It’s hard to argue that the 2020 season won’t be a make-or-break one for the Arizona Wildcats and coach Kevin Sumlin. Back-to-back losing records has him firmly on the hot seat entering the third year of a five-year contract, and anything short of marked improvement on the field could easily result in a change after (or possibly even during) the next campaign.
Sumlin took what he hopes is a big step—three, actually—toward a bounceback year with the trio of assistant coaches he hired in the past month. And while it remains to be seen if these new mentors will be able to produce results, it won’t be due to a lack of institutional knowledge.
Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, defensive line coach Stan Eggen and outside linebackers coach Andy Buh bring a combined 94 years of Division I college coaching experience to Arizona’s staff. That’s nearly three times as much D-I experience as the trio they are replacing.
Former defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei had never coached above the junior college level before Sumlin hired him in 2018, while ex-linebackers coach John Rushing had only been back in the college ranks for one year—he spent 2010-16 as an NFL assistant—before coming to Tucson.
Dispatched defensive coordinator Marcel Yates has 19 years at the Division I level but he wasn’t a Sumlin hire, rather a holdover from Rich Rodriguez’s final staff.
Beyond their collective wisdom, Arizona’s new assistants all share at least one other thing in common: a desire to lean on the fundamentals in their coaching. Rhoads said as much when he met with the media following his hiring announcement on Dec. 18, saying “the first thing you’ve got to do is tackle great. You don’t just teach it, you rep it.”
Eggen and Buh likely won’t be made available to reporters until spring practice, but in the press releases announcing their hires Sumlin referred to their devotion to development and teaching as big reasons for bringing them on board.
That may or may not have been a shot at his former coaches, and if it was you can’t blame him for doing so. Arizona’s defensive line under Uiagalelei was atrocious, contributing to a two-year sack total of 40 that was last in the Pac-12, while the ultra-promising freshmen from RichRod’s final team (linebackers Tony Fields Jr. and Colin Schooler, edge rusher Kylan Wilborn and safety Scottie Young Jr.) all seemed to regress under Sumlin’s defensive staff.
Sumlin’s push for more experience on the defensive staff comes a year after his replacements to the offensive staff were just the opposite. DeMarco Murray had never coached prior to Sumlin tabbing him to handle running backs, while offensive line coach Kyle DeVan had only been coaching since 2013 and had only three years’ experience as a full-time college assistant.
The difference, though: both Murray and DeVan had recently finished their professional careers, which presumably gave them a certain level of relatability to the players they’d be working with. The jury is still out on whether that approach worked, as Arizona failed to lead the Pac-12 in rushing for the first time since 2015 and the 33 sacks allowed were the most since 2014, though a rash of injuries to both the line and running back corps no doubt contributed to that drop off.