The Arizona Wildcats have been on the downswing the last few years, seeing their win total drop from seven in 2017 to five in 2018 to four in 2019.
They enter the abbreviated 2020 season with what appears to be a very difficult schedule, and here’s what they can do to make Kevin Sumlin’s third season a successful one.
Grant Gunnell proves he’s the real deal
For a guy that’s only played eight games, Gunnell has generated a lot of hype this offseason. The folks at Pro Football Focus graded him as the highest-graded returning quarterback in the Pac-12, deeming him a “breakout waiting to happen.”
His freshman numbers were solid, completing 66 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns.
The experts say it’s Gunnell’s accuracy that really stands out. He was also very good decision-maker for a true freshman, only throwing one pick in 155 pass attempts. He credited that to his advanced knowledge of the offense.
“If you have all the answers, you know where you’re going with the ball,” he said this spring. “You’re not having any second guesses.”
High-level QB play can mask a lot of weaknesses, so Gunnell establishing himself as one of the best gunslingers in the country could be the reason the Wildcats exceed expectations and even receive some national exposure this season.
A star emerges in the receiving corps
Gunnell can’t do it alone. His offensive line, which is already pretty experienced, got a boost when their best lineman, Donovan Laie, changed his mind about transferring.
Now the Wildcats need some playmakers to emerge in their receiving corps, which was average at best last season. It says a lot that their top receiver was Jamarye Joiner, a converted quarterback who was in his first year at the position.
Arizona does have some interesting skill sets. Joiner is back and there are speed demons like Brian Casteel and Tayvian Cunningham, big targets like Drew Dixon and Tre Adams, and hybrids like Boobie Curry and Jalen Johnson.
Curry is the obvious breakout candidate. He only caught six passes in six games as a freshman, but was a 4-star recruit and Gunnell’s top receiver when he set Texas high school records in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
If those two can rekindle that chemistry, Arizona’s offense could be a lot of fun to watch regardless of what the electric Gary Brightwell does in his first season as Arizona’s No. 1 running back (and that could very exciting too).
Make progress on defense
Here’s a painful reminder of how bad Arizona’s defense was last year. It ranked...
- 120th in the country in yards allowed per game
- 118th in passing yards allowed per game
- 100th in rushing yards per attempt
- 118th in points allowed per game
- 111th in third-down conversion percentage
- 97th in takeaways per game
- 104th in sacks per game
Basically it wasn’t good—or even decent—at anything. Hence why Arizona parted ways with its entire defensive staff.
The new coaches have a short preseason and even less proven talent to work with than the previous ones because starters/leading tacklers Colin Schooler, Tony Fields II and Scottie Young Jr. transferred out, but they can still do a better job of maximizing the talent they do have, whether that’s through better scheming, play-calling or simply developing their young players—something Arizona has struggled to do for years.
Be competitive, even if it doesn’t translate to that many wins
Arizona has had way too many blowout losses under Sumlin. Eight of its 15 defeats have come by three or more scores. Last season, seven of Arizona’s eight losses were by 10 or more points, and four of them were by 24 or more points.
Losing is one thing. Getting embarrassed is another. That’s when fans become disgruntled or, worse, disinterested.
If Arizona is keeping things close and its young players have their moments and are clearly improving, then this short season will be a success no matter how many wins it comes away with. (Of course, a few Ws would be nice too.)
Show us, in some way, that this program is heading in the right direction.
That being said...
The Wildcats have lost three straight and four of their last five to that school up north. The Territorial Cup needs to come home.
Avoid a coronavirus outbreak
While it’s great to have football back, we’re still in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s hoping Arizona and the rest of the Pac-12 can stay healthy and finish the season without any cancelations or serious cases of COVID-19.