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Stepping up: Developing weapons fueled by hunger to win

Jacob Konst/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Freshman quarterback Willie Tuitama readies to take a snap during Arizona's 23-20 loss to ASU on Friday. Tuitama threw nine touchdowns in five games this season, leading the Wildcats to two of their three victories.
By Kyle Kensing
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
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Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two-part series looking at the Arizona football team as it concludes its 2005 season. Yesterday's story addressed the team's departing seniors and the impact they'll leave on the program in years to come.

One thing became abundantly clear for the Arizona football team in 2005 - the team's immediate future can be summed up in three letters: "TNT."

"The sky's the limit with us," said freshman wide receiver Mike Thomas, one half of the Wildcats' "TNT Connection" with freshman quarterback Willie Tuitama.

The duo played a huge role in Arizona's back-to-back Pacific 10 Conference wins against Oregon State and then-No. 7 UCLA.

Tuitama stepped in at quarterback on Oct. 22 against the Ducks, and in the equivalent of four games hooked up with Thomas for 377 yards and three touchdowns.

"We had a good season," Thomas said. "Willie came in late, but we were still able to connect for quite a bit."

Over the course of the season, Thomas emerged as Arizona's top receiver, reeling in 52 balls for 771 yards and five scores.

Tuitama, meanwhile, became the program's most-talked-about player after taking the snaps the last five games and registering 1,105 yards passing and nine touchdowns.

Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said it's the desire and fearlessness like that Thomas and Tuitama exhibited that will carry Arizona to success in 2006 and beyond.

"We've got to be a hungry football team," he said. "That's got to carry right into the offseason. That's where your programs develop."

Arizona cannot practice as a team until late March, when spring workouts begin, but that isn't stopping returning players like Thomas and Tuitama from honing their skills in the coming months.

The freshmen plan on using the coming weeks to heal from their respective injuries, but it won't be long before they're back in action, Tuitama said.

"I'll take a couple weeks off," said Tuitama, who suffered two broken ribs and a shoulder injury against ASU on Friday. "I'll go back and watch more film to get ready for next season."

And while TNT became a focus of the program this season, Tuitama and Thomas aren't the only impact players slated to suit up next fall.

Thirty-six Wildcats who saw significant playing time in 2005 are expected to return.

"There's a lot of good things the team can build off next year," said senior running back Mike Bell. "They have a great foundation (and) great, solid players at the skill positions."

Among them, Bell said, is redshirt sophomore running back Chris Henry, a player Bell mentored throughout the last two seasons.

"Chris Henry is going to be phenomenal next season," he said.

Henry rushed for 119 yards in 2005 and, with the departures of Bell and Gilbert Harris, is likely to be the focal point of the rushing attack next season.

He's just one of several weapons returning on the offensive end.

Joining Thomas in the passing game is a slew of flankers.

Junior wide receiver Syndric Steptoe, the program's No. 2 wideout, ended 2005 in spectacular fashion at ASU, gaining 221 total yards.

Steptoe was also the Wildcats' featured kick and punt returner this season.

Anthony Johnson, B.J. Dennard and Mike Jefferson also return at wide receiver, with tight end Brad Wood, Arizona's top scoring receiver with six touchdown catches, rounding out the air attack.

"We've got young, talented players on both sides of the ball," Tuitama said.

Defensively, Arizona is very deep and, after this season, very experienced, said head coach Mike Stoops.

Two-year starting cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot highlight a young defense that ranked fourth overall in the Pac-10 in 2005 and was recognized for one of the conference's top secondaries, along with fellow returners Marcus Hollingsworth and Michael Johnson.

"Our guys see what we can do defensively, and what we can be," Mark Stoops said.

Despite sharing just four years of previous experience, linebackers Ronnie Palmer, Dane Krogstad, Akin Akinniyi, and Spencer Larsen combined for 144 tackles this season.

The area Arizona hopes most to improve in the offseason is its defensive line, Mark Stoops said.

Mike Shelton, Johnathan Turner, Jason Parker, Yaniv Barnett, Paul Phillip, and Lionel Dotson all saw action throughout the season on the defensive line as seniors Copeland Bryan and Marcus Smith battled injuries.

"It's exciting," Mark Stoops said. "Our guys know we can be a good football team. It just comes down to getting mentally and physically tougher over the next year."

With an ever-improving offensive unit and a season of experience behind its defense, Arizona football believes its future is no longer on the horizon, but has already dawned.

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