Following a 2019 season in which injuries caused the offensive line to be in a perpetual state of flux, the Arizona Wildcats were really looking forward to having some consistency in the trenches.
The same five guys have started both games so far, which is the good part. The bad part is they haven’t performed nearly as well as hoped.
Arizona has allowed nine sacks in two games, including five during last Saturday’s 44-27 loss at Washington. That is the most in the Pac-12, with none of the schools that have played three games yielding more than seven, and the 4.5 allowed per game is third-worst in FBS behind UNLV (5.25) and Kansas (5.43).
Coach Kevin Sumlin said as of now there are no plans to change the starting five of left tackle Jordan Morgan, left guard Donovan Laie, center Josh McCauley, right guard Robert Congel and right tackle Paiton Fears despite their struggles in Washington. Fears allowed two sacks on one possession, while Laie—who was moved inside after starting the past two seasons at left tackle—allowed a strip-sack while also being called for holding on the play.
“There were issues across the board,” Sumlin said. “What we have to do is continue to grow as an offensive line. And then we’ve got to communicate a little better up front. We have to adjust and also give our guys a plan where, in situations like that, schematically it’s good, but maybe physically there’s been mismatches, or matchup problems and matchup issues, we need to recognize that quicker and have answers.”
Asked if some players might be shifted around, such as moving Laie to right tackle, Sumlin said doing that now could cause bigger problems. Instead, positional backups could get inserted, as was the case in Seattle when Steven Bailey came in for McCauley, Josh Donovan played for Congel and walk-on Tyson Gardner subbed out Fears.
“Last year everybody was on us about moving guys around every week,” Sumlin said. “Now, we’ve got to fix the problem. How to fix the problem is not getting our best five players on the field at one time, on the offensive line, I’ve said this for a long time. It’s not the best five individual players it’s the best five that play together, that communicate. Joe Tiller was a line coach, and he used to say you’re not looking for five pennies you’re looking for a nickel.”
Tight end Bryce Wolma, who is effectively a sixth offensive lineman on many plays, said better protection up front will be a big part of practice ahead of Saturday’s trip to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA.
“I know that’s a huge emphasis going into into practice this week—really just shaping some things up, especially in the pass pro aspect to really clean up those edges,” Wolma said. “Because I know as an offense we were trying to do some things, but just down the field we just didn’t really have enough time.”
It hasn’t helped Arizona’s line that the wide receivers don’t seem to be able to get space from their defenders.
“We’ve got to continue to be better against man-to-man coverage, because we’re going to see it,” Sumlin said. “We’re going to see it until we prove we can handle it.”
As if Washington was a tough challenge for the line, UCLA could be even more so. The Bruins lead the Pac-12 with 10 sacks through three games, logging nine in the past two contests, and five different players have at least one.
Contrast that to Arizona, whose only sack was by true freshman Paris Shand in garbage time at Washington.