Candy cane

Arizona returned to using white helmets toward the end of the Stoops era, and often paired the lid with white pants. Arizona's Richard Morrison scored on a 63-yard punt return wearing the old-school look.


The Arizona Wildcats will open spring drills today boasting the Pac-12's best returning quarterback and two wide receivers, Juron Criner and Dan Buckner, who appear destined for the NFL.

Those are, as they say in football parlance, good problems to have.

But the UA has some very real issues.

The Wildcats lost their final five games in 2010, including a 36-10 bludgeoning by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. Top defenders Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore left the team to pursue pro careers. Coach Mike Stoops hired a big-name assistant, Duane Akina, only to watch him return a month later to Texas.

So, yes, there are questions. Here are four that will require answers before the April 16 spring game:

• Who's going to block? The Wildcats will open spring drills with five new offensive linemen, and their task is huge - replace a unit that was the team's strength for the last two seasons. Kyle Quinn is penciled in at center, replacing Colin Baxter, but the rest of the jobs are up for grabs.

Mickey Baucus, Fabbians Ebbelle, Trent Spurgeon and Shane Zink will compete for the two open tackle spots. The guard spots will come down to Chris Putton, Carter Lees, Trace Biskin, Jake Baratz and Eric Bender-Ramsay.

"Our first priority is going to be coordination with the offensive line - getting those guys a lot of experience and repetition, getting a cohesive offensive line and trying to simplify and condense our offense," Stoops said.

• How fast is Garic Wharton, and can he save the UA's special teams? Coaches are excited to see what Wharton, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, can bring to the table after redshirting last fall as a true freshman. Wharton was named the Las Vegas Review-Journal's 4A track athlete of the year as a high school sophomore in 2008; a year later, he set the state record by running the 100 meters in 10.39 seconds.

Wharton will get the first crack at returning punts and kickoffs, a key to Arizona's special teams overhaul. The UA also will break in a new punter, junior college transfer Kyle Dugandzic, during the spring.

"Games are becoming closer and closer and, with parity, special teams become key elements," Stoops said. "We fell off considerably a year ago, and that's why the emergence of a guy like Garic Wharton can be key for us. He's a guy who has tremendous speed."

• Will Matt Scott really redshirt? The backup quarterback is expected to sit out this fall, putting him in position to start as a senior in 2012.

Or so the story goes.

"That sounds great on paper," Stoops said, "but we'll have to see."

Scott was summoned to start midway through last season when Nick Foles went down with a dislocated kneecap. He led the Wildcats to wins over Washington and UCLA, then suffered season-ending wrist and shoulder injuries. Stoops said Arizona's coaches "are going to go in with the intent" of redshirting Scott this fall; Bryson Beirne would serve as the Wildcats backup, with true freshman Daxx Garman penciled in as the No. 3 quarterback.

"We'll have to balance out Matt's and Bryson's attempts this spring and make sure that if something happens to Nick, Matt is ready to play," Stoops said.

• Who is Ryan Walters, and what does he mean for Arizona's defense? Walters was hired to coach the Wildcats secondary last month after Akina left for a second stint at Texas.

At 25, Walters will be the second-youngest coach in the newly formed Pac-12. Utah assistant Brian Johnson is a year younger.

Stoops said he didn't hesitate to hire Walters, who coached the Wildcats defensive backs in the Alamo Bowl. Still, the Wildcats head coach will keep a close eye on his new assistant in spring ball.

Arizona can't afford another problem.

"I'm going to try to complement him and help him see things," Stoops said. "I wouldn't hire him if he wasn't ready."

About spring football

NCAA rules allow football teams to practice 15 times each spring to stay sharp.

The Arizona Wildcats will practice three times this week and four times in each of the next three weeks.

Their final practice, the April 16 spring game at Arizona Stadium, is free and open to the public. The rest of their workouts are closed.