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Catching up with ... Arizona OC Sonny Dykes

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

It's not that hard to quantify the difference Sonny Dykes made in one year as Arizona's offensive coordinator.

  • Before Dykes in 2006: Arizona's offense averaged 252.8 yards and 16.6 points per game.

  • After Dykes in 2007: Arizona's offense averaged 308.5 yards and 28 points per game.

And in 2008, Dykes has 10 starters back, including quarterback Willie Tuitama.

"Believe it or not, we're still really young. I think we're only going to play with three seniors," he said.

Of course, big statistics don't always mean wins, and the latter are more important in 2008, with head coach Mike Stoops' job hanging in the balance.

With a young defense that welcomes back only three starters, the conventional wisdom is the Wildcats are going to win some high-scoring barnburners to earn an elusive bowl berth.

So we checked with Dykes to see if he was lighting his torches.

Let's look back first: What is your assessment of last year? What went well and what was disappointing?

Sonny Dykes: I liked our attitude. I liked the way we worked. We still struggled with consistency issues -- we were good some games, not very good others. But I was happy that we improved. We were horrible early. Then we got better and hit our stride about three quarters of the way through the season and started playing a lot better. Part of it was just figuring out who our players were. We were playing with a true freshman tailback and a true freshman tight end and just getting those guys in the game and taught what to do. That certainly helped us because those guys made a lot of plays. The thing that was disappointing to me was an inability to put people away. A lot of times we had chances to pull away from people and we weren't able to do it. And any time you're in a new system, you always struggle on third down and in the red zone. In those situations, we didn't play very well.

It's almost a cliché, but lots of folks talk about big improvement from Year 1 to Year 2: Do you subscribe to that? Should this offense mature a lot?

SD: I think so. And Year 2 to Year 3 would be a big change as well. I think the guys get comfortable and you don't just teach them what to do, you teach them how to do it. You spend most of the first year just trying to get them in the right place at the right time. Now you get to teach them the nuances that really make the thing work. We're still learning those. We're not there by any stretch, but it seems like we're starting to play a little more consistently.

When you have 10 starters back, do you start camp believing you're three or four steps ahead?

SD: Yeah, that's where we are. We're trying to refine things, trying to get good at some things. We're trying to find something to hang our hat on. Last year, we were just trying to play with a mixed bag of tricks. This year, I think we're starting to find four or five different things we can hang our hats on in critical situations -- third down and in the red zone. But when you have 10 starters back, even though we were just an average offensive football team, at best, you have to guard against the 'hey, we've got it all figures out' syndrome the 'hey, coach we've got it all figured out don't worry about us.' You have to guard against that sometimes when you have a lot of guys back. But our players hopefully realize we were just an average offense last year and we've got a lot to prove.

Obviously you're not going to open your playbook for me, but in general, how are you going to tweak the system this year?

SD: We've got some players we can build some things around this year. Last year, we were trying to make the players fit the system. Now we can make the system fit the players. When you can do that it really makes a difference. We've got a tight end [Rob Gronkowski] who's a really good weapon so we've got to be creative and figure out ways to get him the ball. I think he's got a chance to be a special player. The same thing goes with our quarterback [Willie Tuitama]. He knows what he likes and what he's comfortable with. It's critical that when you call a play, the quarterback feels comfortable with that play. I think Willie is starting to get to the point where he's got four or five plays he really likes.

You mention Willie: He had a pretty good season in 2007. What does he need to do to get better this year?

SD: Everything is happening faster for him. You could see it in the spring. His decision-making is faster, he gets rid of the ball faster. And what that does is give those receivers an opportunity to catch it and do something with it. We've got some guys who can catch the ball and make plays and they're getting it a little sooner so they can square a defender up and make him miss. And Willie is just more comfortable with the people, more on the same page with his receivers. Those guys did a good job working over the summer. You can tell they put some time in to get their timing squared away. With Willie, it's really going to be about leadership. He's got to be a better leader than he was last year. He was a guy when things were going good, he was pretty good and when things were bad, he was pretty bad. He's got to be a steadying influence for our offense and really our football team. I think that's a step we need to take offensively -- being steadier and being able to put our foot on the accelerator when things are going well and being able to right the ship when things aren't.

You also mentioned Gronkowski: Is he a guy who can catch 50 or 60 passes for you this year?

SD: I'd think he'd catch a lot more than that. He's just really versatile. Last year, he just played on sheer natural ability. He had no idea what he was doing. This year, he's really starting to learn the nuances of the passing game. He's a weapon.

When you first arrived [spring of 2007], you admitted that your offense lacked depth at receiver. How has that improved?

SD: We feel good about our depth, really. We've got some young guys we're trying to get on the same level as our old guys, but I think we've got enough depth to be able to do what we want to do. I don't see any problems with that as long as we stay healthy. It's critical for us to stay healthy.

How much do you need a running game with this offense?

SD: If you go back and look at us at Kentucky and Texas Tech, when we ran the ball well, we had success. It really happens in a reverse order in this offense. You get really good at throwing it, and people have to defend your passing game with two safeties and they have to widen their linebackers out to beat on your crossers and hit your verticals and those things. What that does is open up a running game. But for us, we never got good enough at throwing the ball last year where we forced people to play us with two safeties and really defend the whole field. But when that happens, the running game really becomes easy. We're not going to pound the ball. But when we run it we want to be efficient running it. We'd like to average close to five yards every time we run it. That makes the defense play you more honestly.

The going theory is you guys are going to have to outscore people this year because the defense is really young. You've been playing against them in practice; how do you think the defense is going to be this year?

SD: I think we're going to be better than we were last year. I really do. There just seems to be a different vibe on our football team. We've got good players and they're hungry. What happens sometimes wh
en a coach takes over like Mike did is there are established starters. But sometimes the young guys you bring in are better players. What ends up happening is the backup might be a better player, he just hasn't had a chance to do it yet. We've got better depth on the defensive line. Our defensive ends are playing hard. I like the guys in the secondary-those two safeties are good. Cornerback Marquis Hundley has had an exceptional camp so far. I think the defense is going to play better as a unit than the guys last year.

If you guys get things turned around and you score a bunch of points, you're going to start getting some buzz for head coaching positions in the future. What are your thoughts on how quickly you want that to happen?

SD: Seeing what Coach Stoops has been through here? I felt like when we played Oklahoma [where Mike Stoops was the defensive coordinator] when I was at Texas Tech that was the best-coached defense I'd ever been around. When Mike Stoops came to Arizona, I was one of the guys who thought this would be easy, that he'd get this thing going in a couple of years. But just being around him and seeing what he's gone through, it makes you think, Wow, there's a lot to being a head football coach. Sometimes it's refreshing to just worry about 11 guys instead of [85] guys. And for us, really, that's putting the cart before the horse a little. We've got a lot of things we have to do here. Obviously, that's something you'd like to do at some point in your career - have a chance to run your own program. And you better go to the right place and be selective and not just be in a big hurry to get any job. And what I like about this place is it's the best place I've ever lived and I think you can win a national championship here. There's a lot of potential in this football program and I'd like to see where it takes us.