Well, the Arizona Wildcats are 0-2 to start the Kevin Sumlin era.
The team has lacked big plays on both sides of the ball this season and really has no identity.
If Arizona wants to avoid a 2016 Grambling State type of scare against Southern Utah on Saturday, they’ll need some key guys to step up in their first action of the season. And hopefully we get to continue to see some other guys who came out of nowhere last week.
Here are six players to watch against the Thunderbirds.
The anchor of the offensive line is coming back to join a deflated group. Friekh is the blindside tackle that hopefully gives Arizona a boost on offense.
His arrival will cause some shuffling on the line, flipping Donovan Laie to right tackle and sliding Cody Creason all the way to left guard. Bryson Cain will retain his right guard spot.
Nathan Eldridge has been rumored to be out for the season since fall camp, so walk on Josh McCauley will continue manning the center position.
Is it worrisome that Tshiyombu Lukusa and Michael Eletise, the two highest-ranked recruits aren’t in that lineup? A little. But right now this seems to put Arizona’s best five on the field.
And Friekh is by far the most experienced and talented offensive lineman on the roster, so he’ll need to rally his guys up front to get the offense back to the 2017 October form.
Nathan Tilford is pretty much a non-factor right now. He didn’t even make the travel squad to Houston and at this rate he might not even match his carry total from last season (13).
Moving on up the depth chart is true freshman Darrius Smith, who showed his stuff last week in his hometown, rushing for 51 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Gary Brightwell and J.J. Taylor are still ahead of him, but he might have passed Anthony Mariscal and could be a decent piece moving forward this season.
You hope that Arizona builds a lead against Southern Utah and Smith can take over the lead back just to see what else he can do. He’s a nice, shifty runner that can create a lot from nothing.
This will be a game to see if the staff sees him as the established No. 3 running back, and if he can earn a role in the regular rotation beyond the four games he can play without burning his redshirt.
Scottie Young Jr.
All signs point to Young being ready to go this week.
Here’s my proposed safety rotation: Isaiah Hayes at free, Tristan Cooper at spur assuming he is healthy and Scottie Young at bandit. I think that group gives you your three best safeties on the field all at once.
Young was such a disruptive player in the secondary last season prior to his injury, and dare I say he adds a lot hard edge to the defense. But Hayes has been a really pleasant surprise coming back from injury and he’s too valuable now to keep him off the field in order to play Young.
Young can play in the box, he can drop back into coverage, he’s probably Arizona’s most complete safety. Arizona needs him on the field on Saturday.
Arizona gets back their best corner, and while corner play hasn’t been totally concerning, it’s good to have a veteran back on the field.
There’s not a lot of healthy depth at corner and the staff was forced to use walk-on Azizi Hearn and it mostly seemed out of need.
Whittaker is a true lockdown corner and while teams tend to avoid him due to his ability to break up a pass, I think he’s the guy who will get Arizona’s first interception of the season.
Arizona was forced to play another walk-on out of need, Abraham Maiava, after the depth at line took injuries left and right.
But he actually played really well, and could be in line for more snaps soon.
He spoke to the media this week after contributing more than a handful of snaps on Saturday. And while he has a great story to share doubling as a Tucson Airport employee to pay for school, I get a feeling he was brought into the media scrum because he’s going to start getting legitimate looks on the defensive line now.
I think he’s a guy who really benefited from the injuries and heavy rotations on defense, and he was able to show the coaches that he can perform at a high level regardless of his scholarship status.
Whether Mykee Irving is really to take on a bigger role, Dereck Boles or PJ Johnson come back from injury, Maiava can occupy nose or guard and give the defensive line a solid body of work.
Similar to Darrius Smith, you hope that Arizona can build up a lead, and let Maiava ride out the entire game to get a rhythm and his confidence going for the remainder of the season.
Of course, we have to put Tate on this list. It will be interesting to see how mobile he is coming off last week’s ankle injury and if the Wildcats can finally get him going on the ground. This is a game he should be able to break off some big runs like we saw in October last year.
It would be nice to see him complete some deep passes, too. He showed good touch last year, but that has not carried over into the 2018 season.