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Friday, October 10, 2008

Changing of the guard

Kahuku grad Kaniela Tuipulotu leads a revamped Arizona D-line

Take a look at the top of the Pac-10 conference football standings.

Expecting to see Southern California or maybe Oregon? How about Arizona State, or even Oregon State?

Kaniela Tuipulotu

» School: Arizona
» Class: Sophomore
» Height: 6-2
» Weight: 280
» Position: Defensive tackle
» High school: Kahuku '07
» Fun fact: Cousin of former
Arizona basketball player
and current Los Angeles
Lakers star Luke Walton.

Every one of those schools has lost a conference game this season, leaving Arizona as one of the last two undefeated teams in the Pac-10.

Yes, THE Arizona Wildcats, who haven't been involved in postseason play since the 1998 Holiday Bowl. It's a program that has a 16-42 league record in the last seven seasons. It's a team whose coach, Mike Stoops, entered 2008 on a seat hotter than the Arizona desert that surrounds the campus in Tucson.

"People didn't give us a chance this year," sophomore Kaniela Tuipulotu said.

Arizona's rival in Tempe, the Arizona State Sun Devils, got most of the attention as the team to challenge USC. But it's the Wildcats who have staked their claim as possibly the toughest challenger to dethrone the six-time defending league champions by starting the year 4-1.

Everybody knew the offense, led by quarterback Willie Tuitama and wide receiver Mike Thomas, would put up big numbers again this season, but the reason behind Arizona's success has been the stunning turnaround defensively.

It begins up front with a revamped defensive line led by Tuipulotu. The 6-foot-2, 280-pound tackle already earned a starting spot in his second year in the program.

As a highly-touted recruit out of Kahuku, Tuipulotu had opportunities to play at Utah and Oregon State, and be surrounded by lots of home-grown players. Instead, he chose the path that got him on the field the fastest.

"I saw myself being able to get on the field early," Tuipulotu said. "The situation on the depth chart at my position was very low, so I just made the decision (to go to Arizona) and it worked out for me."

The starting defensive line for the Wildcats features three sophomores and a junior, but hasn't stopped Arizona from being second in the nation in total defense. The Wildcats are allowing a paltry 226.2 yards per game and have only given up six touchdowns.

It's a quite a turnaround from last year's squad that surrendered more than 370 yards and nearly four touchdowns a game.

"It's just a whole new team on defense this year," Tuipulotu said. "The offense has a couple of years of the new system under their belt, but the whole defense is new. We have a lot of doubters. People didn't give us much of a chance this year, but it's working out so far."

It's easy to pile on a team that hasn't had any level of success since the turn of the century. Stoops took over the program five years ago and was expected to bring the same level of improvement his brother, Bob, brought to Oklahoma.

The Wildcats have yet to post a winning season under Stoops, but started to turn the corner toward the end of last season, shocking No. 2 Oregon at home late in the year.

"It's just more commitment I feel this year than before," Tuipulotu said. "We're a little more tuned in to what we want as a whole team and not individually."

Tuipulotu is part of an increased local presence on the football team that started with Mid-Pacific graduate Brandyn McCall, who graduated last season. Sophomore Lolomana Mikaele (Damien '06) started a game last year, but is currently serving an unspecified suspension.

Quarterback Bryson Beirne (Mid-Pacific '07) is on the roster and Solomon Koehler (Castle '08) is expected to redshirt.

Former California defensive end Scott Smith (Saint Louis '07) transferred in the offseason and is sitting out a year per NCAA rules, bringing the total to five local players on the Arizona roster.


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