April 25, 2006
Tucson, AZ (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Defense wins championships. Everyone knows it. The New England Patriots, Oklahoma Sooners and Tampa Bay Buccaneers can attest to it.
And while the Arizona football team obviously isn't quite on that championship level yet, the same remains true simply for winning games.
Take last season's 52-14 dismantling of then-No. 7 UCLA on Homecoming weekend. Sure, the offense absolutely exploded for totals unseen since a 2002 win over California in Berkeley, but lost in the shuffle was the fact that the Wildcat defense shut down a high-powered Bruin offense that came in averaging more than 42 points a game.
That's not to say it's a secret; Arizona football is unquestionably about defense.
So when the defense beat the offense in the first two scrimmages this spring, it didn't really surprise anyone. In fact, one question quickly began to circulate: Is the defense really that good, or is the offense really that bad?
During Saturday's Spring Game - which was won, 29-20, by the offense - an answer to that question emerged.
Make no mistake about it, 2006's defense will be better than any seen on this campus in the past 10 years, but talentwise, the offense is with them stride-for-stride. Its main stumbling block is consistency.
"Offensively, there's still some kinks we have to work out," said head coach Mike Stoops. "We have to keep getting better, more consistent offensively.
"We've shown signs, and we tried a lot of things this spring offensively," he added. "We'll have to narrow some things up to get a little better execution."
Take Saturday's opening drive. It took freshman quarterback Willie Tuitama and his offense nine plays to march 75 yards for a touchdown. But it took them another six drives to even sniff the end zone again, when Tuitama hit the second "T" in the TNT connection - otherwise known as freshman wideout Mike Thomas - for a 30-yard strike after shaking a persistent defensive line.
"We've got some great players out here," Tuitama said. "All we got to do is go out and execute."
The gap in consistency stems from the fact that the talent on the defensive side of the ball is more seasoned.
Sophomore cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot haven't missed a snap in their respective careers, and the much-hyped linebacking trio of Dane Krogstad, Spencer Larson and Ronnie Palmer has a combined eight years of experience with the team. Offensively, all of the pieces are relatively new. Gone is senior running back Mike Bell. He will be replaced by a combination of the following: Junior Chris Henry (who has 311 yards in his career), redshirt freshmen Xavier Smith and Terry Longbons, and true freshman Derke Robinson.
There's no question that Tuitama gives his team confidence - and bruises to the ribcages of his receivers - but despite his standing as a will-be sophomore with game experience, realistically, the Stockton, Calif., native has only appeared in five games. He's still learning.
"I'm just going to go over the whole spring ... with (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike) Canales and the other quarterbacks," he said after the game, "and really evaluate ourselves and see what we need to work on, and we'll get better."
And then there's Thomas, who appeared in all 11 games last year as a freshman. This means that as a sophomore, he'll be arguably the most experienced offensive weapon on the team outside of senior wideout Syndric Steptoe.
With experience comes swagger. The offense needs swagger. Swagger like Cason has when he's in Tuitama's ear every play in practice.
Swagger like he displayed after ending the Spring Game with an interception, returning it 35 yards.
"Who cares what happened the rest of the scrimmage?" Cason said with confidence and a smile from the field. "It put the defense on top."
With spring practice officially wrapped, there won't be full team workouts supervised by coaches again until August, but the team won't get to enjoy too much of a breather.
"If things go well throughout the summer according to plan," Stoops said, "we'll have 100 percent participation August 3rd."
Which is exactly why Mike Stoops has a recipe for success.
It's painted inside McKale Center's weight room: "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."
So what happens if the talent works hard? Both sides of the ball can't wait to find out.
(C) 2006 Arizona Daily Wildcat via CSTV U-WIRE