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Arizona football’s biggest questions entering Pac-12 play

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edgar-burrola-arizona-wildcats-offensive-line-labrum-shoulder-surgery-spring-2020-pac-12 Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats’ first bye week came at a time that was great for physical recovery, but maybe bad for the mental side of the game. Being able to rest up after the long trip to Hawaii proved beneficial, but the on-field product in the first game afterward (against NAU) wasn’t so great.

Now the Wildcats are off once again, their second of three byes during this uniquely arranged 2019 schedule. This time, though, the weeklong break serves as a perfect bridge between the end of nonconference play and the start of the Pac-12 slate that begins Sept. 28 at home against UCLA.

“It comes at a good time for us,” coach Kevin Sumlin said Saturday night. “Trust me, there’s a lot of energy that was put into this week. To win a game in that fashion, there’s some sore guys down there right now.”

Arizona is practicing this week, but the workouts are more about them than the next opponent. With that in mind, here are the biggest questions lingering over this team as Pac-12 play approaches:

Can Khalil Tate avoid costly mistakes?

Expectations for Tate’s senior season were far lower than the year before, and so far he’s come through with some good numbers. But also quite a few head-scratching plays.

Through three games, Tate has thrown for 684 yards and six touchdowns, completing 63.3 percent of his passes, while also leading Arizona in rushing with 238 yards and two TDs with a 7.44 yards-per-carry average. Those are the good numbers.

The bad ones: four interceptions, two apiece against Hawaii and Texas Tech, with only one not being his fault. He also lost a fumble against Texas when he tried to pull back on a zone read after J.J. Taylor had already gotten too far upfield.

But the most unsettling thing Tate has done far too often this season is run out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage. He’s technically been sacked five times, but four of them were when he opted to run off the field instead of throw the ball away, and on at least one other occasion against Texas Tech he ran out of bounds for no gain when a throwaway made more sense.

Considering that Tate’s throwing ability seems to be better when he’s on the move than standing still in the pocket, it’s hard to think he’s afraid of getting intercepted when opting to take a sack rather than toss the ball past the line of scrimmage and into the sideline.

Will the running back-by-committee thing keep producing?

Tate is one of three Arizona ball carriers with at least 200 rushing yards, along with Gary Brightwell (226) and J.J. Taylor (208). Taylor has the most carries, with 35, followed by Tate (32) and Brightwell (28), while Bam Smith has 17 and true freshman Michael Wiley has 14. Nathan Tilford has seven to round out the ground rotation, though he didn’t play against Texas Tech.

From a group standpoint, the production has been tremendous. Arizona is averaging 6.64 yards per carry and 307.7 yards per game, and since the Hawaii game when it threw the ball seven times more than it ran the balance has shifted greatly toward the ground.

But at some point does a featured back need to be identified? Taylor would figure to be that guy, but his season-best 14 carries against Hawaii would tie for second least in 2018 when he was the overwhelming workhorse of the backfield.

Taylor got nicked up late in the first half against Texas Tech and only had two touches in the second half, paving the way for Brightwell and Smith to pilot Arizona’s heavy run approach down the stretch. Sumlin has said he wants to spread the ball around but going with the hot hand—or in this case, hands—needs to be an option.

Was that defensive performance vs. Texas Tech a fluke?

Arizona has had better defensive games under Sumlin from a statistical standpoint than it did against Tech, allowing fewer yards on four occasions last season and a lower yards-per-play average four times as well. But considering how bad that unit looked against Hawaii and NAU, allowing only 14 points and 5.14 yards per play was pretty amazing.

Only time will tell if that effort was an anomaly or the turning of a page for the defense.

This is where Sumlin’s preaching of consistency really comes into play. No one is expecting Arizona to suddenly return to the Desert Swarm days, but being able to make a few stops other than via the turnover—for the record, the Wildcats’ 10 takeaways are their most through the first three games in a season in at least 20 years—would be lovely.

Tech was 7 of 17 on third down, marking the 31st time in 41 games under defensive coordinator Marcel Yates that an opponent has converted at least 40 percent of those plays.

What is the best alignment for the defense?

Arizona went with a 3-3-5 alignment against Texas Tech, the same as it did for the opener at Hawaii, in an effort to get all three top linebackers (Colin Schooler, Tony Fields II and Anthony Pandy) on the field together. Despite all of the preseason talk about going with a four-man front, the early returns on from the defensive line indicate it isn’t as good as hoped, and thus the Wildcats need to make sure they have their best players out there as much as possible.

If that means sticking with three linebackers in the middle, so be it. The next step is figuring out which three line up in front of them and how the five on the back line are arranged.

So far, 15 players have started on defense, with only Schooler, Fields and defensive end Jalen Harris occupying the same spot in each game. JB Brown and Trevon Mason have each started twice on the D-line, while the third (or fourth) starter has been new each contest.

Four defensive backs have started all three games, but Yates shuffled things up last Saturday by putting his best cover corner, Jace Whittaker, at Bandit, and sticking true freshman Christian Roland-Wallace on the boundary. That also enabled him to move Scotty Young Jr. from free safety, where he’s struggled this season, to Spur, and slide Christian Young from Spur to free.

The results: Tech had 300-plus passing yards, but it averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt and had only two completions over 20 yards. NAU had six, while Hawaii had seven.

What can be done about the punting?

Remember how bad Arizona was at punting in 2017? If you’ve managed to black that out of your memory, he’s a refresher: the Wildcats averaged 34.2 yards per kick, worst in FBS, at one point turning to a tight end (Trevor Wood) and coming perilously close to letting offensive lineman Gerhard de Beer give it a whirl.

This year’s punting may ultimately be worse, based on the early numbers.

Matt Aragon is averaging 35.4 yards on 10 punts, while Kyle Ostendorp averaged 38 on his two kicks when he started against NAU but apparently lost the job back to Aragon ahead of the Tech game.

Arizona has a third punter on the roster, freshman walk-on Cameron Weinberg, but regardless of who up being back there to boot it away the results need to be better. Maybe it’s time to consider going rugby style, where the punter rolls out and line drives it down the field to get more of a bounce and roll?