Arizona football is officially (sort of) back. Monday marks the first day of spring camp and it is also the first time we get to see the Wildcats up close as they try to rebound from a pretty disappointing first year under Kevin Sumlin.
Not only were the Wildcats unable to reach a bowl game, but the uber-hyped Khalil Tate failed to live up to almost every expectation that was hoisted upon his unprepared shoulders, while the rest of the team followed suit.
Now with the new indoor facility in place and a full year in Tucson under his belt, Sumlin and his staff look to make strides with the experienced team that is coming back. Let’s take a look at a few storylines that will be important to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
Is there a quarterback competition?
There is no mistaking Khalil Tate’s raw and natural ability as a playmaker in the pocket. Wildcat fans have witnessed the dynamic quarterback put together 300-plus yards rushing games, multiple passing touchdown games, and other SportsCenter-worthy highlights during his time as starting quarterback.
The old saying goes, if you have multiple quarterbacks, you don’t have one. Rhett Rodriguez is back after taking over from a gimpy Tate in the middle of the season, and probably knows Noel Mazzone’s offense better than anyone else in the QB room.
There is also Elite 11 quarterback Grant Gunnell, who ended his high school career as the Texas’ all-time leading passer, placing him above names like Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Nick Foles, and Johnny Manziel. Pretty decent company. Gunnell also has a deep relationship with Mazzone, committing to the quarterbacks coach when he was at Texas A&M, and following the mustached play-caller when Sumlin brought him to Tucson.
Sumlin made his intentions clear when it comes to positions and the competitions for them in a Q&A session with Arizona Daily Star reporter Michael Lev last month.
“You have a returning starter. But just like we told (the team), when you have a season where you win five games and you’re not (in the) postseason, everything’s open,” Sumlin said. “The guys who are experienced, we want to use that experience. But we also want to create competition behind them. That’s called depth. There’s competition for the returning starter, but there’s a lot of competition for who’s going to be the backup and how that’s going to look.”
Sumlin wasn’t exactly quick to overlook Tate as his starter, giving him praise for how he has handled the last couple of months after a season which started on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ended by fumbling away a win against rival Arizona State.
“He’s done a pretty good job this spring so far in film study,” Sumlin told Lev. “We’ve talked about a lot of different things where he can improve. He’s working on those. Starting with his film study, his leadership, things like that. That’s something he’s cognizant of.”
Is this (finally) Marcel Yates’ make or break year?
Coming off a season where the Wildcats gave up a whopping 35 points per games, Arizona marginally improved in 2018, giving up about three points fewer in 2018 even with a returning linebacker duo that almost every coach in the Pac-12 would take with Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler.
Yates is heading into his fourth year at Arizona, and has all of his recruits in place for him to finally have a breakthrough year. The lack of depth and coaching turnover definitely had an impact on last year, but only improving marginally with most of your starters back, albeit young starters, is concerning.
Arizona doesn’t have the luxury of attracting top-end defensive talent that can step in the building on day one and make an impact. The Wildcats have to rely on player development and year-by-year improvement if they want to finish in the top-half of the Pac-12 South. Guys like Scooby Wright III and Will Parks come to mind as two players who were under-recruited and yet thrived as upperclassmen.
Yates’ room for error is incredibly slim and how he handles this year is going to be the difference between Arizona finishing 9-3 or 5-7, as Arizona can only outscore so many teams, and has to keep teams under 25 points a game if they want any chance of making it back to a bowl game. And I hate to put it all down to one man, but the list of excuses for Yates is whittling down quickly.
Who are Arizona’s playmakers going to be?
If Arizona’s 2018 offense was Goldman-Sachs, then Shawn Poindexter was its government bailout plan. Whenever Tate or Mazzone found themselves in a jam, it seemed like throwing it up to the 6-foot-6 receiver and praying that he would come down with it was the primary plan. And most of the time, it worked. The former volleyball star finished the season with 11 touchdowns and just over 750 yards receiving on just 42 catches.
When Poindexter wasn’t being targeted, J.J. Taylor was force fed and, at times, given more of a workload than probably was advised, evidenced by the 118 carries Taylor racked up over the last four games.
Taylor comes back and will be keyed on all next season by defensive coordinators, but who will take up the workload on the outside? Our Gabe Encinas highlighted the wide receiver group as a whole and goes in-depth to get to know the new blood on the outside, but it will most likely be someone who isn’t a household name just yet.
Stanley Berryhill III, the local Tucson native, came on strong in the second half of last season, and looks to be the elder statesmen that could set the tone for fellow receivers. Another player to keep your eye on is Gunnell’s high school teammate Jalen “Boobie” Curry (best name on the team), who is the lone four-star recruit in Arizona’s 2019 class and will look to be implemented in the offense in a hurry to offset the loss of Poindexter, Shun Brown, and Tony Ellison.
I wouldn’t expect a Sammy-Watkins-at-Clemson type of freshman year from Curry, but he is definitely someone that should be given opportunities to shine early and often during his first season in Tucson and will be one to keep an eye on.