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Saying goodbye: Seniors walking away from firm foundation

Jake Lacey/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Senior running back Mike Bell bursts through the ASU defense during the Wildcats' 23-20 loss to the Sun Devils on Friday at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. Though Bell led the team in rushing the last three seasons, Arizona could not finish with a winning record.
By Kyle Kensing
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
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Underclassmen impressed by players' poise

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series looking at the Arizona football team as it concludes its 2005 season. Check back tomorrow for a story on the Wildcats' young players as they prepare for larger roles in 2006.

TEMPE - Words cannot begin to describe the depth of the expressions Mike Bell and Darrell Brooks wore Friday as the senior duo, walking side by side, left a college football field for the last time at Sun Devil Stadium.

While their careers ended with a period rather than an exclamation point in a 23-20 loss to rival ASU, each player left his signature on Arizona football.

If you ask them, 2005 put them on the ground floor of a rebuilding process that Bell said he believes will produce great things.

"I hope what I can leave is 'always staying positive,'" he said.

Arizona struggled in the four years after Bell arrived on campus in the fall of 2001, compiling an underwhelming 18-37 record. But those tough times provided Bell a lesson he said he hopes will be positive for the program in the future.

"Things aren't always going to go your way in life, so you've got to stick through it and persevere," he said. "(Winning) didn't happen while I was here, but I know it's eventually going to happen, and I'm happy I had the opportunity to be a part of it."

Bell was the focus of Arizona's offense from the first time he took the field against NAU in 2002, leading the Wildcats in rushing each of the last four seasons, including three consecutive 900-plus-yard campaigns.

With 117 yards against the Sun Devils, the Phoenix native became Arizona's fourth all-time leading rusher with 3,163 yards.

While Bell handled the offensive end, the safety Brooks dominated on defense.

His 295 total tackles rank him 16th all-time in Arizona history, just behind Chicago Bears starting linebacker Lance Briggs, and he set career highs this season with 93 tackles and 62 solo.

The impact of the class of 2005 doesn't rest just on the shoulders of Brooks and Bell, however.

Arizona head coach Mike Stoops said the seniors as a whole leave a legacy that goes beyond the stat sheet.

"We're a much more stable team than we were at any time, and that credit goes to (them)," Stoops said.

Stability. It's something the Wildcats sorely lacked in pivotal areas throughout this senior corps' time in Tucson.

Since 2001, Arizona has seen three head coaches, countless assistants and coordinators, and an ever-changing on-the-field complexion.

One thing that remained constant during those tumultuous times was the play and attitude of the team's veterans.

Senior Gilbert Harris, a player running backs coach Kasey Dunn said could be a feature back for many other programs, took on the fullback role and became a triple threat as a blocker, runner and receiver.

Former walk-on Copeland Bryan emerged as Arizona's most dangerous pass-rusher, making 7.5 sacks on the year.

Linebacker Sean Jones was an example for a young linebacking corps.

Jon Abramo, Kili Lefotu and Tanner Bell anchored an offensive line Stoops called Arizona's most improved unit, while Pedro Limon provided blocking out of the backfield.

Safety Lamon Means saw limited action in 2005 but "never quit," Stoops said, and served as an example of leadership to the returning players.

Another senior, Brad Brittain, willingly took on three positions this season, playing tight end and on the offensive and defensive lines.

"Those are things I'm as proud of as the improvement we've made on the field," Stoops said. "Our character is much stronger, our will is much stronger than it was (a year ago), and we'll only get better as we get stronger."

That character is something Arizona's underclassmen have said will impact the program for seasons to come.

"They always told us to keep working, and we'll get this thing turned around," said freshman wide receiver Mike Thomas.

So, while these seniors were never able to see their efforts fully culminate on the field with the program's first trip to a bowl game since 1998, it is the future they built for the players and coaches who return that will be their ultimate reward.

"The program's headed in the right direction," Harris said.

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