From the booth: Playing Willie may make or break season

By Ryan Casey
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Ask and ye shall receive.

After much discussion, much angst and much flailing about by the Arizona football team en route to its 1-5 start, freshman quarterback Willie Tuitama should see game action Saturday against the Oregon Ducks, in the process making his much-anticipated Wildcat debut.

"I think we have to give him a chance," said Arizona head coach Mike Stoops at his weekly press conference yesterday.

True to coaching form, Stoops made sure to maintain ambiguity with his next sentence by praising starting quarterback Richard Kovalcheck, who has as many interceptions this season (10) as touchdowns.

Almost as if teasing Wildcat fans, Stoops provided more fuel to the "Will Willie Start?" fire, saying the team will evaluate Tuitama throughout the week in practice and make decisions about his playing time as the weekend approaches.

Questions abound: Will he live up to the hype? Did the decision come too late? What if Tuitama should falter? What becomes of Kovalcheck?

According to the optimists, Tuitama should become the greatest Wildcat quarterback of all time.

The 6-foot-2 Stockton, Calif., native may need every bit of his 212-pound frame to support the pressure resting squarely on his shoulders. Wildcat fans across the country expect this highly touted frosh to be the spark that ignites an Arizona program sporting only two wins against Division I teams in the Mike Stoops era.

Watching practice earlier this summer, something caught my ear. One man was there with his young son, pointing to Tuitama, who was taking his turn with the Arizona offense.

"See him?" the father asked. "He's going to lead the Wildcats to a bowl game."

Other onlookers at practice that day had nothing but good things to say about Tuitama, labeling No. 7 "Jesus" and "The Savior," among other things.

With every passing game, fans hope that Tuitama improves, miraculously salvaging Arizona's recent history.

If this move is indeed made, the question becomes, Can this 18-year-old kid handle the pressure of leading a Division I program - let alone the pressure of turning around a program on the verge of seven straight bowlless seasons?

More importantly, is sacrificing the future of the program worth a few more wins this season?

Who's to say that hype translates into success? I want Tuitama to succeed just as much as the next guy, but a few bad games might end up translating into destroyed confidence.

If Tuitama really is the future of this program, there would be no harm in waiting out the rest of the season and freeing Willie next season by giving him a shot at the starting job in spring ball.

Now, if everything goes according to plan in pulling off Tuitama's redshirt, there may be a resounding "I told you so" coming from 50,000 strong at Arizona Stadium, and possibly even a "Why not earlier?"

Mike Stoops has already answered that question himself.

"I don't think there's anyone right now that we're redshirting that could come out and make the games different from us winning and losing," he said following Arizona's 28-0 loss to California on Oct. 1.

Translation: He plays the best players available to him come game time.

There's still the question of what happens to Kovalcheck if Tuitama takes his job.

What becomes of a quarterback who came to Arizona equally as hyped? Like Tuitama, Kovalcheck earned a four-star rating. The redshirt sophomore was also considered the 15th-best quarterback in the nation, according to, a recruiting Web site.

To get an idea about the ramifications of Stoops choosing a new starter, think back to the 2003 season.

Arizona started the year with quarterbacks Ryan O'Hara, Nic Costa, Kris Heavner, Richard Kovalcheck and Adam Austin. Costa and O'Hara fought for the job in spring ball under former head coach John Mackovic, who didn't name a starter.

Both players saw time against the UTEP in the season opener, as did Austin. Eventually, each faltered, and Heavner, then a freshman, began to start. Costa quit the team in midseason after being moved to wide receiver, and O'Hara left soon thereafter.

Moving to last season, Heavner began the season as the starter, and eventually, he too struggled.

Enter Kovalcheck, who led the Wildcats to victory over in-state rival ASU to end the year. In that game, Heavner spelled Kovalcheck for a single play and completed his only pass - a crucial 10-yarder for a first down.

As he rejoined his team on the sidelines, Heavner leaned over to a teammate and was heard to have said, "What a way to end my career here." He transferred to Baylor the following season but has since re-enrolled at Arizona.

After beginning 2005 looking like the man to lead the Cats, Kovalcheck took a step back last week against a beatable Stanford team, turning the ball over four times.

The coaching staff is mulling over another quarterback switch, perhaps jumping the QB carousel that has twirled Costa, Heavner, O'Hara and Kovalcheck over the last two seasons.

Hmm - so a quarterback has the job, loses it and transfers (Costa). Another one gets the job, loses it and quits (O'Hara). Then the job's another guy's to lose, which he eventually does, and eventually transfers (Heavner).

Anyone else see a pattern? Am I alone in thinking that should Tuitama start the Wildcats' remaining games, this team would again be down to two scholarship quarterbacks (Austin included)?

Could you blame Kovalcheck if he decided to bolt? Why would someone with two years of eligibility remaining bother to stick around if his job is basically handed to a younger understudy? Why not go somewhere where he could play?

If he starts Saturday, Tuitama had better show signs of stability as a starter. Otherwise, we might wish Willie hadn't been freed - left to wear a redshirt rather than a red jersey.

Ryan Casey is a journalism junior and the sports director at KAMP Student Radio. His radio show can be heard Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on 1570 AM or at