TUCSON, Ariz. – Prolific quarterback Nick Foles returns for Arizona. So does his big-play partner Juron Criner.
The question is whether they will have time to operate behind a young, inexperienced offensive line. Success up front could have a lot to do with whether the Wildcats rebound from last year's pratfall, when they started the season 7-1, then lost their last five, punctuated by a 36-10 pounding at the hands of Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
Matters are made more difficult by a brutal early schedule. After a home opener against Northern Arizona, the Wildcats play consecutive weeks at Oklahoma State, at home against Stanford and Oregon, then at Southern California.
"We know we have to be ready to play early and play well," said coach Mike Stoops, entering his eighth season in Tucson. "Hopefully we can hit our rhythm earlier this season. We didn't play well at the end of the year. It's challenging but it's an opportunity to show what kind of football team we are."
Stoops said the team will lean on Foles "in a lot of ways" but believes his senior quarterback is up to that challenge.
Foles is a threat to break most of the Wildcats' passing records. As a junior, he missed two games but still completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,191 yards and 21 touchdowns. He was intercepted 10 times.
"He's everything that we're trying to build here," center Kyle Quinn said. "He's a great quarterback. He's a great leader. He's a great mentor. He's helped me a lot. He helped me get ready mentally for the bowl game. Now he's spreading that around the o-line. We're both kind of watching everybody, making sure everybody's doing the right thing getting ready for the season. It's an amazing asset to have."
Quinn, a junior, is the only player on the line with starting experience, and that was just one game — last season's Alamo Bowl. The tackles are redshirt freshmen Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele. The left guard is sophomore Chris Patton and the right guard junior Trace Biskin.
"I just told them they have to have the mindset of a veteran," Foles said. "They can't go out there and think, 'Oh, this is my first time starting, I'm going to mess up and stuff.' You're going to mess up, but then they have to fix it fast, they have to grow up really, really fast, and from what I see they aren't young guys out there. They're a lot older than they seem and they're playing that way."
There was speculation that Criner might miss the season because of his concerns about his ill mother, but he was back and making big plays in the early practices, although he has declined to speak with reporters.
The 6-foot-4, 214-pound receiver caught 82 passes for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He scored in nine games, including an 85-yard TD catch against Oregon. His 12 receptions against Stanford tied for second-most in Arizona history.
"He'll be ready," Foles said. "He's been looking great. He'll be the same old Juron."
Another senior, Keola Antolin, returns at running back as the Wildcats look to improve an inconsistent ground game.
On defense, the secondary features returners Trevin Wade at cornerback and Robert Golden at safety, along with sophomores Jonathan McKnight at cornerback and Marquis Flowers at safety.
Wade said the new players are "high intensity guys with a lot of energy."
"We've just got to teach them how to keep that energy throughout the whole camp and the entire season," he said.
Junior college transfer David Lopez joins returning senior starters Paul Vassallo and David Earls at linebacker. Vassallo led the team in tackles with 102 last season, 77 of them solo. Up front is a mix with sophomores Justin Washington and Sione Tuihalamaka inside and seniors C.J. Parish and Muhammed Usman at the ends. Parish missed all but two games last season because of a concussion. Washington started nine games as a redshirt freshman and Tuihalamaka had three starts.
"We're trying to establish a fly-around, knock 'em out kind of defense," Vassallo said, "and just try to create more turnovers this year. One thing that we didn't do last year was take advantage of our opportunities. We have to be better at that this year."
It took a while, but Stoops has built a winning program. The team went 8-5, 8-5 and 7-6 the last three seasons. The Wildcats haven't, however, been able to make the leap into the elite teams at the top of what now is the Pac-12.
"We've got to understand we're a play away from winning three different games and winning 10 games last year," he said, "so the other losses came to top-10 quality teams and we played well for periods of time. I just think it's a consistency thing, it's an attitude that we're not satisfied where we're at as a program, seven or eight wins. We want to get past that, and that's where we've got to get to as a team."