A true freshman quarterback. A redshirt freshman getting the key carries down the stretch. Linemen starting on both sides of the ball. And receivers who, a year ago, were either at different positions or different levels of college ball.
Bit by bit, the Arizona Wildcats are starting to look more like Kevin Sumlin’s team and less like the one Rich Rodriguez left behind for him.
In Saturday’s 20-17 home win over UCLA, four of the 22 offensive and defensive starters for the Wildcats were players Sumlin and his staff added to the roster this offseason. Another three had never started before this year, and all told 14 of 32 players who have started so far in 2019 weren’t on the roster prior to 2018.
Arizona has had 80 different players get snaps this season, with more than half getting their first real action in 2019. While veterans like Khalil Tate, J.J. Taylor, Colin Schooler and Jace Whittaker continue to be key pieces for the Wildcats, games like this last one show the younger guys are becoming more and more integral.
Tate and Taylor both missed the UCLA game because of injuries. True freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell got his first start, throwing for 352 yards and a touchdown, while 16 of 26 offensive touches by Arizona’s running backs were by freshmen Bam Smith and Michael Wiley and that accounted for 175 yards of total offense.
Three of the five starting offensive linemen who blocked for Gunnell have arrived since RichRod was let go. He signed Donovan Laie, but Sumlin’s staff developed him into a starting left tackle a true freshman, while left guard Robert Congel was a Sumlin signee at Texas A&M who transferred over and right tackle Paiton Fears came aboard from the junior college ranks in January.
And Arizona’s receiving corps, a major question mark entering the season, has seen converted quarterback Jamarye Joiner make great strides, while late JUCO signee Tavian Cunningham has been a revelation.
The defense is mostly still RichRod holdovers, but some of the newcomers are making an impact. Junior college transfer Trevon Mason, who didn’t show up until just before training camp, has started the last three games on the defensive line, while Christian Roland-Wallace has started twice in the secondary and Bobby Wolfe has contributed in all four games to the back line.
“I think the thing that you have now, as a team, is confidence that you can win a game like that,” Sumlin said. “With some younger guys. Those guys walked away as a team with confidence that we can win conference games.”