One of the first things Kevin Sumlin did after officially becoming the Arizona Wildcats new head coach was choosing to retain UA defensive coordinator Marcel Yates.
Often times new head coaches like to gut the existing coaching staff and replace them with familiar faces but, luckily for Sumlin, Yates is a familiar face.
They worked together for two seasons at Texas A&M (2012-13) before Yates left to be Boise State’s defensive coordinator.
Yates was Sumlin’s co-defensive coordinator with the Aggies.
“When we went into a new league (from the Big 12 to the SEC), he was well-respected as a technician, as a coach, and a recruiter,” Sumlin said. “And to me, to be successful at this level you can’t just have a guy who’s an X and O’s guy or just a recruiter.
“The game and the competitive nature of it has gotten too strong. So he had those qualities early.”
Sumlin and Yates helped lead Texas A&M to an 11-2 season in 2012. The Aggies had the No. 9 defense in the country that year, according to S&P+ ratings.
In 2013, though, the Aggies dipped all the way to 76th on defense and Yates did not return following a 9-4 season.
But that was not because of performance or a souring relationship. Yates was offered an opportunity to be the full-fledged defensive coordinator at his alma mater.
“He came into my office and said, ‘hey look. I’ve got the opportunity to be the defensive coordinator at Boise. I went to school there’,” Sumlin said. “And we let him out of his contract to go there.”
A few years later, Yates left Boise for Arizona.
The Wildcats’ defense has not been good under Yates’ direction — it was 106th in the country in 2016 and 115th in 2017, per S&P+ ratings — but context is important.
Arizona has severely lacked talent and depth on that side of the ball the last two years. And this past season, the Wildcats started six freshmen on defense, who turned out to be the unit’s brightest stars.
Two of them, linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II, were Freshman All-Americans.
“To come in here and listen to how he’s done things,” Sumlin said of Yates, “I think he has grown a lot. The players trust him.”
And like him. A lot.
When Arizona was going through its coaching search, several players, including star quarterback Khalil Tate, vouched for Yates to become the new head coach.
So they were excited when Sumlin told them early Tuesday morning that Yates would be returning in 2018. (the rest of the coaching staff will be sorted out “in the next coming days.)
“I think with a young team, you have the opportunity with continuity to be better and he’s a guy that I’ve know for a while,” Sumlin said.
“And when you walk into a situation like this, I think with a young team, change is hard. But some continuity is valuable, particularly young guys who are going to be in the system for another year.
“He brings that to the table.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire