It’s no secret that the Arizona Wildcats are one of the most run-focused teams in the Power 5. Not only are they a run-oriented team, they also heavily utilize spread concepts, meaning that they rely on the offensive line more than most college football squads.
Last season, the offensive line was thrown into the fire right away, as projected starting center Nathan Eldridge suffered a knee injury in the summer and left tackle Layth Friekh was suspended for two games to begin the year. The results weren’t fantastic, but the unit improved most weeks, and ended the season a solid if not spectacular unit.
Most of the reasons for that improvement are back this year after a full offseason of getting first-team reps. Beneath that, there’s still some talented players, but a complete lack of experience.
Eldridge’s replacement at starting center, a mostly unheralded walk-on named Josh McCauley, ended up perfectly fine and was one of the few pleasant surprises for the ‘Cats last year. He got all 12 starts at center in 2018, and while nobody would confuse him with an All-American, he showed that there is a base of talent for the coaching staff to build on going into this season. He was put on scholarship before the spring game in April, and is quickly becoming a leader on this team’s offense.
Right guard was a somewhat unstable position last year, which makes running back J.J. Taylor’s incredible season even more impressive. Bryson Cain, another sophomore, saw the majority of starts last year, before a season-ending injury against Oregon in October. Much like McCauley, Cain wasn’t a star, but he proved himself to be worthy of a starting role and now has had a full offseason of rehab and starting reps. He’s probably the starter from last season most likely to see pressure from the newcomers, but he’s also got a lead on them for now,
If there’s one position with the least concern, it’s left guard. Senior-to-be Cody Creason was the highest-rated recruit on the offensive line leaving high school, and he is the only lineman on the roster with starts before 2018. Creason filled in at right tackle during the first two games of the season, before becoming a run-blocking beast to McCauley’s left to end the fall. Creason was sometimes overshadowed by Friekh as the offensive line’s star last year, but there’s little doubt who will be UA’s best asset up front in 2019.
Taylor and quarterback Khalil Tate will have a lot of thanks to give Creason if all goes well.
Right tackle was a potential problem area entering last year, and it took a bit of shuffling before Donovan Laie ended up the starter and another above average piece. Laie was part of the transitional recruiting class between Rich Rodriguez and Kevin Sumlin, and he appeared to be a revelation in 2018. He was the first true freshman to start all 12 games on the offensive line in a long time at UAA, possibly ever, and he did a solid job of it. Laie is still a true sophomore and proved himself already last year, meaning he could be the next centerpiece of the line once Creason departs.
The final position on the line, and as Michael Oher and Sandra Bullock taught us, the most important, is left tackle. It’s also the only position where last season’s primary producer is not returning. Friekh missed the first two games of the year, and later missed a contest with an ankle injury. When he returned, the whole line seemed to gain new confidence, and by November he was the star on a unit that was getting hard to complain about.
Friekh is gone and will be missed this year, but Sumlin brought in plenty of new blood to help make the fight for his starting spot enticing.
Among players on the roster in 2017, former three-stars Edgar Burrola and David Watson are perhaps the most likely to see playing time specifically at left tackle. They’ll have to fend off five intriguing newcomers though, including three who’s primary position is offensive tackle.
First is redshirt sophomore Robert Congel, a Texas A&M transfer who followed Sumlin to Tucson but had to sit out last season. Congel is more of a guard, and he’ll provide absolutely vital depth at that position if Sumlin keeps him there, so chances are he won’t be starting at left tackle. Next are two JUCO transfers, Paiton Fears and Josh Donovan, two gems of the 2019 class who will undoubtedly be important in keeping this unit strong. Both are primarily offensive tackles, and it seems one of these two is destined for the starting role while the other will be the primary backup at both tackles positions.
Next are the true freshmen: Jamari Williams and Jordan Morgan. Neither is particularly highly-rated compared to the more veteran names on Arizona’s roster, but they are Sumlin recruits, and that kind of distinction is often crucial in second-year battles for starting positions. Williams is more of a guard and as such will probably not see as much playing time and could be redshirted, while Morgan is a tackle that might have a chance at the left tackle position. I’m assuming both get redshirted and just play minor depth roles, but as Sumlin’s first four-year recruits at the position they will almost assuredly be important starters as upperclassmen.
Overall, while it’s not a glamorous position and is one Arizona relies on heavily, this offensive line has the potential to really be an asset to this team. Losing Friekh will strike a blow, but Sumlin brought in plenty of talent to help plug that hole. Creason, McCauley, Cain and Laie will be solid starters if they stay healthy, and only Creason will be departing after this season. It’s easier than one would think to talk yourself into the depth players as well, and while they have literally no previous starts between them, there’s enough talent for them all to be key backups and see the field that way.
This isn’t the kind of unit to get a lot of accolades, but it’s likely all five starters will be above replacement level, and that’s enough to perhaps help swing some close games in UA’s favor. If the injury bug bites, Arizona won’t be totally screwed, but it will still sting. If the injury bug spares the offensive line, this unit could be good going on great in 2019 and return four starters in 2020. That sounds awfully good to me.
It won’t be long until we see for ourselves how this line will perform. Football grows closer by the minute, and with it so do answers to all our questions we’ve had over the offseason.