December 4, 2008

Ask the expert Q&A: Arizona Wildcats

With this year's installment of the Territorial Cup game between Arizona State and Arizona on Saturday, asked Senior Editor Josh Gershon some questions to get greater insight on the Wildcats.

1. The addition of Sonny Dykes has obviously provided a boost to the UA offense. What makes that unit so capable of putting up big numbers under his direction?

Besides the simple fact that Arizona is as well-coached offensively as it has been in years, there are five major playmakers on that side of the ball. First off, Willie Tuitama is an accurate and relatively consistent quarterback that knows where his two biggest weapons are at all times.

Between senior wide receiver Mike Thomas' 61 receptions for 721 yards and four touchdowns as well as sophomore tight end Rob Gronkowski's 37 catches for 550 yards and nine touchdowns, Tuitama has two targets that defenses must closely guard at all times.

Arizona also has two playmakers coming out of the backfield in sophomore Nicolas Grigsby and freshman Keola Antolin.

Grigsby averages 5.5 yards per carry and has 952 yards and 11 touchdowns off of 172 carries. Antolin has especially been a major presence in the second half of the season, but for the year is averaging 4.7 yards per carry due to his 512 yards and 10 touchdowns from 108 attempts.

Dykes has also benefited from a veteran offensive line, led by junior tackle Eben Britton, who is projected to be one of the top picks in the 2009 NFL Draft, should he leave school early.

2. How has Willie Tuitama evolved as a player and how would you rate his performance this season?

Willie Tuitama is what he pretty much always has been - a talented quarterback with a very good arm and limited mobility that is mostly accurate but when he makes mistakes, they often come in bunches.

He knows where the best players on his team are and he gets them the ball, but he's struggled making plays down the stretch of close games - especially comebacks.

To Tuitama's credit, he's the best quarterback in school history and to earn that label he's had to overcome several obstacles including concussion problems and two - three, if you count co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel in the second half of the 2006 season - different offensive coordinators.

This season, he's pretty much lived up to his reputation described above. He has passed for 2,479 yards off 327 attempts and thrown 19 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions. He's played very well in pretty much all of Arizona's wins, and made critical mistakes in many of the losses.

Against ASU, you should have a pretty good idea of how well Tuitama will play for the game based off of the first couple of drives.

3. It seems as though the UA has taken a bit of a step backwards defensively. Is that a fair assessment and if so, why is that the case?

I'd say it's accurate from the beginning of the season to now but not accurate comparing last season to this one. Really, Arizona's defense has put the offense in legitimate position to win in every game except New Mexico (36-28 loss) and Oregon (55-45 loss).

Other than those two games, the defense has been good and losses to Stanford, USC and Oregon State fall more on the offense's shoulders than the defense. However, the defense did have the opportunity to prevent game-winning drives against Stanford and Oregon State and came up short both times.

4. What are UA's strengths and weaknesses?

Arizona is such an enigma because every single position on its roster can be a strength and a weakness. It really just depends on what day you catch the team on. And, in reality, this team is five plays going the other way away from being 11-0, and then we'd be talking about how almost every position on the squad is a strength.

To answer the question more specifically, if I had to rank the offense from greatest strength to weakness I would go: Tight end, offensive line, quarterback, running backs and wide receivers. That's definitely selling the receivers shorter than they deserve, but Thomas has been the only player in the unit giving a consistent effort.

On defense, I'd go: Defensive backs, linebackers and defensive line. For the most part, passing on Arizona has been a difficult task this season. The linebackers have been solid all year, and the defensive line - although it has improved significantly from the first game of the season to the last - is probably the worst of the three.

The biggest issue with the defensive line is the fact that - besides sophomore end Brooks Reed - it's struggled to put pressure on the quarterback at times and a flurry of personnel problems at defensive tackle have led to issues stopping the run at times.

5. What are the keys to this game for Arizona?

Limited mistakes by Tuitama, pressure on Rudy Carpenter, making sure ASU continues to struggle on the ground, big games by Gronkowski and Thomas, turnovers, etc.

Really, it's safe to assume that this will be a relatively close game. Can Arizona make plays to win the game at the end, unlike what's been the case all season? That will probably be the biggest key to the game for the Wildcats.

6. Can you provide an injury status update on the Wildcats?

Center Blake Kerley has been out for the season with a torn ACL but his replacement Blake Kerley has done a good job in his place. Starting right tackle Adam Grant has been limited the past several games with a broken finger but should play. Linebacker Sterling Lewis and defensive tackle Kaniela Tuipulotu have been limited with ankle injuries, but they should also play.

7. If Arizona is able to beat ASU, would this be considered a successful season by most fans in Tucson?

No, it would still be considered a win or two short of a successful season, just because Arizona has the talent on the team to win more than seven games. With that said, with a win, most UA fans would be fine with Mike Stoops and his staff having another year to prove that his program is continuing to go in the right direction, whereas a loss would put some serious pressure on him from the fan base.

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