 2005.

"(Austin) is not just a good kid, he's shown a lot of ability," Stoops said. "He'll be in the mix one way or another in the fall."

Alongside Austin in the backfield for the first day of practice was senior halfback Mike Bell, Arizona's top rusher in 2004.

"There were some first-day mistakes, but we'll get better day by day," he said.

Bell has led the Wildcats' ground game for each of the last two seasons, but has yet to reach a bowl game. That's something the Tolleson High School alumnus is looking to remedy in 2005.

"(Playing in a bowl game) is always a goal," he said. "We don't care where we go."

Bell said the 34-27 season-ending win against then-No. 18 ASU is a key to the momentum going into the fall.

"Going into the season with a win over the cross-state rival under our belts, that's huge," he added.

Spencer Larson saw his first action in nearly two years yesterday, returning to Tucson from a Mormon mission in southern Chile.

Larson left two years ago during John Mackovic's tenure as head coach. He said after returning to the program and seeing the changes Stoops has implemented, he feels his decision was one of the best he's made.

And despite being miles from a weight room, Larson was able to maintain close to his playing weight of 225 pounds, thanks to a routine designed by strength coach Jay Schroeder, he said.

Stoops said the team's collective effort in the weight and training rooms throughoaut the winter is already apparent.

"We're pleased with the overall improvement," he said. "The kids understand what we're teaching, their mistakes. The learning seems to happen a lot quicker."

The team hopes the spring will be the groundwork for the program's first winning season in more than five years.

"We'll be in the mix obviously next fall," he said. "We've closed the gaps on a lot of people, and we'll have an opportunity to compete week in, week out."

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