What a difference a year makes.
At this time in 2018, the Arizona Wildcats and new coach Kevin Sumlin were still in the feeling-out process, each side unsure of what to expect from the other.
Oh, and the soundtrack at practice included construction noise from the just-getting-started indoor practice facility right next door.
Flash forward to Monday and the atmosphere was completely different, and not just because a good portion of Arizona’s first spring practice was held inside the Cole and Jeanie Davis Sports Center.
“At this point last year I’d been here two and a half months,” Sumlin said. “A year and two and a half months makes a big difference. You’ve got a recruiting class that you’ve (brought in), you’ve got seven of them here already, and the guys who are back know what to expect from practice, know what to expect during the week.”
Arizona is less than four months removed from a bitter end to Sumlin’s first year, a home loss to rival ASU that saw the Wildcats blow a 19-point fourth-quarter lead to finish 5-7. The majority of their starters are back, including several key offensive and defensive pieces, though notable holes exist on the offensive and defensive lines and at wide receiver.
The spring is where filling those holes begins, though Sumlin said the main goal for the next few weeks is more philosophical.
“We’ve gotta find some leadership,” he said. “We didn’t really have that last year. We’ve got to find some internal leadership on this team.
Running back J.J. Taylor, entering his redshirt junior season, doesn’t want that leadership to be limited to just a few players.
“I personally feel everybody should be a leader on the team,” said Taylor, who received All-American recognition last season after gaining more than 2,100 all-purpose yards including 1,400-plus on the ground. “Everybody should take initiative to hold everybody accountable for the things that we do.”
Monday was the first of 15 practices this spring for Arizona, with the last being the annual Spring Game set for April 13 at Arizona Stadium.
New digs and dudes
The Davis Center, which officially opened in late February, will serve as the nerve center for Arizona’s football practices. The team will also train on adjacent outdoor fields, as well as in the stadium at times, but if conditions don’t allow for that there’s no worry about having to reschedule practices.
“For our student-athletes’ experience, we can keep a consistent schedule and really get a lot of work done no matter what the weather’s like,” Sumlin said.
In addition to christening the indoor facility—though the team had been in there previously for conditioning and player-run practices—Monday also marked the debut of Arizona’s newest coaches and players.
Joining the staff this offseason was running backs coach DeMarco Murray and offensive line coach Kyle DeVan, both of whom are former NFL players. Murray ran for 7,174 yards in seven NFL seasons, leading the league in rushing in 2014 while with the Dallas Cowboys, while DeVan played guard and center from 2009-12 and was part of the Indianapolis Colts’ Super Bowl team in 2009.
Sumlin said Murray, who will also work with Arizona’s return guys, brings “a lot of credibility” to the program because of his college and pro experience and his ability to teach despite never having been a coach before.
“His knowledge of the game, his ability to present the information was as good as anybody,” Sumlin said.
DeVan, who was previously at Ball State, brings “a little different twist to what we’re doing in the offensive line, and he’s got all kinds of energy,” Sumlin said.
Seven members of Arizona’s 2019 recruiting class were also in uniform on Monday, including quarterback Grant Gunnell and a trio of junior college transfers. A fourth JUCO signee, defensive lineman Trevon Mason, had previously been listed as a mid-year enrollee but Sumlin said he isn’t scheduled to arrive until the summer after completing his classwork.
Taylor focused on present, protecting ball
While Taylor’s rushing and return numbers last season were tremendous, there was one area in which he knows he could have done better: ball security.
Taylor fumbled six times in 2018, losing four, which according to TeamRankings.com was tied for fifth-most in the country. He said much of the issue for him was mental and addressing that is “one of the biggest points of emphasis” for him this year.
That sentiment was echoed by Sumlin.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “He’s got a new coach. Trust me, that’s been brought up.”
To that end, Taylor said he will now always carry the ball in his outside hand rather than stick to one side.
One of those lost fumbles came during Arizona’s fourth-quarter collapse against ASU, a turnover that set up the Sun Devils’ game-winning touchdown. Taylor said he was certainly upset about that at the time, but not for long.
“I haven’t thought about it since it happened,” he said. “Short-term memory, had to get over it.”
Coleman could make mark in the middle
Several returning players have switched positions from where they ended last season, a list of which can be found here.
Sumlin said those moves were about “getting our best people on the field, instead of standing next to me.” One of the most notable changes was moving Day Day Coleman from safety, where he played in four games last year as a true freshman, to linebacker.
“Before he got hurt he was really effective,” Sumlin said. “He’s shown us in special teams his ability to play, (but) depth at linebacker is a big deal. He’ll be a great special teams player for us … but we’ve also got to be able to get (Colin) Schooler off the field.”
Sumlin said Coleman would enable Arizona to spell not only Schooler but also Tony Fields II and Anthony Pandy, allowing each to stay fresh.
“If we can get him to come along,” Sumlin said, “now we have a rotation.”