The Kevin Sumlin era is under way in Tucson, as the Arizona Wildcats start spring practice on Monday, March 19.
Arizona is coming off a surprise 7-win season, and returns 75 percent of their production from last year’s squad.
This is a big spring for Sumlin and his staff to really get a feel for his roster, and evaluate the talent going forward. The unofficial depth chart will start moving, and we’ll see how Sumlin approaches his first offseason in Tucson.
With that, let’s dive into some of the key storylines for spring ball. Note that the spring game is on Saturday, April 14 at 5 p.m.
Who is QB2?
Khalil Tate is the guy, there’s no doubt about that. He has the tools, just needs to work on some decision making. But it’s imperative that the guys behind use the spring to step up, especially if Arizona is forced to find an injury replacement for Tate.
Kevin Sumlin has four scholarship quarterbacks, a good problem to have. Unfortunately, only two backups will be on campus this spring, and they have one completion between the two of them, with Rhett Rodriguez appearing in two games last season.
The other is K’Hari Lane, who came into the program with only one Division I offer. He also entered the program listed at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, bigger than some of the linebackers on the roster.
The No. 2 reps are going to one of those two, and neither are that glamorous. But at this point you just hope that Sumlin can make something good out of this spring.
Although, the No. 2 during the spring might not matter to much, because Jamarye Joiner and Kevin Doyle, Arizona’s two signees in 2018, both come in with more talent.
Finding depth and key replacements on the offensive line
The offensive line doesn’t have much either. Sumlin will work to replace three starters, too.
Layth Friekh comes back with his fifth year of eligibility at left tackle and Nathan Eldridge is entering his third year as the starting center now, two nice pieces to build around.
There are some pieces there to fill in the three spots, but nothing is really certain.
Michigan State transfer Thiyo Lukusa, junior college transfer Maisen Knight, former four-star recruit Michael Eletise are some of the more talented and interesting choices, but you don’t really know where they can fit in.
Cody Creason is the lone lineman with ample experience, filling in at right tackle for Gerhard de Beer injuries the last two seasons.
The depth then comes to guard Alex Kosinski and tackles Edgar Burrola, Josh McCauley and Bryson Cain.
It’s hard to project the line right now because Lukusa is the wildcard. He was penciled in as the starting left tackle for Michigan State before he decided to leave the program, but that’s where Friekh sits. Eletise has been the No. 2 left guard, too, taking the entire left side out for the time being.
The top five linemen are Friekh, Lukua, Eldridge, Eletise, Creason. It’s just a matter of fitting them all together, if possible.
Can Keyshawn Johnson Jr. be the top target Arizona has needed?
Rich Rodriguez really ignored recruiting wide receivers over the last three years or so, especially those with size.
Tony Ellison and Shun Brown are two leading returners in 2018. Ellison has emerged as a reliable option and Brown is capable of making something big happen whenever he touches the ball.
But the addition of Keyshawn Jonhson Jr. could add tremendous value to the offense. Johnson was a four-star prospect ranked No. 313 in the nation, No. 44 among wide receivers and could have picked any school in the country coming out of high school.
Coming in at 6-foot-2 around 200 pounds, Johnson is a much needed wide receiver with good size in the offense, and incorporating him early this spring can make an already versatile offense more deadly.
This is the deepest defensive line since Mike Stoops
I’ve been messing around with a depth chart, and I’m coming up with a three-deep filled with nine scholarship guys. There are no guys crossing between position, either.
While it’s an extremely young group, it’s probably Arizona’s deepest on defense.
Justin Belknap is entering his third season as the starting defensive end. Behind him I envision redshirt freshman My-King Johnson, sitting at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds on the roster.
Arizona secured Adam Plant on National Signing Day, and at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds out of Bishop Gorman High School (Las Vegas, NV), he’s someone who will compete immediately.
Back at nose guard is redshirt senior Dereck Boles, the 6-foot-2 296-pound Jamaica native. Finton Connolly carved himself a nice role last season and is measuring up to 6-foot-5, 275 pounds. Rodriguez landed a 6-foot-5, 315-pound junior college transfer in PJ Johnson late in the cycle too.
Kurtis Brown found himself in the rotation last season as a true freshman at 6-foot-1, 285 pounds. Arizona went the junior college route last recruiting cycle too, going for Sione Taufahema, a 6-foot-1, 330 pound prospect who was redshirted this past season due to injuries.
Lastly is Mykee Irving, a high-end 3-star prospect out of Calabasas, CA checking in at 6-foot-4, 330 pounds.
Arizona has size and depth at this position now, and this spring will give the young group some solid reps.
How much can this young defense improve from 2017?
Arizona gave up 39 points a game last season when you take out non-conference play. Luckily Khalil Tate was able to help outscore opponents and keep it close.
But the defense was extremely young, and emerging are three freshman all-American linebacker candidates in Kylan Wilborn, Colin Schooler and Tony Fields.
I just mentioned the defensive line above, and how this is the most established groups we’ve seen on the line, despite their youth.
The secondary has two rising corners too with Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker. The depth isn’t great there, and I expect a guy like Tony Wallace to get going in the rotation.
The safety spots are going to have some rotation. The defense will need to have Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles bounce back from what was a disappointing season, considering he was one of Arizona’s top playmakers in 2016. Troy Young also stepped in for some time, and looks to be a bigger piece in the rotation.
Scottie Young Jr. emerged as a big time free safety, but Isaiah Hayes returns from injury at that position, and Jarrius Wallace suddenly emerged as a good free safety midway through the season.
Tristan Cooper got bumped off safety after Dane Cruikshank switched to spur. I’m a big Cooper fan, and hope he can take over full-time at spur. If not, Arizona has a high-end three-star coming in the fall with Christian Young.
It’s a good group, and hopefully another year under Marcel Yates’ system, along with better position coaching all across the board, helps this young group make a big stride.
How much better does Kevin Sumlin develop the talent available?
Rich Rodriguez just couldn’t keep a steady chart. There was so much movement, which hindered the development, as guys were leaving the program or medically retiring from the sport left and right.
Sumlin recruited the right talent, and was able to develop them into NFL prospects. Rodriguez’ best recruiting classes were his 2016 and 2017 classes, giving Sumlin some nice, young pieces to work with. He’ll have to battle a few years to build up his youth, but that also makes his arrival that much more exciting.
Who will be J.J. Taylor’s running mate?
Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor is a deadly backfield. But last season having the trio of Nick Wilson and Zach Green back there provided so many options to pound the running game.
Arizona has former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford, who burned a year of eligibility after Rodriguez decided to play him against NAU and UTEP, giving him a total of 12 carries. He had one carry the rest of season, finishing with a total of 13 for 121 yards and two touchdowns.
Why he wasn’t played more, no one will ever know. But he’s more than ready when it comes to size. He was last listed as 6-foot-2, 206 pounds.
It seems likely that Sumlin will see Tilford’s size and speed and use him as a one-two punch with Taylor.
Gary Brightwell also figures to be a solid pass-catching running back, with some similar size to Tilford, just not nearly powerful or explosive.
And of course scholarship running back Branden Leon has to be mentioned here. He has had a limited role at Arizona, but has truly worked his way up the depth chart to earn his touches and some trust.