Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Grant Gunnell is a different animal at the QB position compared to Khalil Tate, but he moves well for his size. After three starts a year ago, and a nice showing against USC, how are you feeling about him going forward? What are his strengths? Where does he need to improve?
Brian Pedersen: First and foremost, Gunnell seems to have a much higher football IQ and therefore is less inclined to force things and make bad decisions.
The interception he threw in the first series, notwithstanding, he usually makes the smart play. His arm strength has massively improved from a year ago, and as long as he doesn’t get frustrated when receivers can’t get open—this led to a couple sacks vs USC—he’ll do great.
UWDP: How would you assess the offensive line play? Gary Brightwell has emerged as the feature back; describe his running style. Should we expect to see more of Michael Wiley sharing the load after Brightwell handled all but three of the RB carries a week ago?
Brian: What you saw Saturday was consistency up front, giving the QB a clean pocket and creating running lanes for the backs. It’s amazing what happens when your blockers are healthy, which wasn’t the case for the last eight games of 2019.
As far as Brightwell goes, for more than a year I’ve referred to him as Arizona’s Alvin Kamara both for his combination of strength and speed but also how underutilized he’d been. It was great to see him get a full workload, and he came through. That unfortunately meant Wiley was relegated mostly to third-down status, which he’s good at, but expect a little more balance this week.
UWDP: Tayvian Cunningham and Stanley Berryhill III led the way among Wildcat receivers against USC. How are the two used in the offense? Who else is a threat in the passing game?
Brian: That Cunningham and Berryhill were the top targets speaks both Arizona’s depth at receiver, since key contributors Brian Casteel and Drew Dixon were held out because of injury. Both are expected to play at Washington, which will shift Cunningham back to slot where he’s a better fit (though his speed makes him the best deep threat).
Jamarye Joiner and Boobie Curry are projected to be the top receivers, but the beauty of this group is that as many as six guys could catch 5+ balls per game.
UWDP: Arizona allowed 325 yards passing and 175 on the ground to the Trojans. How was the overall play of the defense in your opinion? Who has stood out? Where is there a need for improvement?
Brian: Despite the numbers, this was a very promising performance from a defense that was abysmal a year ago. Grad transfers Aaron Blackwell and Roy Lopez have made an instant impact, stuffing the interior run and actually creating pressure along with Jalen Harris. And Rourke Freeburg, a walk-on, was a revelation at OLB.
But the lack of depth at linebacker and in the secondary was evident in the second half when the defense wore down and gave up a lot of big plays. Kevin Sumlin said he intends to get more guys into the rotation, particularly in the front seven, but the reality is if the defense can’t force turnovers or 3-and-outs the late-game regression will probably be a regular thing.
UWDP: Kevin Sumlin is in year three, and after last season’s 4-8 finish, it seems he’s on the hot seat. Is that true in your opinion? How are you feeling about Sumlin and his ability to build the program?
Brian: In a non-pandemic world, absolutely. But short of an angel investor swooping in and funding both a buyout and the money needed to land another coach, Sumlin should be around in 2021. This is really the first year that the majority of the depth chart are his guys, which makes any signs of progress (not in wins and losses, but in overall effort) a strong indicator.
UWDP: What is your prediction for Saturday?
Brian: Bad starts were common for Arizona on the road last year, so if it can avoid that it has a shot to stay in the same. But I think as long as Washington doesn’t shoot itself in the foot it should win by two scores. Let’s say 30-17 Huskies.
Thanks Brian. For more on the Wildcats, check out Arizona Desert Swarm.
To see our answers to Brian’s questions, click here.