Are you in game shape yet?
It’s understandable if that’s not the case, seeing as this is the earliest the Arizona Wildcats have ever started a football season and the first time they’ve opened in August since 2014.
But that’s where we come in, to help ease you back in and get you up to speed on what to expect when Arizona takes on the Hawaii Warriors on Saturday night in Honolulu. It’s one of just two ‘Week Zero’ games on the schedule, so the 7:30 p.m. PT kickoff on CBS Sports Network will be appointment viewing for all CFB fans that have had to wait nearly eight months since the last game was played.
The most-watched legs in college football
At this point a year ago—or a little less than a year ago, seeing as the season is starting a week early—the expectations surrounding Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate were astronomical. Need we remind you about this?
Tate’s breakout performance in 2017, which started with him setting an FBS quarterback record with 327 rushing yards against Colorado (off the bench!!!) and continued for much of that season, led to incredibly hype heading into his junior year. The belief was that pairing him with offensive minds like Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone would only enhance Tate’s play.
Yeah, about that …
Tate ran just eight times in the 2018 opener against BYU, tied for the fewest in any game since his run began the previous October. A week later he injured his left ankle early at Houston, an ailment that would impact his running ability the rest of the season.
Now in his senior year, with much lower expectations (but a completely healthy body), what will Tate do? While his rushing numbers were way down last year, his passing stats were way up. Arizona would like there to be a nice balance between the two, thus preventing defenses from keying on one thing or the next.
How much will Tate run against Hawaii, who last year ranked 103rd out of 130 FBS teams in run defense? We’ll know the first time he sprints forward on a designed run or, more likely, when he takes off after a pocket collapses.
As much as we’ll want to see how mobile Tate is, even more important is how he clicks with an almost completely new wide receiver corps.
Other than senior Cedric Peterson, who had 18 catches and four touchdowns last season, no other Wildcat on the roster has started an FBS game. He and Stanley Berryhill III are the only guys with real experience, but where Arizona’s wideouts lack in that category they look like they’ll make up for it in talent and athleticism.
Four players are listed as co-starters at the other two receiver positions: sophomores Brian Casteel and Drew Dixon, redshirt freshman Jamarye Joiner and true freshman Boobie Curry. Each is listed at 6-foot or taller, with Dixon clocking in at 6-3 and Curry 6-2. That length could enable one of them to emerge as this year’s version of Shawn Poindexter, whose 6-foot-5 frame made him a touchdown magnet.
That revamped defensive line
Arizona put a tremendous emphasis on beefing up its offensive and defensive lines during the offseason, signing a quartet of junior college transfers for those units. The two hosses on the D-line, Trevon Mason and Myles Tapusoa, are both listed as starters in the middle.
But how good the Wildcats will be on that front line won’t be solely dependent on the four starters. Throughout training camp, coaches insisted that there’s going to be a heavy (and constant) rotation of big bodies cycling through the defensive line both to keep them fresh and to adjust to the offenses Arizona is facing.
Junior JB Brown is listed as a starting defensive end but is expected to see a lot of time inside, thus freeing up sophomore Jalen Harris and junior Kylan Wilborn to attack off the edge. Wilborn and seniors Justin Belknap and Finton Connolly have all started multiple games for Arizona, further evidence of the depth down low.
Tributes to Tomey
Dick Tomey is the winningest coach in Arizona history, but before that he won 63 games at Hawaii which still ranks third on that school’s list. His impact on both programs goes far beyond victories, however.
As much can be seen in the tributes each school has made to Tomey since his death in May. Arizona has named one of the fields at its practice facility after him and will wear a sticker with his initials for Saturday’s game, and likely for the entire seasons. Hawaii, meanwhile, released an incredibly touching video on Wednesday night in which some of Tomey’s former players spoke at length about how much he helped them.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the teams came together either before the game, or at halftime, to further honor Coach Tomey.
The lonely (and unsuccessful) road
This is the first time Arizona is opening a season on the road since 2010, though three years ago the Wildcats began play with a neutral-site game against BYU at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. That game did not go well, with Arizona’s 18-16 loss to the Cougars setting the stage for a 3-9 season.
Opening away from Arizona Stadium used to be a more common thing for the Wildcats, doing so every year from 1997-2001, but this will be only the fifth time they’ve done so since then. Frequency aside, though, the results haven’t been particularly good.
Arizona is 5-6 since 1991 when starting a season outside of Tucson, the most recent victory coming in 2010 when it blitzed Toledo 41-2 in the Glass Bowl. Before that, the Wildcats’ last road win to open a season came in 2001 when they beat San Diego State 23-10 to begin the otherwise disastrous John Mackovic era.