Two buses carrying the 2009 Arizona football team pulled into the parking lot at Salpointe Catholic High School at 5:41a.m., Thursday, beating sunrise by a full minute.
Although unofficial, it was the UA's first victory of the season. Only two freshmen slept in and missed the bus, and all others behaved as if getting the season started RIGHT NOW was a good thing.
If morale counts, the Wildcats are rolling.
Junior tailback Nicolas Grigsby, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, said he slept a mere two hours. "In bed at 2, up at 4," he said, smiling.
Junior center Colin Baxter admitted to rising at 4:55 after about five hours sleep.
"I look forward to practice now," he said. "It's more enjoyable now that you know what's going on. When I first got to Arizona, we had a lot of (unprintables) on the team. Now you like being with the guys."
The sense of dread that permeated Arizona's football program from 2000 to 2007 has vanished.
The Top 25 pollsters and the magazine prognosticators don't like the Wildcats – "everybody's sleeping on us," said junior receiver Delashaun Dean — but it's probably more important that the Wildcats like themselves.
"We're more like a team than we've been in the past," said junior defensive end Brooks Reed. "There's more camaraderie."
Team bonding and the warm-and-fuzzies don't sell a lot of tickets in August, not when USC and ASU are missing from the home schedule, but that's missing the point. While most of the college football populace wasn't paying attention, Arizona quietly rearmed itself.
"I don't think we necessarily overwhelm you at any particular area," Mike Stoops said. "But this is a better team, overall, than we've had."
Yet, strangely, everywhere you go, nobody's talking about 'em. Sometimes, that's a good thing.
In Arizona's Pac-10 years, the anticipation of training camp has never been greater than in 1983, 1994 and 1999. All of those teams opened in the top 10 in the polls. All were equipped with winning, veteran quarterbacks. And all of them were disappointments.
The legendary teams of UA history, the 10-2 club of 1993 and the 12-1 powerhouse of 1998, had a lot in common with this Wildcat team.
The '93 Wildcats were coming off a 6-5-1 season, starting a sophomore quarterback, Dan White, who had never played a snap of college football. The '98 Wildcats, coming off a middling 7-5 season, couldn't decide (and never did) which of two quarterbacks, Ortege Jenkins or Keith Smith, should start.
The '09 Wildcats are positioned much like those of '93 and '98. Expectations are modest, but the roster, especially in players from 1 to 50, is skilled, tested and capable of exceeding last year's eight-win total.
The perceived problem is at quarterback.
The coaches, the analysts and the fans don't yet know which sophomore, Matt Scott or Nick Foles, will start at quarterback. Beyond that, they don't know if either Scott or Foles is any good.
Too many times the football audience in Tucson has bit at the suggestion that Ryan O'Hara or Kris Heavner would become a Celebrity Quarterback and rescue the franchise. So, understandably, Tucson will be slow to warm up to Scott or Foles, or even super-elusive freshman Richard Morrison, whose target date for readiness is still a year or more distant.
"We're potentially set at every position except quarterback," said Stoops.
Remember this: Arizona scored 52 touchdowns and gained 9,854 yards over the last two seasons, both runaway school records for a two-year period, and did so with a less-than-mobile quarterback, young running backs and mix-and-match offensive lines.
Imagine how productive the Wildcats may become if Scott or Foles is merely adequate.
Offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes spent part of the winter studying with Dallas Cowboys coaches. His conclusion was that there are "no magic formulas, no magic potions. It's really fairly simple: It's the quarterback understanding where the receiver is going to be and minimizing mistakes."
Dykes isn't counting on Scott or Foles to be a celebrity. Rather, he sees his quarterback as a role player who can accurately get the ball to Rob Gronkowski or Terrell Turner, and who knows when to check out of a low-percentage pass and safely hand off to Grigsby.
"We want to be a better offense than we were last year," said Dykes. "And I think we're going to be."
The preseason pollsters have not taken this into account.
At the conclusion of Thursday's practice, Scott was the last man on the bus. He was detained briefly for media interviews and was taken aback when an inquisitor asked about his battle with "Noles."
"It's Foles," Scott said quickly.
The identity of this team should soon take shape. You're going to like what you see.