Arizona pigskin previews; what to watch for

Arizona Sports News online

The football season is almost here and not a second too soon.

With the Cardinals opening camp Tuesday and Arizona State University and  University of Arizona off to Los Angeles for Pac-12 Media Day the same afternoon, the summer days are slipping away, even if the scorching temperatures aren’t.

Here’s a look at some story lines to keep your eyes on from each of the Arizona teams as we ramp up towards the fall.

ARIZONA CARDINALS: After an unsuccessful courtship of Peyton Manning, the quarterback battle between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton will be at the top of nearly headline in Flagstaff, but there are other things to watch as the pre-season plays out.

One is the health of Beanie Wells who if (and that’s a big if) can stay on the field has the ability to put up big numbers and get into the end zone (1,047 yards, 10 touchdowns in 14 games in 2011). I’ll be curious to see how second-year back Ryan Williams bounces back after missing his entire rookie year due to a ruptured patella tendon.

Larry Fitzgerald pushed for Notre Dame Michael Floyd and Fitz got his wish when the Cards snagged him with the 13th pick back in April. Fitzgerald seemed to take issue with Floyd missing some of his off-season workouts in Minnesota, but later complemented him on his work ethic since becoming a Cardinal. Ken Whisenhunt is looking for a receiver who can take some of the pressure off Fitzgerald who is at the top of every defensive coordinators scheme.

On the defensive side of the ball, defensive tackle and former first-round pick Dan Williams has trimmed down and impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic this summer. His maturation on the field, would create depth and help stop the run (Arizona was 21st in the NFL last season).

ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS: Like their neighbors the Cardinals, ASU has a quarterback controversy of their own. First-year coach Todd Graham has to choose between incumbent sophomores Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank, who Graham recruited when he was coaching Pitt. He told Pros2Preps last month the coaching staff has a pretty good idea who the starter would be, but wanted to see how things play out at camp.

Whoever is the starter, they’ll have to get used to a new crop of receivers after Gerell Robinson (77 catches, 1,397 yards, seven touchdowns last season) and other big plays threats are no longer available. ASU is hoping Rashad Ross and versatile Jamal Miles can handle bigger roles in the offense.

Defensively, the Sun Devils will happily trade the erratic production of departed linebacker Vontaze Burfict for his high school teammate, senior Brandon Magee who returns after missing all of 2011 from a ruptured Achilles tendon. The bigger concern is how to replace starters Colin Parker, Shelly Lyons and Oliver Aaron who were all big contributors last year. Overall, ASU loses seven defensive starters.

ARIZONA WILDCATS: New head coach Rich Rodriguez has people in Tucson re-energized for Wildcats football, but much of UofA’s season rests on the right arm of fifth-year senior Matt Scott who takes over for the most prolific quarterback in school history Nick Foles, who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. The athletic Scott should find success in Rich Rod’s speed-option offense.

Tucson native, sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey is expected to shoulder much of the load out of the backfield with Daniel Jenkins and fullback Greg Nwoko providing depth. There are questions on the offensive line where starting tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele had troubled off-seasons. Baucus had back surgery and Ebbele was arrested in a domestic violence dispute. Neither participated in spring ball and their status is unknown.

The schedule is much more manageable in 2012 with Oklahoma State, USC and ASU all making the trip to the Old Pueblo.

NAU LUMBERJACKS:  14-year head coach Jerome Sauers believes this could be a bounce back year for the ‘Jacks after going 4-7 in 2011. Who can argue with 15 returning starters, including quarterback Cary Grossart and former Hamilton High running back Zack Bauman who rushed for nearly 1,500 years and 15 touchdowns last season. Bauman, a Big Sky pre-season awards candidate, has also been named to the Walter Payton Award watch list given annually to the most outstanding offensive player in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision.

Senior safety Taylor Patton and former Desert Vista High speedster Anders Battle will help anchor a defense which allowed 19 touchdowns through the air last season.

NAU opens with three of their first four on the road against ASU, UNLV and Big Sky power Montana. They close with conference home games versus Southern Utah and Cal Poly.


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