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March 18, 2011

Arizona eyes a strong finish ... finally

Rebuilding the offensive line and restocking the defensive front are top spring priorities for Arizona, but the Wildcats should spend extra time on conditioning, too.

They've got to find some way to build up stamina.

Arizona has posted three consecutive winning seasons, a feat not accomplished in Tucson since the early 1990s. But in those three seasons, the Wildcats are just 5-10 in games played after October, including last season's 0-5 collapse.

The Wildcats return QB Nick Foles, one of the country's deepest receiving corps and all three starting linebackers, so the nucleus is there for another successful run in 2011.

There are talented but untested players along the lines. What they show this spring could give an indication of whether to expect the Wildcats to be a factor in the Pac-12 race or if they're again going to be good but not quite good enough.

Here's a look at the Wildcats as they prepare to open spring drills.

In each of the past three years, Mike Stoops and Arizona have struggled after October.
Coach: Mike Stoops
Last season: 7-6 overall, 4-5 in the Pac-10. Lost 36-10 to Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
Spring dates: March 21-April 16.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (4): RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner, WR David Douglas, QB Nick Foles.
Defense (6): LB Derek Earls, LB Jake Fischer, CB Robert Golden, FS/NB Adam Hall, CB Trevin Wade, DT Justin Washington.
Special teams (1): K Alex Zendejas.
Positions of strength

The Wildcats are set at quarterback with Nick Foles, who last season ranked fifth nationally in passing, and Matt Scott, a solid backup. But the Wildcats' real strength is their receiving corps; Juron Criner heads a deep and productive group. Criner is an All-America candidate coming off an excellent 2010 campaign in which he had 82 receptions for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns. Arizona has four other receivers who had between 19 and 52 receptions a year ago. In addition, Dan Buckner, a Texas transfer who had 45 catches for the Longhorns in '09, is eligible. The Wildcats also like the potential of redshirt freshmen Tyler Salvin, Garic Wharton and Austin Hill.

Help is needed

All five starters along the offensive line have completed their eligibility, so that area, which was inconsistent in 2010, faces a major overhaul. Redshirt freshmen Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele and sophomore Eric Bender-Ramsey have drawn praise, but they have little to no playing experience. G Vaughn Dotsy previously has been a starter, but recurring injury issues have sidelined him. Arizona also has to replace both starting defensive ends and two starting safeties.

3 guys to watch

DT Aiulua Fanene: Fanene has come 5,000 miles from his native Samoa to Tucson, and has come almost as far from a progress standpoint. Last season, he redshirted and was the scout team defensive player of the year. If he continues to get better, he could be a big presence in the middle.

FS Adam Hall: He showed great promise last season with eight starts and 54 tackles. Hall (6-4/212) is a big hitter and could establish himself as a team leader this spring. In fact, with a strong spring, Hall could show he's ready to make the step from solid contributor to all-league candidate.

C Kyle Quinn: After two seasons as a backup to Colin Baxter, Quinn is ready to move into the starting lineup. He played well in the Alamo Bowl in place of Baxter, who was injured. The Wildcats are in need of solid linemen, especially at such a key position.

The pressure is on

CB Trevin Wade: He played well as a freshman in 2008 and earned all-conference acclaim as a sophomore. He had nine interceptions in his first two seasons. But last season, Wade slumped. He had one interception (which was returned for a touchdown vs. Iowa), broke up just three passes, gave up several big plays and was benched for a game. This spring, he must show the form of his sophomore season or he could lose his starting job.

The buzz

Expectations have changed in Tucson. Four years ago, a seven-win season would have been cause for celebration. But the 7-6 finish in 2010 was a major disappointment because of a five-game losing streak to close out the season. There is understandable concern about whether the Wildcats' skill-position players can be as effective with an overhauled offensive line. But the bigger worry should be bolstering the defense, which has significant holes to fill in the line and in the secondary. The Wildcats allowed an average of 36 points per game in their five-game swoon to end last season. Arizona's September schedule includes Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon -- all teams that averaged more than 40 points per game last season and all returning star quarterbacks.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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