The Arizona Wildcats open their 2019 season Saturday on the road against Hawaii. It will officially mark the beginning of year two of the Kevin Sumlin era.
There are several returning key contributors who provide the fan base with a fair level of excitement. I’m sure I can speak for everyone in saying I’m mostly excited for this season to begin as an effort to erase the disappointment from last year.
Here are five Wildcats to keep a close eye on during the season opener.
This is an obvious choice and probably doesn’t require much explanation. Simply put, this team will go as far as Tate will take them. There is pressure on the defense to improve and all signs point to the idea that they will.
Regardless of the defense’s performance, Tate has shown flashes of being a lethal runner and passer. If he’s able to successfully pair the two, he will be very difficult to stop. Hawaii’s defense struggled mightily in 2018 and gave up 30+ points nine times. This is the perfect opportunity for Tate to set the tone for the season.
The true freshman begins his time with the program with UA needing to replace its top four receivers from last season. Curry was a four-star prospect out of St. Pius X High School in Houston, and has great size (6’2, 206 pounds) and speed which will likely be heavily relied on throughout the season.
There will be a natural learning curve as the season progresses but as for Saturday, I suspect he won’t look like a true freshman. Keep an eye on snap count and targets. If both are relatively high, it’ll confirm the coaching staff and Tate trust him.
The position change that made headlines all throughout the offseason will finally be tested. Sumlin has acknowledged Joiner as one of the “top two or three” athletes on the team. Much like Curry’s timing, Joiner picked the perfect time for a position change.
The converted QB’s progress is encouraging as he earned a co-starter designation for Saturday. His athleticism will not be questioned, but how will his ability to absorb the playbook—and contact, for that matter, unfold in real-game situations?
Arguably the team’s most talented cornerback over the past two years, Whittaker has finally overcome his injuries that plagued the 2018 season. He will return to the field on Saturday and will immediately be tested by an above-average passing attack.
If Whittaker can return to his 2017 form, the pass defense will be in great shape as Lorenzo Burns is more than qualified to play opposite corner. The question will be: how quickly can he get back to game speed?
There has been a lot of chatter regarding a potential breakout year for the redshirt sophomore. Harris took the offseason very seriously and enters the season in prime edge-rushing shape at 6’5, 250 pounds.
If defensive coordinator Marcel Yates is finally able to take this defense to another level, Harris will be a big reason why. He showed tremendous promise in 2018 and it fair to assume his game will only creep closer to his ceiling (which is really, really high).
So what will make a strong season debut? As mentioned, Hawaii has a strong passing game and they rely heavily on it. This will give Harris ample opportunity to be disruptive in the backfield. I’m not necessarily concerned with recorded sacks, but more so quarterback hurries.