The Arizona Wildcats' projected starters are, their coach admits, "an interesting group" - and certainly a bit different from the one he envisioned a few months ago.
Nonetheless, Mike Stoops said he's happy with the mix of veterans and newcomers who will take the field for him Saturday night against Northern Arizona. Though the Wildcats will open the 2011 season without a handful of injured players and with question marks on both the offensive and defensive lines, Stoops believes they have enough talent to surprise many of those who have dismissed their chances of making a fourth straight bowl game.
"We've improved in the last month in all aspects and we have a long way to go. But that's what the journey's all about; seeing how much you can progress," Stoops said Monday in his first weekly news conference of the season. "I think this is a team that is one that will get better consistently because we're relatively young in some areas and have a lot of experience in other areas. …
"There's a bit of inexperience, but we have experience in critical areas of our team. … How much we have to use that youth will be determined."
Arizona's first depth chart of the season, released Monday, definitely skews young. Of the 24 players (13 on offense, 11 on defense) listed, eight are underclassmen. True freshman Rob Hankins is listed as the team's starting middle linebacker, while redshirt freshmen Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele will start at the offensive tackle spots. Left guard Chris Putton, defensive tackles Justin Washington and Sione Tuihalamaka, safety Marquis Flowers and cornerback Shaquille Richardson are all sophomores.
Fortunately, those Wildcats with the biggest workloads - notably quarterback Nick Foles, wide receiver Juron Criner, tailback Keola Antolin, linebacker Paul Vassallo and cornerback Trevin Wade - all have the benefit of experience. They're all seniors.
Together, it makes for an odd - and, Stoops says, good - mix.
"The youth movement is a little bit more than we would like, but that's just because of the rash of injuries," he said. "We'll have to rely more on our depth than we have in the past."
Injuries could help CDO grad Carey
Backup tailback Daniel Jenkins is questionable to play Saturday because of a sprained ankle, an injury that could lead to more carries for freshman Ka'Deem Carey.
Carey, a former Canyon del Oro High School star, will open his college career fourth on the depth chart at running back and third as a kickoff returner. Still, Stoops said Carey "is a guy who can help us become a better football team." He has been receiving more snaps in practice over the last two weeks.
"He can run the ball, but there are certain things that exist beyond being able to run the football. He works hard in all those areas," Stoops said. "I like his attitude and his demeanor. He's a gamer. We have to get ready for him to play."
Jenkins is one of a half-dozen Wildcats who are expected to miss Saturday's game. Safety Adam Hall, linebacker Jake Fischer and defensive tackle Willie Mobley will miss the next month with knee injuries, while cornerback Jonathan McKnight likely won't play again this season with a torn ACL. Backup quarterback Bryson Beirne tested his sprained knee in practice Monday; it's unknown when he'll return.
The way center Kyle Quinn sees it, there's only one problem with Arizona Stadium's new $7 million video board.
"It's going to be hard to deny a holding penalty from now on," he said with a chuckle. "It's going to be really clear if it is or not."
Quinn and his UA teammates will get their first view of the new scoreboard during Saturday's opener. Construction crews worked throughout the summer to install the 55-foot-tall, 112-foot-wide board on the south side of the stadium. The screen will span two previously-existing towers and be held in place by six columns weighing 40,000 pounds each.
The board is believed to be the largest of its kind in the West.
"I think it's awesome," Stoops said. "Hopefully, we can light it up."
• What: NAU at Arizona
• Where: Arizona Stadium
• When: 7 p.m. Saturday
• TV: FSAZ, Ch 58
Arizona Wildcats football countdown
4 Days until Saturday's season opener against Northern Arizona
18 Days until Arizona's Pac-12 Conference opener against Stanford
81 Days until Arizona visits Arizona State in Tempe