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5 things to watch for in Arizona football spring practice

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arizona-wildcats-college-football-spring-practice-preview-sumlin-gunnell-mazzone-2020-pac12 Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Back-to-back losing seasons has put into question whether Kevin Sumlin is the right man for the Arizona Wildcats. How the team performs in 2020 may determine whether the program needs to make a change at the top in the near future.

No such decisions will be made until games are played in the fall, but the next five weeks could go a long way toward how those contests play out.

Arizona opens spring practice on Monday, with four workouts in a five-day period before taking a week off for Spring Break. The Wildcats will return to the field on March 17, with the annual Spring Game on tap for April 4 at Arizona Stadium.

Here are some things to be looking out for when Arizona starts its spring program:

Will there be a quarterback competition?

Sumlin and Noel Mazzone inherited a starting QB in Khalil Tate, and we saw how that worked out. Now the coach and offensive coordinator have their own guy in that spot in Grant Gunnell, who played in eight games in 2019 including three starts and looked very promising.

So he’s a shoo-in to be the starter, right? Let’s put the odds at 90 percent, with the real competition being for Gunnell’s understudy.

There are four scholarship passers on the roster along with redshirt junior Rhett Rodriguez, redshirt sophomore Kevin Doyle and true freshman Will Plummer. Only RhettRod has seen college action, including a start in 2018, but he only played in the NAU game last season, while Doyle has yet to see the field in two seasons.

Plummer may end up being the backup to Gunnell since he’s a recruit that Sumlin’s start zeroed in on immediately after the 2018 season ended. RhettRod may also see some relief time depending on whether Arizona wants to burn Plummer’s redshirt.

The new players

Plummer is one of four members of the 2020 signing class that 247Sports lists as being enrolled, the others being freshman offensive lineman Woody Jean, freshman tight end Roberto Miranda and junior college tight end Stacey Marshall Jr. Also expected to be on the spring roster are the Wildcats’ two graduate transfers, ex-Oregon wide receiver Brenden Schooler and former New Mexico defensive lineman Aaron Blackwell, though Blackwell is sitting out to let a knee injury he suffered last September to fully heal.

Those newcomers will have a leg up on the rest of the 2020 class when it comes to getting playing time this fall, though Arizona showed it wasn’t afraid to throw newbies into the fire last season. Nearly every scholarship freshman saw action in at least two games, with seven playing in eight or more contests.

The new coaches

While Arizona brings back a ton of experienced players, including the vast majority of its starters, many of those guys may be still playing for their jobs. That’s because the Wildcats have four new assistant coaches, three on defense, as well as a new opening to fill with Colorado reportedly hiring away defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin, so spring ball will be as much about the players learning who is guiding them as it will be getting back into form.

The defensive returners will already be dealing with a new coordinator (Paul Rhoads), new defensive line coach (Andy Buh) and new outside linebackers coach (Stan Eggen), while Arizona’s running backs will now be under the guidance of AJ Steward after DeMarco Murray left for the same position at Oklahoma.

Steward will be the fourth different position coach for senior Gary Brightwell and redshirt junior Nathan Tilford.

Speaking of running backs

There’s no bigger hole to fill for Arizona than in the backfield, where J.J. Taylor was the workhorse for the past three seasons. But an injury to Taylor in September as well as an early effort to spread the carries around could pay off for the Wildcats in 2020 since they bring back several ball carriers who got key touches a year ago.

Brightwell had for 390 yards and five touchdowns on just 66 carries last season, adding four receptions for 59 yards and a TD, and he had 525 rushing yards and three scores in 2018. Tilford averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored four times in 2019, while Darrius Smith and Michael Wiley saw plenty of action as freshmen last fall.

Arizona signed two running backs in the 2020 class in Frank Brown and Jalen John, but neither will be in spring camp, so for now it’s a four-man competition with walk-ons Nazar Bombata and Bryce Coleman also getting a chance to be in the mix.

Defensive alignments

When Rhoads was hired in December he was purposely vague about the kind of defense he’d run, though he did say his first priority was making sure Arizona tackled properly. It’s hard for it to be any worse than it was the past two seasons, when countless opposing players managed to break off big gains when seemingly being stopped for a loss.

Expect to see Arizona settle on a 7-man front, with either three or four down linemen depending on the scenario. The days of five defensive backs should be over, meaning the big guys up front need to disrupt the offensive line, plug holes and pressure the quarterback so the secondary isn’t put on an island as much as it was under Marcel Yates.

Defensive linemen make up 20 percent of Arizona’s 80 scholarship players, including seven seniors or scholarship juniors. And there’s also that stud trio of senior linebackers returning in Tony Fields II, Anthony Pandy and Colin Schooler, so the Wildcats have no excuse to be abysmal on defense in 2020.