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September 23, 2010

Q&A with GOAZCATS.com's Jason Nimrichter

In this edition of BearTerritory's recurring game week feature, GOAZCATS.com beat writer Jason Nimrichter answers some questions about the No. 14 Wildcats.

BearTerritory: How is this team different from last year's Wildcat squad?

Jason Nimrichter: The offense is more experienced and while the defense lost several players from last year's squad, the unit hasn't really struggled.

Quarterback Nick Foles looks like he has improved a lot in the offseason and it showed this past weekend, when he threw for over 300 yards against a very strong Iowa defense.

There aren't any real drastic changes though. The team appears to be more prepared for each game has more mental toughness than in 2009. Arizona blew a 20-point lead against the Hawkeyes, but pulled it off at the end. In previous years, there was a good chance the Wildcats wouldn't have pulled a game off like that.

BT: What are the biggest question marks for Arizona?

JN: On offense, the running game hasn't really gotten off to the greatest start, but has been serviceable. Arizona has relied more so on the pass this year as compared to 2009 and has been successful doing so, but eventually the running game is going to have to step up and put up better numbers than it has early on.

On the defensive side of the ball, it's the safeties. Originally, everyone thought that the linebackers would be a serious weakness for Arizona but they have come out on fire to start the season. The safeties have been a slight issue thus far though.

Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi had his way with them at times and was able to move the ball at their expense.

BT: What are this team's strengths?

JN: The strength on offense-outside of Foles-has been the receiving corps. It is a very deep and talented position and UA has shown the willingness to delve into the depth chart to keep everyone fresh. Obviously, the Wildcats like to spread the field and get everyone involved and when they are able to do that they have been very tough to stop.

On the other side of the ball there is the defensive line. All four starters have been extremely productive each game and proved their worth by holding Iowa-a squad that averaged over 200 yards per contest over the first two weeks-to only 29 yards rushing total.

BT: The Cats have the No. 3 defense in the country. Cal fans haven't heard much about the Arizona D outside of D'Aundre Reed, Ricky Elmore and Trevin Wade. Who else has been making noise on that side of the ball?

JN: Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Justin Washington has been a pleasant surprise early in the season. He won the starting job late in camp and has been very productive in his role. He took over the spot that had been held by Earl Mitchell for the previous two seasons and has collected 13 tackles (five for loss) and four sacks in the first three games.

All three linebackers have been productive as well. Junior Derek Earls has 11 tackles (3.5 behind the line), one sack, one interception and has broken up three passes playing middle linebacker. Junior Paul Vassallo is tied for the team lead in tackles with 18 and sophomore Jake Fischer has 14 tackles (3.5 for loss) and a sack.

BT: If you could define the Wildcats' style on offense, what would it be?

JN: On offense the Wildcats like to spread the ball around and create space for wide receivers to make plays with the ball in their hands. They like to mix it up quite a bit between short, medium and deep passes and aren't afraid to utilize the running backs in the passing game. They use a lot of screens and quick slants in order to get the ball in the hands of playmakers quickly.

BT: In the past, Arizona has used short passes as a de facto running game. Can Cal expect to see more of the same?

JN: Yes, but UA has been more willing to switch it up on offense quite a bit. The style is still the same, but, as Foles has gained more experience, he has gained the ability to make more throws on the field and the offensive staff has been willing to let Foles gun-sling more as his confidence grows.

BT: How has Mike Stoops evolved as a coach over the past few seasons?

JN: He has settled down a bit, although many couldn't tell that from watching this past weekend. Stoops was a coach on the verge of losing his job just a few years ago and since then he has solidified his position as Arizona head coach in a relatively short time-span.

He has also been able to get more out of his players over the past couple of years. Arizona had some pretty strong recruiting classes early in Stoops' tenure and had very little to show for it. In recent years, he has been a bit more careful with whom he recruits to play at Arizona and despite the recruiting classes not being as pretty on paper, he has developed a knack for finding diamonds in the rough year after year.

BT: What kind of passing attack can Cal expect to see from Nick Foles?

JN: Foles is one of the few quarterbacks in the nation that can make every throw on the field. He will lure defenses in with quick slants and screens and just when the defense is able to figure that out, Foles will hit the defense with a long bomb. How he approaches the game will probably depend on how Cal attacks him.

BT: How has the team responded to losing two coordinators?

JN: The team hasn't really missed a beat. Sonny Dykes established the spread offense before leaving and two of his disciples share offensive coordinator duties. Also in Dykes departure, Arizona brought in a quarterback coach (something it didn't have while Dykes was on the staff) to work with both Foles and Matt Scott, and it has already paid dividends.

The defense looks to be even better despite the departure of Mark Stoops. It's been a bit of a surprise mainly because many expect UA to struggle on defense early on, but the unit seems to be more cohesive than last year and has been extremely successful early on because of it.

BT:Any injuries of note?

JN: Fullback Taimi Tutogi is the only player ruled out with a knee sprain. Wide receiver Juron Criner is day-to-day with turf toe, but has not been ruled out as of yet. Stoops said in his weekly press conference that a few others are day-to-day but he isn't the type of coach that delivers much information regarding injuries.



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