Despite posting a 9-15 record through two seasons and a 4-8 record in 2019, Kevin Sumlin will be returning for a third year as head coach of the Arizona Wildcats. Athletic director Dave Heeke said the program is not where he envisioned it would be at this point, but is committed to the rebuilding process.
Now that that’s settled, there are lots of things to that need to be done this offseason. Here is a look at them.
Hit the recruiting trail
Sumlin was hired, in part, because of his perceived prowess as a recruiter. His classes at Texas A&M were always among the best in the country and churned out stars like Myles Garrett and Christian Kirk.
So far, Sumlin hasn’t lived up to that reputation at Arizona, which, in fairness, is a much more difficult place to recruit.
UA’s 2019 class ranked 55th in the country and 11th in the Pac-12 (though it did produce some immediate contributors) and the 2020 class currently ranks 69th and 10th, respectively. That’s behind Group of 5 schools like Tulane, East Carolina, Louisiana Tech, Western Michigan, Louisiana-Lafayette, and North Texas.
There isn’t much time to turn things around. Sumlin has frequently cited statistics that say 80 percent of recruits sign during the early-signing period, which begins Dec. 18 and ends Dec. 20. That is less than three weeks from now.
Sumlin said he will be hitting the recruiting trail Sunday and alluded to conducting some in-home visits with in-state recruits, including “two in particular”— likely four-star defensive ends Jason Harris and Regen Terry, both from the Phoenix area.
Harris, whose brother Jalen is already on the team and whose parents were student-athletes at the UA, is a must-land for Arizona, but Pac-12 South rival Colorado is currently viewed as the favorite.
“Everybody has turned to that early signing date (and it) is extremely important,” Sumlin said.
Arizona currently has 13 commits, not including walk-ons. Sumlin declined to specify how many he wants, or expects, to sign by the spring but our recruiting expert Brandon Combs projects Arizona will finish near the 25-player maximum when all is said and done.
That figure includes transfers, though it remains to be seen if the Wildcats can extract any meaningful talent from the transfer portal, something they haven’t really done under Sumlin.
Hire a defensive staff
It’s obviously hard to recruit without a coaching staff, so Sumlin needs to get a jump on that.
Arizona has to replace position coaches Iona Uiagalelei (defensive line), John Rushing (linebackers) and Marcel Yates (defensive coordinator/safeties), who were all fired during the season after the defense had another woeful year.
The only defensive coach who did not get canned is cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin, who is known for being an ace recruiter.
With the early signing period only a few weeks away, it would behoove the Wildcats to fill out their staff as soon as possible, but not at the expense of doing proper due diligence. Besides recruiting, Arizona needs to hire coaches who can actually develop talent.
Naturally, some folks will call for UA alum Chuck Cecil to be retained, whether that be as defensive coordinator or not, but that should only happen if he is truly the best person for the job. At this juncture Sumlin, who is likely entering a make-or-break year, cannot afford to take shortcuts.
“With recruiting it would certainly help, the sooner the better,” Sumlin said of hiring a DC. “But we want the right people. It’s more important to have the right person instead of just racing to get somebody in.”
Find an identity on offense
Arizona’s offense was a mess to finish the season, averaging just nine points per contest over its last three games. There were several reasons for the regression, including a stiffened schedule and a banged up offensive line.
But it also lacked an identity, partly due to a two-quarterback system that featured QBs with very different skill sets and tendencies. And one could argue the constant rotating (aside from the ASU game when Khalil Tate played the whole game) prevented them from establishing any sort of rhythm—or killing it when they did.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is not expected to get the boot, so any improvement in 2020 will have to come from within.
One thing that inspires some optimism is that freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell played pretty well this season and, as a true pocket-passer, is a much more natural fit in Mazzone’s offense than Tate, whose running ability was never maximized by the new staff.
Arizona, like most Sumlin-coached teams, was pretty balanced when it came to run vs. pass. However, its ground game was not its usual productive self. The Wildcats averaged less than four yards per carry in seven of 12 games, and did not lead the Pac-12 in rushing for the first time in four seasons.
Will Arizona, which loses leading rusher J.J. Taylor, be more or less run-heavy in 2020? Or about the same? Historically, Arizona’s best teams have been run-first.
Then again, Gunnell is the Texas high school all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns for a reason, and letting him rip it might not be such a bad idea—especially with a receiving corps that is returning nearly all of its top contributors and features one of his former high school teammates in Boobie Curry, the prize of the 2019 recruiting class.
Overhaul special teams
Special teams are such an underrated aspect of football and Arizona’s were dismal this season. The Wildcats ranked in the bottom 20 nationally in punting average, while placekicker Lucas Havrisik only made 59 percent of his field-goal attempts, ranking 100th (of 128) in the country.
Arizona’s return game did nothing of note and even committed some costly turnovers.
I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind the scenes with Coach Jeremy Springer’s group, but the results are enough to indicate that whatever they are doing isn’t working.
Springer had never been a special teams coordinator before joining Sumlin’s staff—he worked in quality control—so replacing him with someone with more experience seems like the right thing to do.
New (in this case, old) uniforms
Make the throwback uniforms permanent, please. Give UA fans something they know they can look forward to next season.