Many good things have happened for Arizona football in the last year. They hired a hip new coach in Kevin Sumlin to a five year, $14.5 million contract last year. Facilities have gotten a makeover thanks in part to a $25 million renovation of Arizona Stadium. Players also have a shiny new place to practice after a $16.5 million indoor training facility was opened.
That’s all good news for a program that for years has been looking to establish themselves as a perennial bowl team and contender for conference championships. Unfortunately, the same old, same old has continued to haunt the Wildcats where it counts: on the field.
Despite bringing with him an excellent reputation for attracting talent and posting wins (91 career wins), Sumlin was unable to do much in his first year with an Arizona program that as recently as 2014 was a South Division winner and Fiesta Bowl participant. The same kinds of challenges that plagued previous head coach Rich Rodriguez in his last two years on the job reared their heads in Sumlin’s debut: poor pass defense, inconsistent ball protection, unforced errors.
Arizona fans will remind you all day long that the Wildcats are “right there”. They’ve got talent led by a former Heisman candidate quarterback and a former PAC 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. But do they have enough talent to take the next step in their journey back to relevance? Do Sumlin and his offensive partner Noel Mazzone have enough coaching chops to help that talent compete with the better teams in the conference? Are the Wildcats a legit South division contender? Are they even ready to get back to a bowl game?
There is much to unpack in Tucson this year. Let’s get to it with the Gekko Files.
If I were to hand you a quarterback and guarantee you that he would be able to at minimum throw for 26 TDs against 8 interceptions while finishing second in the PAC 12 (ahead of players like Gardner Minshew, Justin Herbert and Jake Browning) in overall efficiency rating, I would think most of you would agree that he would be a QB you could win with.
That was exactly the kind of player that embattled Arizona QB Khalil Tate was in 2018. Yet because of the standard that Tate set after taking over the full-time QB position in 2017, most of the world sees his 2018 campaign - one in which he was dealing with a lingering ankle injury while at the same time learning Mazzone’s offense - as a failure. A rapid fall off the Heisman watch list coupled with rumors about locker room disruption soured his season and left many wondering openly about whether or not his job was open for competition going into 2019.
While Arizona does have a skilled journeyman in Rhett Rodriguez and an exciting freshman in Jamarye Joiner (who might still end up at WR), Tate is still the unquestioned face of this program. At his best, he’s a playmaking machine with exceptional mobility and a powerful arm helping to overcome his somewhat short stature. But Tate is limited by his unwillingness to wait for plays to develop and what would appear to be poor decision making processes when he does decide to throw the ball. He pretty much plays as a one-read-and-run kind of QB which, if Arizona is to have success in his senior year, has to change. It’s not vital that Tate return to Heisman form, but it is critical that he step up his overall productivity.
The Arizona offensive line returns enough experience to give him a fighting chance. While the losses of Layth Friekh (graduation) and Michael Eletise (transfer) are tough to cover up, this is a unit that is improving overall. The star is sophomore Donovan Laie, a 315 lb offensive tackle who started all 12 games as a freshman on the right side. As he shifts (most likely) to the blind side, he will be joined by three other players, including the super-steady Cody Creason and former walk-on OC Josh McCauley, each of whom will provide some experience if not flash up front. Depth is still an issue for this unit as Kevin Sumlin has been forced to hit the JC ranks in order to fill out his depth chart. I wouldn’t consider the OL a strength, but there are definitely units in worse shape across the PAC.
If you really want to worry about an offensive unit, the focus needs to shift to the receiving corps. While Mazzone’s horizontal, short-passing style limits exposure for his QB and his OL, it absolutely puts the receivers in a tough position if they lack the ability to catch in space or win 1:1 battles with tacklers.
In losing Shawn Poindexter, Shun Brown and Tony Ellison, the Wildcats also lost 63% of their receptions and 80% of their TD catches from a year ago. With the simultaneous dismissal of big-play threat Devaughn Cooper (20.4 yards per catch), there are no clear go-to guys ready to take even a chunk of that production. Senior Cedric Peterson might be the best hope based on experience alone. He’s a smallish guy who overcomes his slighter stature with quickness and a good sense of the playbook.
Beyond Peterson, there are only hopes and dreams. 6’3” Tre Adams is a redshirt freshman who had a strong spring and could fill that role of big receiver. Converted QB Drew Dixon is a wildcard who has athleticism in spades. A pair of talented true freshman - Boobie Curry and Jalen Johnson - have both drawn rave reviews and expect to get playing time in 2019.
The rushing situation might be in the best shape of all the units on the offense. Of course, Tate’s presence makes the rushing attack near-lethal. Complementing Tate is junior J.J. Taylor who, by now, is a known commodity in the PAC. The 5’6” senior had another strong season in 2018 rushing for over 1400 yards and 6 TDs, Fumbles continue to be a problem (6 in 2018) but he still figures to lead Arizona rushers.
Taylor is backed up by another junior in Gary Brightwell. Much less dynamic than Taylor, Brightwell earns his success as a decisive slasher who has the size to break arm tackles and get to the second level. He ran for over 500 yads and nearly 6 yards per carry one year ago. Waiting in the wings is sophomore Nate Tilford, a former high-level recruit who has “starter” potential but who has yet to really have an impact. New RB coach Demarco Murray has made unlocking Tilford’s potential a bit of a personal mission.
The Wildcats are in a bit of a precarious position with their offense heading into 2019. Whereas it was a clear strength (they led the conference in rushing and were third in scoring), much of the success in 2019 depends on the installation of a new LT (whether that is Laie shifting over or a new player emerging), the emergence of at least two new receiving threats and a significant improvement in ball protection. If that all happens - and if Taylor and Tate stay healthy - Kevin Sumlin could well put up another top one or two kind of offense once again. But those are a lot of “ifs”.
Defensively, the Wildcats have room to grow. 2018 saw continued contributions from a small group of stars that include names like Colin Schooler, Tony Fields and Lorenzo Burns. But it also saw a team that struggled with big play prevention and pass rush despite showing up strong in rush defense.
The linebacking corps is where Arizona shows the most strength. Schooler has emerged as a true run-stuffing star who probably is among the top handful of linebackers in the entire conference. Fields is an excellent weak-side defender who probably doesn’t get enough credit for what he does well (tackling in space, chasing down backs) due to what he doesn’t do well (pass rush). Jalen Harris provides youth and potential out of the “stud” hybrid pass-rushing position that the Wildcats feature.
Many pundits will be keeping an eye on the defensive line as fall camp approaches. The interior of that line was a surprising strength for the Wildcats last year. But Derek Boles and PJ Johnson have now both moved on. Interior responsibilities will fall largely on the experience of journeyman Flinton Connolly and the shoulders of two JC transfers: Myles Tapusoa and Trevon Mason. True freshman Kane Bradford (at 270 lbs) is also being looked at as a candidate to take reps should he show readiness this fall. The same can be said for redshirt freshman Mykee Irving. This is definitely a unit in transition.
Things don’t look a whole lot better on the outside. The Wildcats had virtually no pass rush a year ago (Schooler tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks) and it isn’t clear if this line can provide one without blitz support this year. While most eyes will be trained on whether or not Harris can be that guy, there are some other candidates. Both Kylan Wilborn and JB Brown have started and played meaningful snaps. Issaiah Johnson is also a younger up and comer with some potential to break into the rotation. That said, there are no potential superstars here, especially if Harris doesn’t make a step-change function increase in his realized potential.
The secondary, on the other hand, does have a few potential superstars who Arizona desperately needs to see breakout. Burns has star potential as an outside CB. A smaller guy with good ball skills, Burns really disappointed last season by not recording any INTs out of his boundary position.
If Burns is to return to form, it will have much to do with the healthy return of Jace Whittaker. Whittaker missed most of 2018 and was granted an extra year. At his best, he is a true field general who can cover the field side and make plays against the better receivers in the conference. In 2017, he recorded 3 INTs and 13 PBUs.
The safety position is manned by a pair of veterans in Jarrius Wallace and Scottie Young, Jr. Wallace is tough against the run but a liability in pass defense. Young is better known for his off-the-field antics than his on-the-field accomplishments. But he has a high ceiling and tapped into it a little bit last year by leading the team with three INTs.
There is not a ton of depth behind the front line starters in the secondary. Just as with all of the other position groups, much of any potential success will depend upon the emergence of some young players who going into fall camp have little to no experience.
One Breakout Player
LB/DE Jalen Harris
I probably should play it safe and pick someone like Tre Adams or Nate Tilford to breakout. After all, the Wildcat defense certainly looks like a work in progress and there really isn’t very much support for Harris coming from the interior of his defensive line.
But I just have a feeling about Jalen Harris. He had a strong spring camp in which he continuously whipped his offensive line opponents, including Donovan Laie, in one-on-one matchups. While this is hardly predictive, it is indicative to me that maybe the light bulb has gone on for a young player who up to this point was more known for his lapses in effort than his accomplishments on the field.
Harris has the tools to be both a strong edge setter and a decent pass rusher. If he can continue to make plus-level contributions in rush defense while boosting his pass rush production up to the six-sack level, I’d consider it a true breakout campaign for a team in desperate need for someone to create some pocket pressure.
Projecting the Wildcats
The Wildcats might yet be able to compete in the South division. They were just one of three PAC 12 teams to score over 30 points a game last year and I feel like they have that same potential again this year, even with all of the questions they have in the receiving corps.
Defensively, they have the potential to make opponents one-dimensional even if they don’t have enough horses to dramatically improve their overall pass defense. In some ways, the Wildcats are fortunate that this appears to be a possible down year for PAC 12 passing attacks. They will also benefit from not having to face the conference’s most aggressive passing team, Washington State, this season.
Speaking of which, the schedule is somewhat neutral overall. They only have four in-conference home games. But three of those come against teams that they could use the edge against and one of those - Washington - provides for an interesting upset opportunity. Their five road conference games are all games in which they will have a puncher’s chance. They will also get a nice BYE week right before they start a tough three week stretch to end the season. I also like that they miss both Cal and WSU as those are teams that they don’t really matchup very well against.
On the negative side, having to spend their opening weekend in Hawaii is not ideal. I also think the murderer’s row that Arizona has to face in October - vs Washington, at USC, at Stanford - looks like a possible season killer.
That said, I think that this can still be a decent year for Arizona. They have enough playmakers to take someone out (look out Huskies) even if they aren’t quite yet a bankable contender to make it into the PAC 12 championship. I’m looking at a six or seven win projection for Kevin Sumlin and a successful return to the post-season after a 5-7 stinker in his first season.