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Kevin Sumlin discusses defensive improvement, Boobie Curry and Washington at weekly press conference

kevin-sumlin-arizona-wildcats-washington-huskies-defense-boobie-curry-jalen-harris-taylor-media Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats are sitting atop the Pac-12’s South Division after a 35-30 win at Colorado, but there’s no time to celebrate. Just ahead is arguably the toughest stretch of the year for the team, with a pair of road games to California coming up later this month.

First, though, is a visit from the Washington Huskies. Washington (4-2, 1-2) is coming off a 23-13 loss at Stanford, which knocked it out of the Associated Press poll and severely damaged its shot of defending its Pac-12 title.

Asked if he would have preferred the Huskies had won at Stanford, thus adding more intrigue to Saturday’s 8 p.m. PT kickoff at Arizona Stadium, coach Kevin Sumlin didn’t take the bait.

“I don’t have any control over that,” Sumlin said. “Whatever happened last week has nothing to do with this week. To me it’s still a big game.”

Here’s what else Sumlin discussed at his weekly media availability:

On the play of the offensive line:

“Coming into the last year, last season, that was probably the biggest question mark on the team. It started last year, basically, because you had a true freshman (tackle), a walk-on center. You’ve got the same guys out there (now). I think the addition of Paiton Fears in the rotation with Edgar (Burrola), that competition has been good. (Robert) Congel sat out, too. Kyle (Devan) has done a nice job with the offensive line. He’s done a heck of a job with those guys.”

On why the run game has struggled the last two games:

“Certainly two weeks ago, with a true freshman quarterback, the defenses you saw were completely different. Blitzes were different, they were bringing corner blitzes. And I think the fact that coming into this game nobody was really sure who was quarterback … you guys play Madden, what are you going to do? You blitz him. And if you’ve got another guy who’s out with a leg injury and he’s not going to run much, what do you do? We’ve seen a lot of guys around the line of scrimmage. Our offensive staff did a nice job at halftime of, really, the recognition of what those issues were and getting the ball on the perimeter. The screens, the throws that are going on the perimeter, those are just an extension of the run plays for us. You try to utilize all our talent, spread the field. When you look at the pure numbers all the time, passes and runs, I think our numbers are a little bit hidden.”

On the fourth quarter, when Arizona has outscored opponents 29-3 the last three games:

“It’s a combination of a lot of things. Our team is in really, really good physical condition. I said it last week, (strength coach) Brian Johnson’s done a great job with our team. I think our coaching staff has done a nice job of adjustments. First of all, you’ve got to be in shape. We were playing at 5,000 feet and it didn’t bother us. A lot of things happened in this game and these guys are confident in that fourth quarter because they know they’re in really good physical condition and they trust each other.”

On the key to the overall defensive improvement:

“It sounds kind of cliché or simple, but to get our best players on the field. And what is that? It’s a combination of rotating on the front. The game within the game (at Colorado) was … it became a track meet in the third quarter because they wanted to keep personnel on the field. They got coaches, too, right? They did a nice job of going tempo and trying to lock our personnel on the field. We’ve been multiple in what we’ve been doing in three-down, four-down (linemen), three linebackers on the field, getting freshmen in the game. Just playing guys, playing more people on defense than we did last year. In the fourth quarter that’s got a lot to do with it, too. You’re playing guys with 80 snaps, you get to this time of year, it’s just different. Guys get worn down. But we’ve done a nice job of rotating guys all over, not just on the D-line.”

On how WR Boobie Curry looked in his first start:

“I thought he was what we recruited. The first one … that’s going to happen in a game like that, he runs a curl route, the DB is a little bit early but they’re not going to call that. So he’s got to make those physical catches. It was really his first meaningful minutes as a freshman and that happens. Doesn’t bother him at all. Goes back out there. That’s the player he has been. He struggled through camp with an injury, it’s been frustrating for him. He’s wanted to play the whole time and you can see he can have an immediate impact, like he did for us in the spring. The only reason he wasn’t out there was because he was hurt. He’s wanting to play a lot more. I thought he did some things without the football, physically, blocking on the perimeter that really helped what we were doing. He’s a bigger dude and doesn’t shy away from contact.”

On true freshman DB Christian Roland-Wallace’s development:

“Physically he’s ready to go, he’s been that way since he walked on campus. A lot of guys get redshirted because physically they’re not ready to go. This guy looks like he’s been here three years. I think where he’s had to grow is mentally. He struggled here at home, let a guy run right by him early in the year and didn’t really understand. He’s learning the hard way in games. He’s been great, and he’s learned the hard way with some head-scratching moments.”

On DE Jalen Harris’ evolving role:

“He drops, he rushes. I don’t think he wants to come in and have everyone know he’s going to rush every time. We go to a three-down look we’ve got to be able to disguise what he’s doing. You do the same thing over and over again it becomes easy to block. He’s athletic enough to play in space. We’re looking for players out there—I’m going into my recruiting speech, now—we’re looking for guys that can do both. As you guys have come to notice, they start naming all these different positions, it used to be outside linebacker and end, now the term ‘edge’ is being used a lot. What is that? That’s what we’re looking for. If there’s a couple kids out there who are hopefully watching this right now, they know we need a couple more edge players that can drop and really show off their skill set.”

On Washington QB Jacob Eason’s strong arm:

“It stresses me out. I’ve seen it for a long time. He’s an extremely talented guy. He’s bigger than what you think. He’s hard to get him on the ground. He’s a strong-armed guy and a big, talented guy. He’s a problem for us because of his talent level and his experience. What happened last week, you saw an experienced quarterback make some extremely good plays … and not turn it over.”

On the Huskies defense:

“Their defense has been one of the best in this league for the last few years. And they’re also one of the top teams in the country every year in turnover margin. They don’t give it away. Their defense is fast, big guys inside. They can run really well but also pride themselves in taking the ball away from you. We have a big challenge this week.”

On if he’d ever coach in shorts like Colorado’s Mel Tucker:

“I did when I was an assistant at Wyoming. When it was nice I would wear shorts during the game, Joe Tiller didn’t like that, though. (Tucker) looks comfortable. I got shorts on right now. What threw me off, every time I’ve ever done College GameDay or any SportsCenter deal like that, when those guys get up and they’ve got their shorts on and just the top with the jacket and coat, it really freaks you out.”

On what Arizona is missing when RB J.J. Taylor can’t play:

“Experience. J.J. is a patient runner, he’s not just a one-cut runner he can make people miss. He makes our line better. J.J.’s a guy that can clean up a lot of different things when there is a missed block or there is a guy on the edge or there is a mistake up front. We do miss him, we need him. We didn’t want to push it last week with him. He hadn’t played in weeks. You had the bye week, he didn’t practice at all. We wanted to get him him in and see where he was but didn’t really want to risk it so that thing doesn’t drag on all year. Today it’ll be interesting to see how he is at practice because we’re going to need him to be the J.J. of last year from here on out.”