- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2011

TUCSON, ARIZ. (AP) - Prolific quarterback Nick Foles returns for Arizona. So does his big-play partner Juron Criner.

The question is whether they will have time to operate behind a young, inexperienced offensive line. Success up front could have a lot to do with whether the Wildcats rebound from last year’s pratfall, when they started the season 7-1, then lost their last five, punctuated by a 36-10 pounding at the hands of Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.

Matters are made more difficult by a brutal early schedule. After a home opener against Northern Arizona, the Wildcats play consecutive weeks at Oklahoma State, at home against Stanford and Oregon, then at Southern California.

“We know we have to be ready to play early and play well,” said coach Mike Stoops, entering his eighth season in Tucson. “Hopefully we can hit our rhythm earlier this season. We didn’t play well at the end of the year. It’s challenging but it’s an opportunity to show what kind of football team we are.”

Stoops said the team will lean on Foles “in a lot of ways” but believes his senior quarterback is up to that challenge.

Foles is a threat to break most of the Wildcats’ passing records. As a junior, he missed two games but still completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,191 yards and 21 touchdowns. He was intercepted 10 times.

“He’s everything that we’re trying to build here,” center Kyle Quinn said. “He’s a great quarterback. He’s a great leader. He’s a great mentor. He’s helped me a lot. He helped me get ready mentally for the bowl game. Now he’s spreading that around the o-line. We’re both kind of watching everybody, making sure everybody’s doing the right thing getting ready for the season. It’s an amazing asset to have.”

Quinn, a junior, is the only player on the line with starting experience, and that was just one game _ last season’s Alamo Bowl. The tackles are redshirt freshmen Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele. The left guard is sophomore Chris Patton and the right guard junior Trace Biskin.

“I just told them they have to have the mindset of a veteran,” Foles said. “They can’t go out there and think, ‘Oh, this is my first time starting, I’m going to mess up and stuff.’ You’re going to mess up, but then they have to fix it fast, they have to grow up really, really fast, and from what I see they aren’t young guys out there. They’re a lot older than they seem and they’re playing that way.”

There was speculation that Criner might miss the season because of his concerns about his ill mother, but he was back and making big plays in the early practices, although he has declined to speak with reporters.

The 6-foot-4, 214-pound receiver caught 82 passes for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He scored in nine games, including an 85-yard TD catch against Oregon. His 12 receptions against Stanford tied for second-most in Arizona history.

“He’ll be ready,” Foles said. “He’s been looking great. He’ll be the same old Juron.”

Another senior, Keola Antolin, returns at running back as the Wildcats look to improve an inconsistent ground game.

On defense, the secondary features returners Trevin Wade at cornerback and Robert Golden at safety, along with sophomores Jonathan McKnight at cornerback and Marquis Flowers at safety.

Wade said the new players are “high intensity guys with a lot of energy.”

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