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the Gekko Files: previewing Arizona Wildcats football in 2018

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A Heisman QB, a rising defense and a new coach have Wildcat fans thinking big.

Texas A&M v LSU Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Arizona is not your typical rebuild situation.

In fact, if you are sitting in the position of new Wildcat head coach Kevin Sumlin, you have to like what you’ve inherited. Before he was caught up in the #MeToo movement and dismissed from Arizona following allegations of sexual harassment on the job, former UA coach Rich Rodriguez was two years into an overhaul that had seen him appoint some new young stars to his offense and a complete gaggle of new playmakers at every level of his defense.

Sumlin’s challenge isn’t so much to redo whatever it is that RichRod was working on but to take the existing foundation to the next level. To do so, he’s built a brain trust that includes former UCLA OC Noel Mazzone and RichRod’s DC from a year ago, Marcel Yates. Together, they’ll try to harness the power of a Heisman candidate QB, a wealth of offensive playmakers, and a growing group of young defenders to make a push for the PAC 12 South championship.

Time to open the Gekko File on the Arizona Wildcats.

Arizona’s Offense

Arizona Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Heisman candidate QB pass blocking QB Khalil Tate WR Drew Dixon (RFr)
short-passing game outside receiving RB JJ Taylor QB Kevin Doyle (TFr)
running game options LT Layth Freikh

Khalil Tate burst onto the scene last season after not even winning the starting job to begin it. He went on to have a Heisman-lite campaign: nearly 1500 yards rushing, nearly 1600 yards passing, 29 total TDs, 62% completion rate, over 10 yards per carry. Those are pretty remarkable stats and don’t even begin to describe the kinds of big plays that he generated. His efforts singlehandedly won at least two games for the Wildcats - at Colorado and at Cal.

But Tate won’t benefit from the same element of surprise that he did in 2017. Noel Mazzone, Arizona’s well-traveled new offensive coordinator, will likely compensate by putting Tate into the kind of field-stretching, RPO-based, short-passing attack that he became known for at UCLA. This offensive philosophy will take advantage of Tate’s reliable short-distance accuracy and his versatility, but it will limit his explosive play potential with his big arm. Nevertheless, Tate is the straw that stirs the Arizona drink. He’s a bona fide stud who will be all over highlight clips all season and who will make Arizona an upset threat in any big game this season.

Arizona v Arizona State
It’s the Khalil Tate show in Tucson.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If Tate is where the conversation about the Wildcat offense begins, it certainly ends with a look at their questionable offensive line. Senior Layth Friekh returns as the unit’s top starter. He’s a solid left tackle who is technically very sound but who is not very strong or athletic compared to the best in the PAC. The only other returning starter, C Nathan Eldridge, is experienced but has been injured. Husky fans will recognize the name of Michael Eletise as an up-and-coming interior lineman who will get a clear opportunity to start.

Pass blocking is the bugaboo for this line and one that figures to persist well into the season. If Tate and his big arm are given some time to throw, the Wildcats do have some receiving weapons to work with. They feature three slot-style guys - senior Shun Brown, senior Tony Ellison and redshirt freshman Stanley Berryhill - who look like they will make up a terrific rotation in Mazzone’s quick-hit passing attack. The key to this unit is senior outside receiver Shawn Poindexter as, until now, he’s not been the big play guy that Arizona fans had hoped he’d become given his dimensions (6’5”, 215). Arizona doesn’t have another guy with his upside ready to break out although some eyes are being cast at the potential of sophomore Brian Casteel (6’1”, 210).

The rushing attack looks solid for Arizona despite the moving on of Nick Wilson and Zach Green from last year’s rotation. J.J. Taylor is back and is the clear starter. The diminutive back has big-play potential as Husky fans well know. His challenge is staying healthy.

His backups look like they will be sophomore Nathan Tilford - a bigger power back who has starter potential but who is struggling grasping the offense - and former safety Anthony Marsical, a home-run hitter who lacks experience but tantalizes with his athleticism.

Truthfully, I do wonder how much of an impact Arizona’s running backs will have. While minimizing Tate’s hits during the regular season would seem to be good strategy, having him carry any fewer than half of Arizona’s rushes seems like it would result in missed explosive plays. Arizona’s top three backs a year ago ran the ball 2x more than Tate did but only generated less than 300 extra yards in rushing. Given that they share the backfield with Tate and that we know Mazzone loves the lateral passing game as an extension of his rushing attack, I don’t actually expect much from Arizona running backs this year.

Arizona’s Defense

Arizona Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
inside linebacking play big play prevention S Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles DL Mykee Irving (TFr)
DL depth third down defense LB Tony Fields DL PJ Johnson (Txfr)
blitzing schemes defensive size LB Colin Schooler

There is good news and bad news with the Arizona defense. On the plus side, the defense returns a ton of players from last year’s exceptionally young squad. The bad news is that it is still a relatively young squad.

Arizona v USC
Colin Schooler is one half of an excellent inside linebacking unit.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

What to do?

If there is hope for this defense, it is in the defensive back seven where several young players - many of whom suffered severe growing pains a year ago - have a chance to take a significant step forward.

I’m particularly interested in the linebacking corps that Arizona is cultivating. Sophomore Tony Fields was, to me, one of the true breakout players in the PAC last season. He’s a tackling machine, having registered 104 tackles (fifth in the PAC) as a true freshman. His partner in crime is Colin Schooler. The undersized sophomore won the P12 Freshman DPOY award in 2017 after demonstrating his flexibility in both pass coverage (2 INT, 3 passes defended) and as a pass rusher (4 sacks).

The rest of the linebacking corps is TBD. Nobody on the unit is bigger than Schooler at 225 lbs. It is a unit built around speed with guys like Anthony Pandy (220 lbs) and Jacob Colacion (215 lbs) being counted on to deliver meaningful reps.

Arizona will cover their thin but talented linebacking unit with a lot of nickel and dime packages. Demetris Flanagan-Fowles is back as a roving safety and is one of only three seniors (along with CB Jace Whitaker and DT Dereck Boles) that I expect will play a meaningful role on the Wildcat defense in 2018. Sophomore playmaker Lorenzo Burns also returns to his CB position after having his own breakout campaign as a true freshman (70 tackles, 7 PBUs, 5 INTs, 1 sack).

There is emerging talent all across the secondary despite the apparent loss of young safety Scotty Young, Jr. to an indefinite suspension. But, again, not a lot of size. Arizona will struggle against teams that can get them behind the sticks defensively and then convert first downs with big receivers or with the lateral passing game.

On the defensive line, Arizona’s race to build up some size and depth may finally be starting to pay off. Veteran Dereck Boles will anchor the middle. He’s an undersized NG type who will mix it up, but hasn’t shown much of an aptitude for generating push. He’ll get some support in the interior from the rising Kurtis Brown (285 lbs), unproven Flinton Connelly (275 lbs), juco transfer P.J. Johnson (6’5” 315) and true freshman Mykee Irving (300 lbs). There are some bodies to work with here (keep an eye on Johnson). But until this unit gels, expect Arizona to really struggle with controlling opposing rushing attacks.

The pass rush is also a situation that Arizona might see some upside with in 2018. Sophomore Kylan Wilborn is an emerging playmaker who led the team with 7.5 sacks a year ago. I expect that he’ll be a featured player for Kevin Sumlin’s young defense. Jalen Harris and Justin Belknap are a couple of younger players who will play a ton but who haven’t yet really contributed. This is a big focus area for Yates as he works to lessen Arizona’s reliance on exotic blitz packages in creating QB pressure.

One Breakout Player

DE Jalen Harris

Sophomore Jalen Harris is a pass rusher in the mold of former UW star Travis Feeney. He has great length (6’4”), stud athleticism, and a big motor. But he played last year at 215 lbs and was clearly a liability when not in a pure pass rush situation. Reports are that he has added about 15 pounds of muscle to his frame and is ready to partner with Kylan Wilborn on a higher percentage of snaps.

Harris had a huge spring and definitely caught the attention of coaches and onlookers alike. If he can harness his weight gain into more snaps, he’ll definitely have a chance to be Arizona’s breakout player of 2018.

Projecting the Wildcats

The Wildcats are a borderline top 25 team on paper right now. They’ve got an offense that I expect will be supercharged with the arrival of Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone. While I expect that offensive line to be a problem for them, it is hard to not like what the Wildcats bring to the table with Khalil Tate and the weapons in his air attack.

Defensively, the Wildcats should be a 50th percentile kind of team. They do have some bright young playmakers and they have bodies to work with. I do expect that this team will make a lot of mistakes and get burned for a lot of big plays. I also think that they will struggle with bigger teams who can move the ball more consistently with the rushing attack. Their challenge isn’t to be an elite defense but to be one that can keep their opponent under 30. That’s certainly achievable for this unit.

Arizona will also benefit from, in my opinion, the most attractive schedule in the PAC. Their out-of-conference is challenging but manageable with BYU, at Houston, and Southern Utah on the slate. Their in-conference schedule features five home games and misses against Washington and Stanford (not too shabby). In addition, they play three out of their last four at home in what I predict will be a competitive conclusion to the PAC 12 South race.

I do think that Arizona could end up being a surprise contender for the PAC 12 South in 2018. There are at least six wins on the conference schedule out there for them. Bag those and pull off an upset against USC or Utah and...hey, you never know.