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Arizona football spring game preview, 3 things to watch & more

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Our last look at Arizona before the fall

Washington State v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats 2018 spring game will take place at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Arizona Stadium. The team will begin with warm ups and tee up for kickoff at approximately 5:07 p.m.

There will be two halves of play, the first consists of two 15-minute quarters with normal college timing rules. There will be halftime, and the second half will be a 30-minute period with a running clock.

Defense will be using a modified scoring system, awarded points for stops, turnovers, etc. Offense will have traditional scoring.

The game can caught on Pac-12 Networks for those not attending.

Now, let’s head into the three things to watch

1. How much can Kevin Sumlin and Khalil Tate’s offense do against the defense?

It makes sense that the defense is ahead of the offense at the moment for various reasons. Marcel Yates is entering his third season as the defensive coordinator for Arizona, and without Rich Rodriguez, likely has a lot more control of the defense.

The defense, in total, is probably more talented than the offense as well, with three freshman All-American linebackers, a strong but relatively young batch of defensive backs, and quite arguably the deepest defensive line we’ve seen since Mike Stoops was in Tucson.

The offensive line, which has helped lead the Pac-12 in rushing the past two seasons, will have three new starters. Also keep in mind that Layth Friekh, who was granted an extra year of eligibility and will likely be at left tackle again, will be suspended for the first two games of the season as part of his battle for his fifth year.

The wide receivers enter the season as an extremely inexperienced group once again. Shun Brown and Tony Ellison are the two go-to targets. Shawn Poindexter started to connect with Tate towards the tail end of the season. After that, the depth gets pretty murky.

It comes down to Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor in the gun to lead this explosive offense.

The defense is much further along, but the offense has two special playmakers. This is Tate’s offense, and he needs this to be a cohesive unit so that it doesn’t become a one-dimensional offense.

Rodriguez didn’t put his quarterbacks in the best position to make plays, and it led to a lot of forced plays for a young quarterback. Now it’s time to see what Kevin Sumlin draws up for his quarterback to orchestrate.

2. So who steps up on the offensive line and at wide receiver?

As I mentioned above, it seems likely that Layth Friekh retains his spot at left tackle. Christian Boettcher stepped in at left guard last season and listed on the two-deep in 2017 was former four-star recruit Michael Eletise, who will likely come in as the starting left guard in 2018.

Nathan Eldridge is an eventual All-Pac-12 center, and will be in the middle once again.

Now Arizona looks to replace four-year starter Jacob Alsadek at right guard. This is also where things get tricky. Bryson Cain stepped in at the open scrimmage last weekend. While he mostly projects as a tackle, the versatility will be much-needed in case of injury. He’s also coming off a season-ending ankle injury.

Other candidates I’m interested to see at right guard is 2017 junior college transfer Maisen Knight, or walk-on Josh McCauley, who got some looks at left guard at the scrimmage last week.

It’s fair to say that Cody Creason and Gerhard de Beer split time at right tackle last season, with Creason stepping in for the injured de Beer at times.

This leaves Michigan State transfer Thiyo Lukusa out in the cold, after he was projected to be the starting left tackle for the Spartans this upcoming season. Right now, I just don’t see where he fits into the equation. He would almost have to trump Eletise at left guard, and Eletise already has a decent amount of chemistry with the offensive line.

Wide receiver isn’t fun to talk about, mostly because Arizona has a hard time putting in four proven targets after Brown, Ellison and Poindexter.

Former four-star recruit and Nebraska transfer Keyshawn Johnson Jr. hasn’t been participating in the spring. His implementation to the system is critical for Arizona’s passing game in 2018.

One of my picks to emerge this season is Brian Casteel, a former three-star California recruit from the 2017 class. He got some looks at receiver last season, but mostly contributed to special teams.

Devaughn Cooper is another guy who had a lot of potential as a true freshman, but took a step back after he left the team briefly last summer for undisclosed reasons. He’s an ultra-speedy receiver who take the top off a defense, and can start to contribute in 2018 as well.

Donovan Walker was spoken highly of by Rich Rodriguez for being a walk-on, and he was running second team at the scrimmage. Stanley Berryhill III, a freak athlete, also has a chance to step in.

But ultimately, I’d expect some of the 2018 class to contribute when they arrive to campus in the summer.

3. What does the front six look like?

Dereck Boles comes in as veteran at nose guard and Justin Belknap will return as the defensive end. At defensive tackle, there can be a lot of rotation between guys.

The big 6-foot-5, 315 pound junior college transfer PJ Johnson stood in at defensive tackle last week. Kurtis Brown, who played a true freshman last season, is also expected to get some more looks.

The combination of early-enrollee Mykee Irving and Sione Taufahema could also slide between guard and tackle. Both are massive human beings.

Heck, I’ll even throw JB Brown into the rotation on the defensive line. By the time freshmen get to campus, Arizona will have about 10 viable defensive linemen, all of which are on scholarship.

Arizona has a deep defensive line and it might not entirely matter who actually “starts” because all of these guys are capable of splitting the reps, with no real weak link.

Wilborn, Colin Schooler and Tony Fields will be the three linebackers in the system, but then there is still a lot of youth behind them. Jalen Harris and Lee Anderson are two candidates at stud, the knock on Harris has been his build, at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds.

Jacob Colcion is really it at middle linebacker the way it stands now. Anthony Pandy is likely behind Fields at weak-side backer. I’m curious to see where early-enrollee from a year ago Jose Ramirez fits in too.

10 key reserves to watch

  • QB K’hari Lane - Is he a viable number two?
  • RB Gary Brightwell - How active will he be in the pass catching phase?
  • DL Mykee Irving - Can he come in with his size and disrupt immediately?
  • DL My-King Johnson - Did he put on enough weight this off season?
  • DL Sione Taufahema - Is he fully back from injury and does he have his weight down?
  • LB Jacob Colacion - Is he ready to crack the rotation?
  • LB Anthony Pandy - Is he ready to crack the rotation?
  • CB Tony Wallace - Does he eventually work into a co-starter role this season
  • S Antonio Parks - Will he be at spur or free safety?
  • S Xavier Bell - Can he be a potential starter this season?

Position battles to watch

  • Can Nathan Tilford be physical and solidify the backfield?
  • Does Tristan Cooper start at spur once again?
  • Is Scottie Young Jr. going to be in attendance?
  • Does Jarrius Wallace take over at free safety?
  • Where does Isaiah Hayes fall in the secondary now?
  • Who else will help rotate with Kylan Wilborn at the stud position?
  • Who else rotates for Colin Schooler and Tony Fields?
  • Does Anthony Mariscal continue to climb the running back depth chart?
  • Where does Josh Pollack fall in line on special teams?