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Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Spring football Q&A: Arizona coach Mike Stoops


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Arizona finishes spring practices Wednesday, and coach Mike Stoops doesn't see many holes heading into the summer.

Sure, the Wildcats are replacing some good players, such as quarterback Willie Tuitama, receiver Mike Thomas, linebacker Ronnie Palmer and left tackle Eben Britton. But Stoops seems confident he's got guys who can step up and get to another bowl game.

Or maybe more than just any bowl game.

 
  Tom Hauck/Getty Images
  Arizona coach Mike Stoops says he feels good about his overall depth heading into the 2009 season.

The Wildcats started early and now will be the first to finish spring practices. It seemed like a good time to check in with Stoops and see how things looked in Tucson.

First question has to be about the quarterbacks: How do Matt Scott and Nick Foles stack up with one practice left this spring?

Mike Stoops: They both have done some really good things. I think we can win at this level with both players. We don't feel like we're in any need to name a starter at this point. I can probably see both guys playing. Whether we did that in a constant way, I don't think that would be it. But I could see, early on, us playing both to see how they perform in games. It's not something we would like to do, but they are a little bit different styles of quarterback. Matt gives you that ability to run and create plays with his feet. Nick is a more prototypical, drop-back quarterback. They're different but I think both of them could give us a chance to win. We're very pleased with their growth. They still have a lot of work to do. We probably won't name a starter until seven to 10 days before our first game against Central Michigan. And it's possible both could play in that game.

Biggest position change before practices began was Robert Golden from cornerback to strong safety: How did that play out?

MS: That's been probably one of the best moves we've made. We now can get our best four or five DBs on the field at the same time. And it's really been an easy transition for him. He seems very comfortable. He's been easy to coach. We've been very pleased with that move. It puts Trevin Wade, who led our team in interceptions last year -- and he only played 100 and something snaps -- on the field. Robert had corner ability, corner speed, but he gives us great versatility to cover the field now, which you have to do vs. these spread offenses.

Any other guys change positions during the spring?

MS: Nope. That was the biggest move for us.

Tell us about some guys who really improved their stock this spring, guys when went from backups to potential starters.

MS: We feel like our offensive guards played really well, Conan Amituanai and Mike Diaz. Diaz -- you asked about a personnel change -- Diaz could move from left guard to left tackle. He has the range to play tackle. And that gives Conan, who has really stood out with his development and his attitude and confidence, a chance. He's a 320-pound guy who can really play physically. [Guard] Vaughn Dotsy is another guy I'm pleased with, played last year as a true freshman. Our line has a chance to be very athletic and physical. Other guys: Greg Nwoko, our third running back, has had a great spring -- he's a freshman from outside of Austin, Texas. I feel good about our overall depth, but our biggest concern might be depth at linebacker.

Rob Gronkowski might be the best tight end in the nation: What are the weaknesses in his game; what can he get better at?

MS: I think his ability to route run, his ability to find spaces in defenses and work off leverage, finding holes in defenses as a great receiver does -- not just beat people with his physical capabilities. He can beat them with his mind, too. Gronkowski is just a freak of nature. He's virtually unguardable. But guys like that, who are freaky in their ability, sometimes rely on that too much. They can get better by their overall awareness. I think he's gotten much better than that.

Junior defensive end Brooks Reed seemed to break out last year, like something clicked at midseason.

MS: Yeah, he just became a play-maker. And that's just him getting comfortable at what you're doing. It was his first year starting. He just took off. He's one of those guys who learns very quickly and he also just plays so hard. He's just like the guy from Oregon -- the other Reed [Nick Reed]. Very similar players. He could get 10 sacks very easily.

What's the strength of this football team?

MS: I think our defense. We finished third [in the Pac-10 in total and scoring defense] last year and we've got basically eight starters back. And I forgot to tell you about the guy who may have had the best spring, linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka, the guy who took over for Ronnie Palmer. He got a lot of playing time last year and I think he's got a chance to be one of the premier middle linebackers in the country. So defensively we feel very good about our personnel.

What are you biggest concerns heading into the summer?

MS: Finding that consistency at quarterback, going into a new season breaking in a new quarterback, making sure he's comfortable and confident and can lead our offense when he goes out on the field. To win at this level, your quarterback play has to be efficient. It doesn't have to be great all the time, but it has to be efficient. They have to protect the football. Young quarterbacks want to make all these plays. We need them just to be comfortable doing the things we need them to do. And obviously left tackle where we lost Eben Britton. Those are two critical positions to any football team.

Lost a couple of guys on the offensive line and a couple of others are hurt: How does the offensive line stack up if you were playing tomorrow?

MS: Mike Diaz would be at left tackle, Conan Amituanai at left guard, obviously Colin Baxter at center, Vaughn Dotsy at right guard and Adam Grant at right tackle. Adam Grant has probably had his best spring, too. He's coming into his own, coming off two years of knee surgery.

What about tackle Phillip Garcia -- how is his comeback from a knee injury coming?

MS: Limited reps. He came off that knee surgery last year, and Phillip is kind of an unknown player at this point. Athletically and physically, he's what you want -- he's 6-foot-8 and 330 pounds and moving well. But he's coming off that knee and we won't know until the fall. He's practicing but is just doing fundamental stuff. Not team work. But he should be good to go in the fall and I think he's got a chance to really help us.

Has this program turned the corner and how close are you guys to competing for the Rose Bowl berth?

MS: I think we've definitely turned the corner. I think we are a much more confident team, just when we take the field. I think we take the field expecting to play well and expecting to win. I don't know if that has always been the case here. We competed well last year throughout the season. We had an opportunity to win all 12 games [the Wildcats' five losses came by a combined 28 points] in the fourth quarter. We're developing here as a program. Obviously, the win over Arizona State was huge because it was in-state and we hadn't won in three years. But beating BYU [in the Las Vegas Bowl], going into the offseason with that confidence, really helped our football team. All that stuff that festers inside your program leaves once you win. A lot of things will go on inside your program until you win. Now our guys have a great attitude about what they do and it has become a much easier team to coach.

Do you hang the Rose Bowl out as a goal?

MS: We've always set our sights on the Rose Bowl. It will be very challenging but we feel like we have that type of team. Anytime you have a solid defense, you have a chance to win. We have to get better but I think we have a chance to have one of our best groups on defense when it's all said and done. This is the fastest defense we've had. So if we can stay healthy, we'll have a chance. Obviously, USC has set a very high standard, but we feel like we've matched up with them relatively well the last couple of years. We feel like we're closing the gaps on everyone we play.