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Arizona’s offense should benefit from improved depth, competition

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Bam Smith and Khalil Tate
Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

If you are looking for one reason why the Arizona Wildcats‘ offense will be better this season, consider the old “iron sharpens iron” adage.

The Wildcats have more depth at virtually every position except maybe wide receiver where they do they have a lot of intriguing options, just not much proven production.

More depth equals more protection from injuries and, hopefully, healthy competition that brings out the best in a unit that ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in yards per play last season.

Let’s start with the offensive line. The Wildcats lost starting left tackle Layth Friekh (graduation) and backup interior lineman Michael Eletise (transfer), but added junior college linemen Paiton Fears and Josh Donovan plus scholarship freshmen Jordan Morgan and Jamari Williams.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M transfer Robert Congel, is now eligible to play after sitting out the 2018 season.

“I think I like our size, we’ve definitely developed a little bit of depth, so I think we’ve got about eight or nine guys I’m really starting to feel comfortable with,” said UA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

“Then as you go through camp, you’re always trying to find that group that can play next to each other and develop the depth behind them. An old coach once told me, you want your line to play like a nickel, not like five pennies. And they got to play next to each other for a while to kind of feel comfortable. I think I’m just now in the last day or two starting to see that happening.

“Last year we were just trying to get five guys that we can get on the field.”

At running back, the Wildcats are much more than J.J. Taylor, though he has certainly proven he is capable of carrying the ground game. Gary Brightwell, who racked up over 500 rushing yards and averaged nearly six yards per carry last season, is back. So is Bam Smith, another scat back who got his feet wet last season while still maintaining his redshirt.

Then there is true freshman Michael Wiley, who Mazzone said has good “wiggle” and former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford, who has always had the physical tools to do some damage but has lacked the nuances of the position. Maybe this will be the year he puts it all together.

Even at quarterback, where Khalil Tate is obvious starter because of his seniority, there is competition. True freshman Grant Gunnell is “way ahead of the curve” and has the pedigree—he is Texas’ all-time high school passing leader—to at least put some pressure on Tate to prepare and perform at his best.

“It’s been good for our whole group with [Gunnell], Rhett (Rodriguez) and Khalil,” Mazzone said. “I think they’re all very competitive kids. They’re human, right? They watch each other. And when one guy has a good drive or good series, there’s little a competitiveness to then go out and have a good drive, good series.”

Mazzone added: “Competitiveness is what builds good football teams. And when you have competitiveness at all the positions, then obviously I think the level of play goes up. I think you have to always show up to every practice like you’re trying to either keep your job or win a job, and I think that’s good for anybody, for any position on our football team.”