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5 questions for Arizona football heading into the offseason

arizona-wildcats-college-football-spring-game-time-tv-channel-stream-sumlin-tate-exhibition Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Official matchups were announced on Sunday for college football’s 39 postseason bowl games, a series of matchups that—outside of the playoffs and a few other pairings—are mostly meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Except when you’re part of the 40 percent of FBS programs that won’t be playing in one. For the second time in three seasons the Arizona Wildcats are among that group, the result of an ultra-disappointing 5-7 record in 2018.

Arizona’s offseason began moments after it blew a 19-point fourth quarter lead to Arizona State in the Territorial Cup on Nov. 23, starting a 273-day break before the 2019 season begins Aug. 24 at Hawaii.

A lot can, and most certainly will, happen during that nine-month break, to the point that when Arizona returns to action next year it could look like a completely different team. How that change will occur depends on many factors and uncertainties, starting with the five below:

What happens with Khalil Tate?

Will he stay or will he go? The fate of quarterback Khalil Tate, and whether he’ll remain with Arizona for his senior year, is by far the most burning question surrounding this program.

At this point it’s anybody’s guess as to whether Tate will be on the roster in 2019 or if he’ll go elsewhere, either transferring to another program or entering the NFL Draft. And believe it, everyone is trying to guess.

Search Twitter and you’ll find no shortage of mentions of Tate going to a variety of schools, such as Illinois—where former Arizona co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith is calling plays—and Auburn. The same goes for Tate’s instagram account, where posts he is tagged in (and that he’s approved such a tag) refer to a laundry list of potential destinations.

Yet Tate’s most recent post, published Sunday night, is of him in an Arizona uniform and signing a copy of the Sports Illustrated that featured him on the cover. The caption of that post: “All I know about is right now and this lifestyle is interesting.”

Interpret that as you choose.

Does Kevin Sumlin make coordinator changes?

Good season or bad, it’s very rare that a school’s coaching staff remains completely the same from one year to the next. Arizona will have at least one new assistant for 2019 after running backs coach/associate head coach Clarence McKinney was hired as Texas Southern’s head coach on Monday.

It would be a big surprise to see that be the only change Kevin Sumlin has to deal with this offseason. If others were to happen, which would be the most likely?

Start with the coordinators. Both offensive play-caller Noel Mazzone and defensive coordinator Marcel Yates have come under fire for their units’ performances in 2018. Mazzone’s conversion of Tate from a dual-threat quarterback to a pocket passer was the subject of tremendous scrutiny, while the amount of experienced players that Yates had at his disposal seemed like it should have produced far better results.

Mazzone is still out recruiting, though, and Yates has a fully guaranteed contract—at $500,000 per year—through the 2020 season.

If Arizona parts ways with one or both, or any other staffing changes are made, odds are it won’t be until after Dec. 19. That’s the early signing day for 2019 recruits, many of whom might be inclined to decommit prior to then if coaches they were expecting to play for end up leaving.

Who else could be leaving?

Tate is far from the only notable Arizona player who might not be part of the roster in 2019.

Senior cornerback Jace Whittaker, a two-year starter, is eligible to redshirt because injuries limited him to just one game this season. He was not part of Arizona’s Senior Day ceremonies prior to the ASU game, a good sign for him coming back, but if he graduates before the summer is over he’d also be eligible to transfer to another school if Whittaker chose to go that route.

There’s also uncertainty surrounding the eligibility of defensive lineman PJ Johnson, who was by far Arizona’s most impactful newcomer in 2018. Listed as a redshirt junior, Johnson just completed his fifth year in college but only his third of participation, so he likely needs the NCAA to approve a sixth year in order for him to return next season.

Beyond those guys, transfers seem inevitable for a variety of lightly used (or unused at all) players who want to see if they can find more success elsewhere.

Among that group could be Nathan Eldridge, who was Arizona’s starting center in 2016-17 but missed this season presumably because of injury. That opened the door for walk-on Josh McCauley—who darn well better get put on scholarship for his play—to lock up that spot.

If Eldridge stays with Arizona it might require him to move to another position on the offensive line. The only projected open spot, though, is left tackle with the departure of fifth-year senior Layth Friekh.

How will the recruiting class end up?

With a little more than two weeks before the early signing period, Arizona’s 2019 recruiting class currently holds 17 known commitments. That group is ranked 53rd in the nation, per 247Sports, and ninth-best in the Pac-12.

Almost all of those commitments are expected to sign later this month. Any that opt to wait until February, which until 2017 was the only time prep prospects could do so, could be a sign their commitment is wavering.

It’s possible Arizona could get a couple more to come on board before Dec. 19. The Wildcats have scholarship offers out to dozens of uncommitted recruits, eight of whom 247Sports lists as having “warm” interest in the Wildcats.

As it stands, the 2019 class is heavy on two things: big guys and Texans. Arizona holds commitments from three offensive linemen and four on the defensive side, with six pledges hailing from the Lone Star State including 3-star quarterback Grant Gunnell and 3-star running back Michael Wiley.

The last time Arizona had that many Texas-based signees was 2009.

Could a 13th game get scheduled?

Arizona’s 2019 schedule was released on Tuesday, with six home games and six road games for the Wildcats. The nonconference slate features the Aug. 24 opener at Hawaii as well as home games against Northern Arizona (Sept. 7) and Texas Tech (Sept. 14).

It also features three bye weeks, the product of Arizona opening in “Week Zero” and the fact the calendar allows for a 14-week regular season. After playing 10 straight weeks to start the 2018 season, in 2019 Arizona won’t play more than six consecutive weeks at any point.

Or will it? NCAA rules allow teams that play at Hawaii to add a 13th game, presumably at home in order to offset the costs of traveling to Honolulu. That can still be added.

Sumlin said earlier this season he wasn’t a proponent of having multiple weeks off during a season, much less three, so look for Arizona to try and bring in a mid-major opponent to fill an open date. The most likely spot for that would be Sept. 21, a week before opening Pac-12 play at home against UCLA.