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Kevin Sumlin can help restore Arizona-to-NFL pipeline

Rich Rodriguez didn’t leave depth behind, but there is still NFL talent on the roster

NCAA Football: Arizona at Texas El Paso Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats have had just six players drafted over the last six seasons, none of whom were selected in the first three rounds.

The latest selection, Dane Cruikshank, was selected in day three of this year’s draft, going in the fifth round to the Tennessee Titans.

Meanwhile, new Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin, had six straight first round picks during his time at Texas A&M, with a total of 21 picks overall, including three in the 2018 draft.

Obviously the talent level, resources, exposure and level of competition are much higher at Texas A&M than Arizona, but Sumlin has a track record of turning out NFL products, and it’s important that he translates that over to Arizona.

Recruiting under Rich Rodriguez

Arizona had a fair amount of success under Rich Rodriguez, and that was without being able to retain a large portion of his recruiting classes, the ability to develop talent from year to year, and poorly recruiting certain position groups.

All Sumlin needs to do is improve in any of those three areas and Arizona is taking a big step in the right direction.

But for Rodriguez, his true talent and depth came way too late. His 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes were by far his best.

2016 was a small class, and some members have already left. But it includes Khalil Tate, J.J. Taylor, Michael Eletise, Jacob Colacion, Tristan Cooper and Jarrius Wallace.

The 2017 class struck gold with Colin Schooler, Tony Fields, Kylan Wilborn, Nathan Tilford, Jalen Harris, Bryce Wolma, Kurtis Brown, Troy Young and Lucas Havrisik, all contributing immediately.

And Rodriguez’s 2018 class finally addressed a lot of depth and size needs. It was a class I didn’t initially like, but it has really started to grow on me.

We’ll start with the 2013 class, which was his first full cycle of recruiting, and it was a pretty good class bringing Anu Solomon, DeAndre’ Miller, Samajie Grant, Zach Green, Jacob Alsadek, Nate Phillips and Scooby Wright. But a lot of depth did not stick.

The 2014 class, despite being filled with four four-stars and being ranked No. 31 overall, was easily Rodriguez’s worst class. Many commits were injured, dismissed, or simply not good.

The top recruits of the class included Cam Denson (retired), Marquis Ware (retired), Jamardre Cobb, Nick Wilson, Jordan Poland (dismissed), Marcus Griffin and Antonio Smothers.

Despite the Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2014, Rodriguez leverage that well into recruiting, mostly because of his tactic to recruit a full class in the summer, which was widely unpopular to most fans it seems. Personally, I had no problem with it. Rodriguez was typically one of the first coaches to offer a recruit, then you start to see ASU, Oregon, and bigger programs jump in.

The 2015 class slowly disbanded and left very few contributors as well: Keenan Walker (dismissed), Anthony Fotu (dismissed), Orlando Bradford (dismissed), Darrell Cloy (retired), Brion Anduze (retired), Kendal Franklin (dismissed), Harper Sherman (quit football), Timmy Hamilton (transferred after a week of fall camp), Darrell Clark (did not qualify).

I’m in the minority where I think Rodriguez recruited some talented players. Fans just get caught up in rankings and offers, when some of the lower-profile, lowly-offered recruits have ended up being the highest performers for Arizona over the last few years.

It was just the severe lack of retention and development, along with inexplicable stretch of injuries that really brought the program down in 2015 and 2016, and has now set Arizona back.

Luckily, Khalil Tate single-handedly put the program in the right direction in 2017, and now Kevin Sumlin in the driver’s seat.

Future NFL talent

Rich Rodriguez didn’t leave behind a lot of depth, but he left a good amount of young talent from his 2016 and 2017 classes, and there are still a few older guys in the program who have a shot at making it to the league.

It’s starts in the second level of the defense with three freshman All-American linebackers in Tony Fields II, Colin Schooler and Kylan Wilborn. All three have the opportunity to go in the first half of the draft.

Jace Whittaker, using almost every advanced stat, is a really good corner. With one more solid year under his belt, he could go late in the draft next season.

Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles had an awesome 2016 season, but seemed to take a step back in 2017. He’s a big arm tackler and missed on a few plays that he should have finished. To his credit, he was surrounded by a very inexperienced defense, and had to do a lot more on the back end. The potential is there and the defense has more experience for a stronger 2018 campaign.

Switching over to offense, a four-year contributor on the line in Layth Friekh, who has a mid-to-late round potential. But center Nathan Eldridge, who is on track to be a four-year starter, figures to be a solid third- or fourth-round prospect.

Khalil Tate is a wild card, and it depends on his performance over the next two years. He can be a Lamar Jackson-type of quarterback and completely transform Arizona, but we’ve seen that the NFL really questions that skill set, despite the play-calling moving in that direction. Regardless, Tatehe can be a tempting prospect to take a flier on.

The NFL is also evolving perfectly to fit J.J. Taylor’s skill set. With guys like Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, who can stretch a run outside the tackles and catch out of the backfield, it sets Taylor up well for big draft potential.

Shun Brown has never eclipsed 600 receiving yards the past two years, but he’s proven to be a dangerous playmaker any time he gets the ball. In 2016, he didn’t have great quarterback play, and in 2017 it was a very run-first offense. It’s a big year for Tate to evolve as a passer, and Brown can be a huge beneficiary.

Now, for some younger guys who haven’t really been able to see the field so much, or still have more room to grow but show potential: Michael Eletise, Nathan Tilford, Lorenzo Burns, Troy Young, Bryce Wolma, Jarrius Wallace, Kurtis Brown, Jalen Harris, My-King Johnson.

The 2018 class is raw, but there seems to be a lot of pro potential in that group as well.

NFL expectations under Sumlin

Kevin Sumlin can turn this program around simply by addressing the glaring weaknesses Rich Rodriguez did not. Build depth, develop players, generate exposure and get guys to the league. On top of that, attract even better talent.

It’s been frustrating to see programs like Rutgers, Minnesota, Syracuse, Boise State, Boston College, Pitt, Kansas, and so on have less talented players as a whole, but develop and produce more NFL talent.

Arizona can get out of the mid-bottom ranks of the Power Five and be on par, if not better than, programs like West Virginia, NC State, TCU, Iowa, South Carolina and Arkansas that are second-tier programs.