When Kevin Sumlin was hired by the Arizona Wildcats last year he brought with him an almost entirely new coaching staff. The most notable exception was defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who despite two subpar years on the job was retained.
Also kept on from the Rich Rodriguez era was Chuck Cecil, a former UA star who served as a senior defensive analyst.
Now Cecil is Arizona’s interim defensive coordinator following Sumlin’s decision Sunday to fire Yates and linebackers coach John Rushing. In addition to Cecil’s promotion, analyst Hank Hobson, another former UA player, was elevated to a full-time position to handle the linebackers.
Why make the move, and why do it now? On Monday, Sumlin went into great detail on the decision to shuffle his defensive staff with four games left in the 2019 season.
“My job is to give our team the best chance to win,” he said. “As I evaluate where we are, our players have not quit. Our players are playing hard and I owe it to them to try and get the best situation that I can give our players this week. We want to win every game.”
Sumlin cited the 133 points allowed by Arizona’s defense in the past three games, all losses, including last Saturday’s 41-31 loss at Stanford, as a big reason for the change. For the season the Wildcats are allowing 35 points per game, last in the Pac-12, and they’re second-to-last in total defense.
“What we want to do is give our players and our fans a chance to win this season and to get to postseason play,” Sumlin said. “That’s why the decision was made and the decision was about.”
Arizona is 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-12 heading into Saturday’s Homecoming game against Oregon State. The Wildcats must win two of their final four games to be bowl-eligible, though after a bye Nov. 9 they play back-to-back games against Top 10 schools (Oregon and Utah) before finishing with the Territorial Cup at 5-3 ASU.
While Sumlin didn’t bring Yates to Arizona, they did know each other well. When Sumlin was at Texas A&M he hired Yates as a secondary coach in 2012, with Yates leaving before the 2014 season to become Boise State’s defensive coordinator.
“It’s always difficult when you have to have that conversation with another man,” Sumlin said. “As much time as you spend together, particularly in this business, which is not an 8-to-5 job. It’s business for big boys, grown men.”
As far as Cecil goes, Sumlin and he hadn’t crossed paths as coaches but he was well aware of Cecil’s lineage as both a UA star—he played for the Wildcats from 1984-87, going from a walk-on to a consensus All-American and Pac-10 defensive player of the year as a senior—and as a coach in the NFL. Cecil was part of Jeff Fisher’s staffs with the Tennessee Titans from 2003-10 and the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams from 2012-16.
“Here’s a guy who has been a defensive coordinator at the highest level,” Sumlin said. “Been an assistant coach, played for years. He’s got some knowledge in certain situations. Just for us right now, I think that he and Hank give us an opportunity to go in a different direction, not dramatically. Not a wholesale change, but just from an energy (standpoint) and as a spark plug. They’ve been in the (defensive) room, they know the issues.
“More than anything else, he understands the verbage, so you don’t have to have a full-scale change (to) the communication piece.”
This is the first time in Sumlin’s 12 years as a head coach that he’s made an in-season staff change, though he’s experienced the situation from the other side. In 2002 at Texas A&M he was promoted from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator after four games.
“As I told Chuck yesterday, I’ve been through this,” Sumlin said. “Coach (R.C.) Slocum called me in and said ‘be ready to run the offense tomorrow.’”
Ironically, the coordinator Sumlin took over for was Dino Babers, the current Syracuse head coach who prior to joining A&M had been on Arizona’s staff from 1995-2000.
Sumlin said he spoke Sunday to a handful of players about the change—“they’re ready to roll,” he said—but Monday afternoon was going to be the first time for the entire team to be briefed. It will also be the first chance for Cecil to address his defense as a whole.
No reason was given for Rushing’s firing, though that move might have been more about getting Hobson into a greater role than anything else. Hobson played 46 games as a reserve linebacker for Arizona from 2011-14 before taking on a graduate assistant position in 2015.
“He’s loyal, he’s been here,” Sumlin said of Hobson. “He was a good player here, he’s seen a lot of different things. A younger guy that has energy, communicating with the players he’s done a good job with that. He’s probably as excited as anybody to wake up on Sunday morning and be a full-time Division I football coach, (to do so) that quickly is a big deal. He’s been there and done it here, cares about this university a great deal. He’s going to work his tail off.”
Making the staff changes now presumably enables Cecil and Hobson to be more involved in recruiting. The early signing period is less than two months away, and with Arizona having a bye next week the new coaches can get out on the road during that time off.
Sumlin, though, says recruiting didn’t play any role in the timing. He followed that up with a veiled recruiting pitch for prospects that Yates and Rushing may have been the primary contact for.
“The recruiting is not going to change for me, just because I’m extremely involved in it,” Sumlin said. “I’m going to make the phone calls, the text messages … and be at these games. The constant should be the head coach, and that relationship with the head coach becomes the most important.”