In 2020, the Arizona Wildcats will be faced with a trial-by-fire season. Either head coach Kevin Sumlin wins big this year or there’s a very high likelihood that he’ll be let go. If Sumlin wants to get this team clicking, that journey will start on Monday when spring practice begins.
Over the course of March, Arizona’s 2020 squad will get some practice playing together as the team works to replace departing upperclassmen and develop new faces.
Coming off of two straight underachieving seasons, almost every player has to prove themselves in some way. With that said, here are five players who have something extra to prove this March.
Grant Gunnell, QB, Sophomore
2019 Stats: 101-for-155 passing, 1,239 passing yards, 9 TD, 1 INT
There is no doubt the most talked-about player in Tucson this spring will be Khalil Tate’s heir to the starting quarterback position. Gunnell got an extended audition in multiple starts and co-starts last season, and showed promise. Now it’s time to turn that promise into results in his first full year starting.
Arizona lost very few starters this offseason, and of those they did lose, most had a strong replacement ready to take their place. Assuming Gunnell lives up to the expectations, he’ll be one of those strong replacements. He’ll have a deep and explosive running back corps, almost every contributing receiver, and a healthy amount of last season’s offensive line returning.
What Gunnell needs to show this spring is an ability to hit receivers deep in Sumlin and Noel Mazzone’s pass-heavy offense. Gunnell fits much better into this offense than Tate did, and developing his natural passing talent is priority for the team.
Boobie Curry, WR, Sophomore
2019 Stats: 6 receptions, 68 receiving yards
Gunnell’s high school teammate is one of the highest-rated recruits on the roster. The receiving corps was facing massive turnover last offseason, and Curry was expected to play a big role by most. Thanks to a combination of injuries and finding a great group of receivers in surprising places, Curry didn’t start a game and got only six receptions as a freshman. Now, though, he’ll almost certainly have a greater role.
Last season’s receivers group was one of the only truly positive surprises for Arizona, with players like Tayvian Cunningham and Jamarye Joiner stepping up and becoming key players. After a ton of turnover in 2019, virtually every contributing receiver returns in 2020. Curry will have to fight his way towards the top of the depth chart, but his talent and connection to Gunnell will likely help him immensely.
Gunnell to Curry was one of the most dangerous QB-WR combinations in Texas high school history. If even one of Gunnell and Curry become pivotal players this year, Arizona can improve. If both players become key pieces, then Sumlin’s win-or-go-home season could prove to be a huge success.
Nathan Tilford, RB, RS Junior
2019 Stats: 37 rushes, 228 rushing yards, 4 TD
Speaking of highly regarded recruits who have been underused, Tilford is the highest rated running back out of roster coming out of high school. With multiple talented players preparing to fill the void left by JJ Taylor, Tilford will likely be the one with the most eyes on him.
Despite Taylor’s status as one of the best running backs in the Pac-12, Arizona’s passing struggles meant a lot of touches for a very deep running backs corps. Gary Brightwell will likely be RB1 in 2020, but at least three different players will be in the running for RB2, and even with a pass-happy offense its hard to see the team not utilizing such a strength as the running backs. Tilford has only 350 yards in two seasons, but he’ll likely be the front-runner for the second position on the depth chart, despite strong contention from Darrius Smith, Bryce Coleman and Michael Wiley.
If Tilford can live up to his potential, supplementing Brightwell or even surpassing him for the starting job, Arizona will have a surprisingly strong offense along with a defense returning almost everyone. If Tilford has a mediocre spring or 2020, the running back corps would still be a strength, but it will demonstrably hurt the team. It’s time for a big year from one of the most talented players on the team.
Myles Tapusoa, DT, Senior
2019 Stats: 11 games played, 12 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack
Last season, a defensive line that desperately needed instant help added two of the best JUCO defensive tackles in the country. Tapusoa and teammate Trevon Mason joined the rotation, and while they provided desperately needed depth, neither got a single start. Mason contributed much more than Tapusoa, and that’s why Tapusoa has the most to prove at the position with the most to prove.
The Wildcats have struggled to rush the quarterback for many years now, despite players like PJ Johnson coming through the program. This year, Arizona will have three seniors who started their career elsewhere, and if the pass rush can’t improve this year, then it could be a long time before that changes. In addition to Mason and Tapusoa, New Mexico grad transfer Aaron Blackwell, a previous honorable mention all-Mountain West lineman. With new coordinator Paul Rhoads’ more lineman-friendly defense, Tapusoa will be a crucial part of making that improvement.
While the defensive line’s best players consisting of defensive tackles instead of defensive ends suggests am improvement in rush defense is more likely than improvement in pass rush, a deep and experienced linebacker corps has taken control of run defense for a few years now. Tapusoa performing well in is final year in Tucson could be the key to an improved defense.
Jalen Harris, STUD, RS Junior
2019 Stats: 12 games played, 25 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks
Just as the interior line needs to be better at reaching the quarterback, the defensive ends needs to improve as well. Of those, Harris is one of the most experienced and ready to take the leap forward, and as such has plenty to prove.
Even with all the senior transfers on the inside of the line, homegrown talent is still necessary for a team to improve. Harris has played in 28 games in his three years in Tucson, racking up some modest numbers without ever getting a start. With Justin Belknap’s Arizona career over and a likely increased focus on the pass rush, Harris will have plenty of chances to prove himself in spring and beyond.
Despite all the returning production, this is still a defense full of those with something to prove. The focal point of that is clearly the defensive line, and Harris, along with Tapusoa and the rest of their teammates, could be key to improving a unit that desperately needs it.
Lucas Havrisik, K, Senior
2019 Stats: 10-for-17 field goals, 37-for-39 extra points, 48 touchbacks on 62 kickoffs
Havrisik has seemingly been in this position every moment of his Arizona career. After a promising freshman year supplementing Josh Pollack, both Pollack and Havrisik struggled in 2018. Havrisik took over full-time in 2019, and looked much more like his sophomore self.
Despite a strong leg, Havrisik has been very inaccurate in Sumlin’s tenure. Now, he’ll be a senior who could greatly help the team with improvement. Arizona’s been quite poor at winning close games in Sumlin’s tenure, and the lack of reliable kicking has been a huge part of that. Underclassmen Nathan Halsell and Tyler Loop will be fighting for his job, but even with his mediocre performance it will be Havrisik’s job to lose.
Having a kicker who can make field goals, in addition to Havrisik’s already excellent work on kickoffs, would greatly improve the special teams unit and make the team more formidable in close games. Making some kicks this spring could lead to more being made in fall, and if Havrisik proves himself and does that, there will be some extra optimism around the program.