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Friday, May 12, 2006

ESPN Insider Article on Willie Tuitama

University of Arizona's Willie Tuitama is the second Samoan to lead the Wildcats at the Quarterback position, following in the footsteps of George Malauulu (89-92).

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Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Tuitama's 'it' factor excites Wildcats faithful

Pardon the breakouts of ambivalence when Arizona coach Mike Stoops raves about sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama.

Stoops doesn't want to gush. He actually wants to rein in expectations for Tuitama.

Stoops has spent the offseason listening to wide-eyed fans talk about Heisman Trophies, Rose Bowls and cancer cures. So, he's appealing for calm.

But, golly, Tuitama has potential.

Willie Tuitama
Willie Tuitama threw for 1,105 yards and nine TDs as a freshman.
Just look at Arizona football B.T and A.T -- Before Tuitama and After Tuitama.

Before Stoops took the redshirt off the young quarterback, the Wildcats were 1-5. The offense ranged between bad and terrible, averaging 19 points and 308 yards per game.

After Tuitama replaced Richard Kovalcheck in the first quarter against Oregon, the Wildcats produced eight more points and 100 more yards per game and gave away six fewer interceptions in a 2-3 finish.

Stoops shares fan expectations that Tuitama could lead the Wildcats to their first bowl game since 1998.

"Physically, there's really nothing he can't do," Stoops said.

Immediately before and after this pronouncement, though, the third-year coach hems and haws, with a "long way to go" here and "not there yet" there, punctuated by a "he's so young."

He talks about Tuitama not being comfortable challenging older players and pushing his teammates during practices. He talks about Tuitama being too humble with regard to his status on the team.

Stoops certainly doesn't want to be the one who asserts that Tuitama could become the best quarterback in Arizona history.

So, we'll unburden him of the task.

One caveat, though. Arizona has the least distinguished history at the position of any Pac-10 team.

Greatest quarterback in school history? Probably Tom Tunnicliffe, who was second-team All-Pac-10 in 1983. No Wildcats quarterback has earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors. Every other team -- other than Oregon State -- has earned that honor at least twice since the Wildcats joined the conference in 1978.

An Arizona quarterback hasn't been drafted since 1987, and that was Alfred Jenkins, whom the Washington Redskins moved to running back.

Tuitama, 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, appears ready to change that dubious legacy.

He made his first appearance against Oregon and nearly rallied the Wildcats from a 21-0 deficit. The next weekend at Oregon State, he passed for 335 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.

The capper was a 52-14 victory over then-No. 7 UCLA.

The magic did fade a bit in losses to Washington and Arizona State, but fans remain inflamed with the idea of what Tuitama could become as he gains experience.

"He was playing on instinct and raw ability last year," Stoops said. "Now, you can see him getting more in depth with his reads."

Tuitama quickly developed a rhythm with receiver Mike Thomas, also a freshman. In tandem, they have all the makings of becoming the best pass-catch combination in school history. Thomas hauled in 52 receptions for 771 yards last year.

Offensive coordinator Mike Canales said he knew Tuitama was one of the nation's most talented prep quarterbacks when Arizona signed him out of St. Mary's High School in Stockton, Calif. But when Tuitama spent the entire summer before his freshman year watching film in Tucson -- sometimes six hours a day -- and working out with the team, Canales realized the freshman was special.

Although Tuitama was still running the scout team a week before he terrorized Oregon, Canales previously had bounced the idea of burning the redshirt among the coaching staff.

Once on the field, the then-18-year-old led an 80-yard drive on his first possession.

"We always felt like he was the future," Canales said. "We saw those 'it' qualities in him."

Teammates, in fact, started calling him "Future" and "Savior."

That sort of talk makes Tuitama, as well as Stoops, uncomfortable.

But Stoops is more concerned about leadership. He wants Tuitama to take charge in the huddle and lead the offense.

If he has any criticism of his young quarterback, it is his reluctance to demand that his teammates match his intensity and concentration.

"You can't be everyone's best friend," Stoops said.

Added Canales, "He feels like he hasn't earned the right to jump into everyone's face."

He might not need to raise hell much. With 22 players returning who posted at least four starts in 2005, this is an experienced team.

Stoops, like his players and fans, is thinking bowl game. He also knows that Tuitama looks like the sort of talent who can make it happen.

He just doesn't want to start a feeding frenzy.

"Willie is just finding his way," Stoops insisted.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.


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