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How can Arizona surprise in 2019? Here are 5 keys

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arizona-wildcats-oregon-state-beavers-homecoming-kickoff-tv-time-throwback-pac-12-football Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the calendar having turned to August, we are now less than a month away from the Arizona Wildcats kicking off their 2019 season against Hawaii.

Actually, we’re less than three weeks away from the opening game. Cool.

Up to this point, reports out of the Old Pueblo have been pretty positive. That’s not uncommon for this time of year.

Look around the country and odds are you’ll hear plenty about players being in the best shape of their careers, coaches having a better understanding of their rosters, an incoming class of freshmen that may be ready to contribute early and veterans who have a renewed focus on the little things.

Not to say none of that is true. Just, not hearing any of those things would be more newsworthy than actually hearing them.

But I digress.

Unlike this time last season, the Wildcats are not really dealing with the weight of outside expectations. A look at our staff’s predictions (absent my own because I’m a slacker) shows that even the most optimistic aren’t anticipating a special season.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

After the letdown that was 2018, it would be understandable if people were hesitant to figure Arizona to finish near the top of the Pac-12 South. Coming up with just five wins over what seemed like a pretty favorable schedule did little to inspire confidence, and key losses on both sides of the ball left the team with some questions as it looked to bounce back.

But that’s not to say there isn’t reason for hope, which is more or less what this piece is about. So with that in mind, here are 5 keys to Arizona having a good season.

Tate is great

Arguably the most obvious key is the QB. Reports are true freshman Grant Gunnell has been impressive in camp, picking up the offense and showing why everyone was so high on him as a recruit. Hopefully Gunnell will not have to play much, if at all, because that would mean starter Khalil Tate is not only healthy, but effective.

None of us have to remember too far back to picture Tate as a dynamic threat, someone who could beat defenses with his arm and his legs. Whether you want to point to the coaching change, ankle injury, ego or some combination of factors, he was not nearly as good as he is capable of being.

Healthy and reportedly with a better grasp of the offense and greater communication with the coaching staff, Tate could be in store for the kind of season we all expected last year.

If he can be at least close to 1,000 yards rushing with the kind of passing numbers he had last season (with a bit better accuracy, hopefully), Tate will be the kind of QB who can make up for some of his team’s shortcomings.

Potential turns into production at WR

In an underrated way, Arizona got good production from its receivers last season. Its top four pass-catchers combined for 153 receptions, 2,307 yards and 23 touchdowns.

But none of Shun Brown, Shawn Poindexter, Tony Ellison or DeVaughn Cooper will be coming out of the Arizona tunnel this season. Instead, Arizona has a plethora of talented, but unproven, options.

Of all the position groups to slowly see the hype build, the one featuring Cedric Peterson, Stanley Berryhill, Brian Casteel, (now) Jamarye Joyner, Boobie Curry, Drew Dixon, Tayvian Cunningham and more seems to be the most talked about — and most likely to be deserving of the praise.

As of now it appears the role of starter is fluid, with the likelihood being that many different wideouts see the field, at least until some really start to separate themselves.

With Tate and a quality stable of running backs, Arizona may not need to have a high-flying passing game. However, the emergence of at least a few guys Tate can rely on, especially when big catches are needed, would go a long way toward making the offense borderline unstoppable.

Defensive line does more than hold up

While Arizona’s defense was hardly anything to brag about last season (or many of the seasons before), it would be wrong to criticize the play of PJ Johnson and Dereck Boles.

Johnson tallied 8.5 tackles for loss along with three sacks, while Boles notched 5.0 tackles for loss and a sack and-a-half of his own. But more than the stats, each was a steady force on the defensive front and were players Arizona could count on to do their jobs game in and game out.

Both are gone, and Arizona can in no way be sure of who will take their place. Some beef has arrived via recruiting, with JUCO additions Myles Tapusoa and Trevon Mason hopefully able to play key roles sooner rather than later. Finton Connolly and Justin Belknap are there, and Kylan Wilborn has ability. But the guy to keep an eye on is J.B. Brown.

Brown, you may have read, is trying to pattern his game after NFL stud Aaron Donald. A bit small for the interior defensive line at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Brown’s advantage will be quickness.

If he can be disruptive on the interior while Jalen Harris takes a step forward and is a good pass rusher off the edge, the team’s linebackers should have the freedom to make plenty of plays.

Speaking of those linebackers...

Help for Schooler emerges

Given how not-good Arizona’s defense was last season, you’d have a tough time selling anyone on them having really good linebackers.

Of course, we all know how great Colin Schooler is, with the junior linebacker coming off a season in which he was an AP First-Team All-Pac-12 selection after amassing 119 total tackles along with 21.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions.

But while he thrived last season, Tony Fields was a bit on the disappointing side.

If he can get back to the level of play that had folks excited just one year ago, or some other guys step up, Arizona’s defense front will have some talent. Pair that with a secondary that has plenty of talent and depth, and Arizona’s defense might be...dare I say...decent?

Early wins equal confidence, and confidence equals...

I remember being at Arizona Stadium last September for the opener against BYU. There was plenty of excitement in the air, with a Heisman-hopeful at QB and a new coaching staff.

Then, the offense was average and Arizona lost. That game was followed the next week by a blowout at Houston, a game in which said QB hurt his ankle.

And just like that, the Cats were playing catch up.

In short, for the first time in years it seemed as though Arizona Football began a campaign with momentum, only to squander it all after a couple hours of football.

It doesn’t have to be that way this season. While the schedule appears to be more difficult than last season’s, it starts off pretty friendly.

If Arizona can knock off Hawaii, they come home for what should be a gimme against Northern Arizona. A winnable home game against Texas Tech follows, with Pac-12 play then opening with a home game against UCLA and a road tilt at Colorado.

Win all five of those games, and the Cats will probably be ranked. Even winning four of the five will lead to some positive vibes, and who knows what a confident team could do when the schedule gets undoubtedly tougher.

If nothing else, it would be nice to feel good about the team.

Prediction

So yeah, I failed to get my prediction in on time. That’s not to say I don’t have one, because I certainly do.

I am admittedly more bullish on this team than others, but I think it’s because I don’t believe they were particularly terrible last season. They made mistakes, yes, but also got some bad breaks with injuries and some bounces.

A lack of expectations will be good for this team, and health permitting there is enough talent to compete with most of the Pac-12.

7-5 (4-5)

  • at Hawaii — W
  • vs. NAU — W
  • vs. Texas Tech — W
  • vs. UCLA — W
  • at Colorado — W
  • vs. Washington — L
  • at USC — L
  • at Stanford — L
  • vs. Oregon State — W
  • at Oregon — L
  • vs. Utah — L
  • at Arizona State — W

What a weird season that would be, right? An amazing start giving way to a (other than reclaiming the Cup) brutal finish?

That’s the way the schedule could play out, based on when each game is. And at the end of the day, I’m betting most Arizona fans would take it.