The Kevin Sumlin era officially kicks off a month from now when the Arizona Wildcats open the 2018 football season against BYU on Sept. 1. It will be the first chance to see the new-look Wildcats, who return much of their best players from last season but thanks to new leadership could have a completely different appearance on the field.
Picked to finish third in the Pac-12 South by league media, Arizona opens training camp on Friday, Aug. 3 with only a handful of open position battles but plenty of lingering questions about the overall makeup of the team. Here are a few:
How will Khalil Tate be used by Noel Mazzone?
Khalil Tate became must-see television last season after he exploded onto the national scene with an FBS quarterback-record 327 rushing yards and four touchdowns (without starting) against Colorado. That was the start of a six-week run—literally—when Tate averaged more than 200 yards per game on the ground and produced 17 total TDs.
Under Rich Rodriguez, Tate was heavy on the run but did show his ability as a passer when he threw for a career-high 302 yards and five TDs in the Foster Farms Bowl loss to Purdue.
The hype machine surrounding Tate for his junior season is massive, but we still don’t know exactly how Arizona plans to use him in 2018. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who came over from Texas A&M with coach Kevin Sumlin, has worked with quarterbacks of all styles during his long career.
Among those who Mazzone has mentored: Philip Rivers, who threw for 4,491 yards and 34 TDs with North Carolina State in 2003; Brock Osweiler, who had a 4,000-yard passing season for Arizona State in 2011; as well as UCLA QBs Brett Hundley and Josh Rosen.
How Hundley was used by Mazzone might be the best comparison for what 2018 has in store for Tate. From 2012-14 he threw for at least 3,000 yards each season, completing 67.4 percent of his passes, and averaged 159.7 carries with 30 rushing TDs.
Who will be Tate’s backup?
For the first time in what seems like forever, Arizona doesn’t enter the preseason with any question about who its quarterback will be. Instead that uncertainty is reserved for who is in line to play after Khalil Tate.
And your guess is as good as ours. Whoever the backup ends up being, any action they see this fall will be the first of their college career (other than sophomore Rhett Rodriguez, who scored a rushing touchdown against Northern Arizona and completed a 10-yard pass against UTEP). K’Hari Lane redshirted, while Kevin Doyle and Jamarye Joiner are true freshmen who were not on the roster for spring practice.
Joiner is a local product, a dual-threat star at Cienega High School in Vail who despite being committed to Arizona for a long time didn’t sign in December and waited until after Kevin Sumlin was hired to affirm his pledge to the Wildcats. Doyle, a pro-style passer from Washington, D.C., flipped from Michigan to Arizona right before National Signing Day.
Tate is going to get the bulk of the reps during training camp but just as important will be how the snaps he doesn’t take are parceled out. Arizona could be a hard hit away from needing to throw a completely untested quarterback into the fire.
Who fills in for Layth Friekh during his suspension?
One of the biggest areas of concern for Arizona entering fall camp is at offensive line, where only two full-time starters return from 2017. And one of them, senior left tackle Layth Friekh, must sit out the first two games against BYU and Houston in exchange for the NCAA granting him an extra year of eligibility.
The most likely candidate to start in Friekh’s place is 6-foot-5, 308-pound Thiyo Lukusa, a transfer from Michigan State who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall. He’s yet to play in a college game but was projected to be MSU’s starting left tackle in 2016 before abruptly leaving the program.
Redshirt freshman Edgar Burrola could also be in the mix after sitting out last season with a shoulder injury suffered in high school, as could incoming freshmen Donovan Laie and David Watson.
Once Friekh returns, though, he’ll step right back into the spot he’s started at 33 times in his career.
How much improvement will the defense show?
Arizona allowed 34.4 points and 471.2 yards per game last season, both figures third-worst in the Pac-12. The pass defense was dead last, yielding 286.1 yards per contest despite picking off a conference-best 19 passes.
The inability to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks meant a talented but young secondary was hung out to dry far too often. The Wildcats allowed 28 pass plays of 30 or more yards in 2017.
Youth was a big part of Arizona’s defensive struggles a year ago but that was also the source of most of that unit’s promise. Cornerback Lorenzo Burns tied for first in the Pac-12 with five interceptions as a redshirt freshman, while the top three sack producers—defensive end Kylan Wilborn and linebackers Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler—were each true freshmen in 2017.
New coach Kevin Sumlin brought in his own guys to fill out his staff yet retained defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Marcel Yates, whose reputation as a recruiter has yet to translate into on-field performance. It’s hard not to think there won’t be some noticeable improvement across the board with the defense getting more experienced.
Which newcomers could make an immediate impact?
With so many returning starters, playing time for Arizona’s newest additions may be hard to come by. But a few of the newcomers figure to have a better shot than the rest of the lot given the Wildcats’ depth at certain positions.
Junior college transfer Steven Bailey should be in line for meaningful snaps at both offensive guard positions and could even start the opener against BYU. Arizona has to replace both starters and the other candidates all have question marks, with redshirt sophomore Bryson Cain missing all of 2017 with an ankle injury and moving from tackle and redshirt sophomore Michael Eletise still yet to show the promise that made him the Wildcats’ highest-rated signee of the 2016 recruiting class (just ahead of Khalil Tate).
An expected increase in pass plays means more targets for the wide receiving corps, which returns several good options but can always use more. That’s where a pair of 6-foot-3 freshmen, Tre Adams and Thomas Marcus, fit in since other than senior Shawn Poindexter the rest of Arizona’s experienced wideouts are 5-foot-11 or shorter.
Tight end Jake Peters, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, could find his way into the offensive rotation if Noel Mazzone opts to go heavier on that position usage than Rich Rodriguez ever did.
On the defensive side, defensive tackle PJ Johnson and hybrid Dayven Coleman are the top candidates for immediate playing time. The 6-foot-4, 335-pound Johnson comes from City College of San Francisco and will battle junior Finton Connolly for a starting spot while the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Coleman may go back and forth between linebacker and safety depending on alignments and coverage needs.